Dec 17, 2018 9:00 AM
Eric Dolphy: The ‘Prophet’ of Freedom
Whether he was wielding his alto saxophone, flute or bass clarinet, Eric Dolphy was a godsend to the cadre of musicians…
Before Marcus Strickland launched into music from his new album, People Of The Sun (Blue Note), during a Nov. 10 album-release party at New York’s Jazz Standard, he and his latest edition of Twi-Life delivered a rendition of “Roy Allan,” a soulful modern jazz original by Roy Hargrove, who had died eight days earlier.
The emotional gravity of Strickland’s melodic improvisations on tenor saxophone, funky rhythmic bite from bassist Ben Williams and drummer Charles Haynes, and Mitch Henry’s smoldering organ helped convey a deep, gospel feel as the melancholy melody wafted above. That set the pace for Strickland’s set as he followed up with the comparatively more ebullient “Lullaby,” from People Of The Sun, an original on which Strickland’s tenor soared across Haynes’ driving 6/8 West African rhythm. The leader’s work was most rewarding when focused on bass clarinet, especially during the waltzing jazz-soul ballad “Black Love,” which features a succinct melody begging for lyrics.
People Of The Sun comes loaded with special guest vocals from Bilal, Jermaine Holmes and sampled dialogue throughout. The streamlined version of Twi-Life at the Jazz Standard, though, enabled a greater focus on Strickland’s compositional and improvisational skills. Rapper Pharoahe Monch, who appears on the album, joined the group onstage, spitting rhymes over “On My Mind,” a galactic medium-tempo ballad that featured Strickland on bass clarinet and Bilal’s pre-recorded vocals. Monch returned for an encore performance of J Dilla’s hip-hop classic “Lightworks” during which he unleashed verses from “Haile Selassie Karate,” a tune off the MC’s 2011 album W.A.R.
After the show, Strickland—who exhibited commendable stamina throughout the night while battling the flu—spoke about the latest edition and Twi-Life, the heavier emphasis on the organ in his group, the possibility of an album featuring him primarily on bass clarinet and his fond memories of Hargrove.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
This is my first time noticing how prominent the organ sound is in your current ensemble. How’d that come about?
Having Meshell Ndegeocello [who produced 2016’s Nihil Novi] at the helm the last time brought different decisions than I would have usually made. Organ has definitely been at the helm of the sounds that I’ve been looking for in writing these days. The organ is a very majestic instrument. It takes up so many of the sonic frequencies within the band; it produces a huge sound and it demands your attention. And it’s something that’s closely associated with the black church, especially in the way that Mitch plays it.
It seems as if you’re playing more and more bass clarinet lately, especially on People Of The Sun. Have you considered recording an album that features you playing that instrument exclusively?
I can imagine that coming at some point. The bass clarinet has definitely taken up most of my practice sessions these days. I really want to get to a point where I’m as fluent as possible on that instrument. I’ve been working on the bass clarinet much more than usual, because I think I’m just falling in love with it. I hope my saxophones don’t get jealous. But the bass clarinet is such a majestic instrument, too. I really love the timbre that the bass clarinet provides.
Explain why you brought so many vocalists in to record on People Of The Sun.
Being a beatmaker and producer gives me a whole other approach to melodies. I would sing a melody myself, then I recognize that it just lends itself to the voice. So, after I make a track, I better recognize what is a vocal track. Then I try to get a singer who’s going to feel all over it. I really like this evolution in my writing.
How did you end up collaborating with the writer and musician Greg Tate and Pharoahe Monch?
It was just a matter of having the audacity to ask them. I always wanted to work with Pharoahe Monch. I made sure to reach out to both of them. And gladly, they accepted. My photographer, Petra Richterova, is one of my best friends. She happens to know the incredible Greg Tate. So, when I was finishing the song “On My Mind,” it had vocals from Bilal and lyrics from Pharoahe; originally it had a preacher during the intro. The preacher was speaking on love versus infatuation. When Petra introduced me to Greg, all I could think of was how incredible the song would be if we could get him to write something about that.
How did you start working with Bilal?
Bilal is a friend from college. We went to the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music together. I’ve worked with him in other situations, usually involving Robert Glasper or Keyon Harrold.
Talk about working with Holmes, who sings on “Aim High.”
His singing feels like grits oozing out of his mouth; he’s just so soulful. Originally, when the song was just an instrumental, it was called “Odyssey.” When he wrote lyrics to it, he came up with the hook, “Aim high.” So, that became the song’s title. He wrote the lyrics with his brother. Jermaine did a great job on vocals on that song; he brought a Parliament-Funkadelic sound to the songs by having all those low vocals underneath the melody.
You opened your concert with a cover of Hargrove’s “Roy Allan.” Can you share your fondest memory of him?
Many people will probably say the same thing: I really loved when he would just show up at jam sessions—it could be on any night or anywhere—and start playing. And his playing would always be something that would lovingly annihilate everything that came before it. He was a force. And he really spread the gospel of the music in a very giving way.
I don’t know if he knew that his time was so limited, but he did so much with that time. I feel lucky to have seen him perform. DB
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