A Tribute to Dodo

Dodo CD cover

MARMAROSA: Mellow Mood. Dodo’s Bounce. Dodo’s Blues. Escape. Opus No. 5. Compadoo. Dary Departs. Tone Paintings 1. Battle of the Balcony Jive. Dodo’s Lament. C. DAVIS: A Ditty for Dodo / Craig Davis, pno; John Clayton, bs; Jeff Hamilton, dm / Manchester Craftsman’s Guild MCGJ1056

Dodo Marmarosa and Bud Powell were probably two of the most tragic figures in jazz, and for similar reasons: both had early beatings to their heads: Powell by private railroad police in 1944, Marmarosa by his first wife when in his teens, then by a drunken gang of sailors in 1943. As a result, both suffered from mental illness which affected their careers. Powell, who was clearly the most brilliant and influential pianists of all time, just kept plugging away until his premature death in 1963, sometimes playing brilliantly and at other times playing rather incoherently. Marmarosa simply withdrew from the jazz scene in 1948, made a few “comeback” recordings in the early 1960s, but then withdrew again, playing very sporadically into the 1970s. He died in a veterans’ hospital in 2002, aged 76.

Although Marmarosa wasn’t as radical in style in his early years as Powell, he was clearly one of the most advanced pianists of his time. His solo on Charlie Barnet’s 1943 recording of The Moose is considered one of the great masterpieces of early bop, as are his solos on a handful of recordings with the bands of Artie Shaw and Boyd Raeburn. His last major recordings as a jazz artist were made in the late 1940s with tenor saxist Gene “Jug” Ammons. Known colloquially as the “Jug and Dodo” sessions, they have remained classics down through the years.

Here, pianist Craig Davis pays tribute to Marmarosa the jazz composer. Unlike Powell, whose original pieces are well known, Dodo’s compositions are not at all part of the standard jazz repertoire, thus it’s really nice to have an album of them released. Those of us familiar with Marmarosa’s own playing know that he, like Powell, played in a relatively fast, feverish style, with brilliant runs and almost incredible two-hand coordination in his solos. Davis plays in a more relaxed, rolling style that is more closely related to Erroll Garner, thus one has to reconcile the artist’s own personal approach to the composer’s aesthetic. One might, then, refer to this recording as “Dodo Relaxed,” although the music itself is what really counts.

Mellow Mood may not be the best introduction to Marmarosa for those unfamiliar with his work, but it clearly suits Davis and his talented trio. Regarding his accompanying musicians, I have a complaint. The CD cover lists them solely as Craig Davis “with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton,” but although it is true that in piano trios the bassist is generally listed second and the drummer third, it would have been nice to identify them as such somewhere in the fold-over CD container. I wasn’t very familiar with either musician and so had to look online to learn that Clayton was the bassist.

Dodo’s Bounce is more like his style, although again played with a smoother legato flow and less busy lines by Davis. By way of compensation, however, Clayton and Hamilton are a lively rhythm team, and they add pep and zip to the performances. On this track, in fact, Clayton takes a solo, and a very adventurous one it is, too, very close to Marmarosa’s adventurous style. Davis’ solo here is also rather closer to Dodo than the one on Mellow Mood.

Davis’ original, A Ditty for Dodo, is another mellow track. There’s nothing really wrong with this except that Dodo Marmarosa was not what you would call a “mellow” jazz artist. He wasn’t Bill Evans. To be fair, however, Davis does a really nice job on Compadodo, a piece I hadn’t heard before. It sounded to me like a contrafact on Sweet Georgia Brown, and probably is. For those of you too young to know or remember, contrafacts were exceptionally popular during the early bebop era because it gave the musicians a chance to completely rewrite an old standard like Whispering by not really touching the original top melody line at all, yet retaining the underlying harmonies. It was a way for them to play music that had some appeal and connection to listeners who were more familiar with older material. (Some swing musicians used contrafacts, too, but not to as large an extent as the boppers.)

For those who know nothing of Marmarosa’s brilliance, this CD makes a good introduction, but an introduction only. To hear how Marmarosa himself played his music, click HERE and download a full album of 1946-47 performances entitled Dodo’s Bounce.)

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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