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Mary LaRose Recasts the Work of Eric Dolphy

The singer adds a voice to the multi-instrumentalist's work on her album Out Here

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Mary LaRose (photo: Hallie Lederer)
Mary LaRose (photo: Hallie Lederer)

For those interested in going to school on Eric Dolphy, Out Here, an album by vocalist Mary LaRose featuring arrangements by her longtime partner Jeff Lederer, presents a bounty of surprises. 

Dolphy’s dominant identity stems from the jagged, incandescent passages he played on a vast array of woodwind instruments alongside Coltrane, Mingus, and Oliver Nelson and in his own catalog, topped by his magnum opus, Out to Lunch. While cherishing this fiery Dolphy, LaRose and Lederer combine thorough scholarship and idiosyncratic artistry to concoct nine songs, including a half-dozen Dolphy originals, that broaden and enhance his legacy. 

In the summer of 2019, the pair spent two days poring through Dolphy’s archives at the Library of Congress. They discovered that he scored a lot of his music for chamber ensemble, and had a greater hand in the Third Stream collaboration with Gunther Schuller in 1962 than originally supposed. In response, they created a stable quintet that included cellist Tomeka Reid and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, along with longtime cohort Matt Wilson on drums and next-generation bassist Nick Dunston. Multi-reedist Lederer decided to restrict himself to B-flat and bass clarinet. 

Meanwhile, LaRose was composing original lyrics for the project before the group entered the studio in January 2020. Although she was no stranger to aligning—and then singing—words for sophisticated compositions by the likes of Ornette Coleman and even Dolphy himself (including “Hat and Beard” and “Straight Up and Down”), this was her first record devoted to the concept. 

“I had to sit with every song, figure out what they said to me and how I was going to put words to this crazy music,” she said affectionately about the process. Sometimes she has fun: “Gazzelloni” is an assortment of vocalese riffs on the lyricism of the title; the descriptions in “245” mirror the buoyant atmosphere Dolphy’s music depicts at a club on 245 Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn; while “GW” is about Chris Christie’s fiasco at the George Washington Bridge, not arranger Gerald Wilson. For “Out to Lunch,” LaRose knew she had to inhabit Dolphy, and dances over the airy ensemble groove with the come-on, “Out to lunch is where I’m going to be/Don’t you want to be/Tooooooo?”

But other songs cut deeper. On “Out There,” the original rapid-fire horn and strings from Dolphy and cellist Ron Carter are replaced by slower exchanges between Reid and Brennan, while LaRose unfurls lyrics she said were “inspired by putting yourself out there, which to me is always a challenge.” The blues “Serene” is introduced by a poem by the couple’s daughter, Hallie Lederer, which leads to LaRose’s ruminations on how self-awareness can interfere with serenity. And the standard ballad “Love Me,” which was a solo alto-sax tour de force for Dolphy, enables Lederer and LaRose to milk the depth of their decades together for a clarinet/voice duet that rides the song’s nuanced line between desperation and devotion. 

An outlier on Out Here is a rendition of Dolphy’s “Music Matador,” which taps the couple’s Latin connections to bring in trombonist Jimmy Bosch and percussionist Bobby Sanabria. Both anecdotally and in the sheet-music collection at the Library of Congress, Lederer learned that the Panamanian-born Dolphy yearned to explore his roots, and frequently practiced danzones and other forms of Cuban music with like-minded musicians. So he arranged “Music Matador” in the mode of a Cuban rumba offshoot known as yambu, with LaRose’s lyrics celebrating longtime friend Bosch as the matador.

Out Here closes with Mal Waldron’s “Warm Canto,” another song frequently associated with Dolphy. Lederer plays bass clarinet and has two of his students from Long Island University accompany him on B-flat clarinet. In lieu of lyrics, LaRose intones a hauntingly beautiful haiku taken from the book Bone Poems (Mini-Cantos) by Patricia Donegan, a Valentine’s Day present from LaRose to Lederer one year. The haiku speaks of Donegan’s desire to recycle her bones for practical use after she dies. 

Explaining the choice, Lederer said, “I like the idea that we are taking the bones of Dolphy and inhabiting them with our own flesh and blood.”

Eric Dolphy: It’s All Out There Now