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Many musicians have shown real talent in the visual arts: Tony Bennett, Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell come immediately to mind. But few have attempted the simultaneous release of a CD and a book of paintings, as vocalist and accomplished painter Mary LaRose did this fall.
On Out Here (Little i Music), featuring a starry band and co-produced with LaRose’s husband, reedman Jeff Lederer, the singer presents her lyrics to compositions by Eric Dolphy. Dolphy’s angular, idiosyncratic melodies are not easily navigable, and have rarely attracted either vocalists or wordsmiths. (Listening to the original instrumental recordings, you can hear why; but hearing LaRose’s cool, unpretentious interpretations, you kind of wonder why not.) Following close on the heels of the album is Out There, LaRose’s exceedingly handsome collection of 55 portraits (pastels on black paper), depicting a range of saxophonists, among them Joseph Jarman, Yusef Lateef, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp — and of course, Dolphy, her drawing of whom graces the album cover.
LaRose had featured Dolphy compositions on her previous four albums, along with songs by Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and even one by Anthony Braxton. But Dolphy resonated the most, and she finally decided to devote an entire album to this intrepid altoist, rugged flutist and tradition-shattering bass clarinetist, who died of undiagnosed diabetes at the age of 36. The program on Out Here comprises tunes that span Dolphy’s discography, from the first studio album under his name (Outward Bound) to his last (Out to Lunch); she also includes a couple tunes from Out There, the 1960 album that inspired the title of her new book and album.
“It was difficult to figure out what to do to these songs, and how to make them sound lyrical. They are lyrical,” LaRose points out. “But I had to really think about what I was going to do [to highlight that quality].” That’s where she turned to Lederer, a fierce but witty improviser best known for his work with drummer Matt Wilson in bands led by each other. Wilson anchors LaRose’s quintet, which employs two instruments Dolphy used on some of his most prominent recordings: cello (played here by Tomeka Reid) and vibraphone (played by Patricia Brennan). As Lederer explains, “I was pretty intentional about just being in that Dolphy sound world.”
LaRose adds that Dolphy’s world becomes ever more real as she performs his music. “When I do somebody’s music — and the same thing with the drawings — I kind of understand him a little more? Or maybe see something in him somebody else doesn’t see? With all the listening I do in order to write the lyrics and learn the music, it really starts to put you in that space where you feel more connected to the artist.” She and Lederer also did other research: They examined the Dolphy materials at the Library of Congress for extra inspiration. “To hold the manuscript version of a composition like ‘Hat and Beard’ was a thrilling experience,” Lederer says.
LaRose’s intense listening had an unexpected effect when she originally immersed herself in Dolphy’s music in the mid-’90s. Entranced from the first time she heard him — on the song “Teenie’s Blues” from Oliver Nelson’s classic album The Blues and the Abstract Truth — she transcribed Dolphy’s daunting steeplechase of a solo so that she could scat it, note for note, on her debut record.
“It took me months of practice to learn it,” she says; she also happened to be pregnant at the time. “And when my daughter Maya was born, and we put on that record [aptly titled Cutting the Chord], she looked up; she recognized that solo, because she’d been hearing it in utero. In fact, I gave her credit for background vocals.” - Neil Tesser
Featued photo: Rob Lowell