June 7, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Walt Dickerson Quartet: Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” (MGM/Verve CD)

While the record deal with ESP-Disk’ (and a concomitant flurry of releases on the El Saturn label) would eventually establish Sun Ra’s reputation within the burgeoning subculture, the nineteen-sixties would remain penurious times for the Arkestra. Even Sun Ra himself would find it necessary to take paying gigs here and there as a sideman – especially if his old friend, Tom Wilson, made the call. In late-1965, Wilson came up with the idea for quickie movie-tie-in LP to be led by vibraphonist Walt Dickerson and he summoned Ra and sometime Arkestra drummer Roger Blank to participate in the recording sessions. Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” was billed as an “interpretation” of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to “A Patch of Blue,” the Sidney Poitier film that boldly addressed miscegenation at a volatile moment in the Civil Rights period. Wilson had previously recorded Dickerson in a moderately successful jazz interpretation of the “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack for Audio Fidelity in 1963, so it probably made sense to try to repeat that formula – with the added benefit of timeliness and topicality. Unfortunately, Goldsmith’s score is unremarkable and the film itself overwrought. Although the movie enjoyed tremendous box office success, Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” sold poorly and was promptly deleted. It was finally reissued on CD by Verve in 1999, but only in an extremely limited edition that quickly disappeared.

Walt Dickerson was a phenomenal vibraphonist, but he never got his due as an important and innovative musician. He was a graduate of Morgan State College (and, according to the original liner notes, the Peabody Conservatory), made several records for Prestige and Audio Fidelity in the early nineteen-sixties, winning Down Beat’s “New Star” award in 1962 and “Innovator of the Year” award in 1963. Dickerson radically broke away from the Lionel Hampton/Milt Jackson tradition by playing the vibraphone with small, rubber-tipped mallets, gripping them near the head and using the motor and damper with the utmost restraint, resulting in a dry, clear, almost staccato articulation even at swift tempos. Sadly, and perhaps due to its commercial failure, Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” was the last record Dickerson made before withdrawing into a decade-long exile from music, thereby ceding the mantle of Great Modern Vibraphonist to Bobby Hutcherson virtually by default. Dickerson resurfaced in 1975 and made a number of records for the Danish Steeplechase label, including a lovely duet recording with Sun Ra (Visions) in 1978. Sadly, Dickerson once again dropped from sight in the early nineteen-eighties and died, unjustly un-famous, in 2008.

Despite its apparent status as a (failed) cash-in attempt, Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” is a very fine album and well worth hearing – even beyond the novelty of Sun Ra’s presence. According to session bassist Bob Cunningham, any connection to Goldsmith’s actual score was tenuous at best: “I don’t think there was any music there to refer to. Or if there was, we didn’t necessarily follow it” (quoted in the CD liner notes). The resulting music has a loose, late-night feel, but this is not the kind of cheese-ball commercial pabulum you might expect in such a work-for-hire situation; there is some adventuresome musicianship on display within these mellow grooves. In fact, the musicians approached their work with a solemn dignity appropriate to the film’s subject. Francis Davis writes in the liner notes for the Verve CD:
Along with Dickerson’s genuine admiration for the movie, the philosophical
underpinning of Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” was provided by the lengthy
discussions about race and other matters he had with Sun Ra. “Our conversations
were not the norm,” Dickerson told me. “Sometimes it was a conversation without
periods or commas, and we would extend that into the musical realm, with no
musical composition as such. Music was part of our extended conversation.”

This conversational tone is part of the record’s relaxed, yet scintillating presence. On four of the eight tracks, Ra spins gossamer spiderwebs of notes on a tinkling harpsichord (of all things) while his piano playing is deftly virtuosic, with a particularly daring solo on “A Patch of Blue – Part 2.” Ra also lays down some tasty, bluesy funk on “Bacon and Eggs” and, sometimes, he plays piano and harpsichord simultaneously, creating a delicate, weirdly polyphonic texture. Dickerson himself displays his innovative technique at the bars, especially on the expansive “Alone in the Park – Parts 1 and 2” and his quadruple-time swinging on “Selina’s Fantasy” is truly astonishing, yet far from mere empty showboating. Cunningham and Blank make for a sensitive rhythm section, with Cunningham’s solid pizzicato and arco bass complementing Blank’s singularly impressionistic (rather than overtly propulsive) trap drums. Blank also plays some darkly Arkestral tympani on the spooky set-piece, “High Hopes.” Impressions of “A Patch of Blue” is not just an obscure historical document, of interest only to obsessive record collectors; it is a transcendently beautiful work of art in its own right, an overlooked gem.

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