Going for the ‘One’

Shuffle Mode brought on an Eric Dolphy track this morning: “Epistrophy,” from the album Last Date. It reminded me of the “puzzle” aspect of some music that got me interested in jazz to begin with.

I enjoy freely improvised music as well, but I still listen to normal jazz and archival free jazz, including Ornette Coleman, Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor.  Something entices me about a tangled, complex piece that’s also rooted in a composition.

“Epistrophy” opens up with Dolphy’s bass clarinet playing Monk’s swingy, jerky theme, and Misha Mengelberg on piano laying down triplet chords. “Triplet” is the wrong word; he’s playing in 3-over-4 time that creates a slow-motion feel to the background.

I love tracks like this, where there’s a little something extra to discover in the pre-arranged theme. And the soloing in a theme-based jazz piece adds the extra fun of finding the “one,” of keeping track of the beat even as the entire band slips away from the original composition. It’s an old, old jazz paradigm — drop the needle in the middle of a Preservation Hall Jazz Band track, and you’ll find chaos. Everyone’s sticking to the beat and possibly the changes as well, but no one is playing the actual song. It’s a glorious mess.

Post-bop and modal styles, if I’m using those terms correctly, muddied the middle of the song even further, as musicians dropped the changes and just created their own momentum.

Anyway, if you sought this blog out at all, you already know all of this. But it’s Sunday, and it’s raining outside, and I’m in the mood to think aloud.

“Epistrophy” follows a usual pattern: Dolphy solos, then Mengelberg. Then Han Bennink takes two quick drum solos, four or eight bars apiece, separated by Dolphy going nuts on the bass clarinet.  Dolphy closes it out by doing some bass clarinet warbling, hovering over one pair of notes, then another — then the theme returns.

Nothing too extraordinary in the structure there. But I found myself getting absorbed in that structure, in tracking the piece through the changes (whether real or just imagined by my half-asleep brain) and in the small surprises of that Bennink solo.  Consider it the musical equivalent of smelling the roses, or of examining the things I take for granted.