Dopolarians: Free-Jazz Collaborators With a Southern Sound 

Dopolarians, while not exactly a household name, are quietly becoming a widely celebrated group in jazz circles. The record they released last fall has been lauded in the pages of Pitchfork, Offbeat, and Rolling Stone. But what's rarely mentioned in all of this press is that the group has its roots in Memphis' free-jazz scene of 20 years ago — and a friendship that has endured since those days. Which is not to say that Garden Party, the group's debut on Mahakala Music, is a Memphis record — the group's members are too far-flung for that claim. But it is certainly a Southern record, and that's a unique claim in the free-jazz universe. That it is indeed free jazz should come as no surprise, as the group brings together several luminaries from that world, most notably drummer Alvin Fielder, who played with the likes of Sun Ra and others, when free jazz was a markedly revolutionary musical statement.

Other players include tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan and bassist William Parker and relative spring chickens Chad Fowler (alto saxophone), Chris Parker (piano), and singer Kelley Hurt. It's those last three who make the group's show at Crosstown Arts' Green Room this Friday a return.

click to enlarge Dopolarians - MARC PEGAN
  • Marc Pegan
  • Dopolarians

"Chris and I used to live in a house together on Meda in Cooper-Young," Fowler tells me. "We had a bunch of free sessions — including a couple sessions with [late free-jazz pioneer] Frank Lowe when he would come to town. It wasn't too long before Chris was touring with him. That connection actually led to Chris meeting William Parker, Alvin, and Kidd and all those people."

This was some two decades ago, when there was a surprising amount of free-jazz improvisation going on here. "I actually studied with [saxophonist] George Cartwright a bit," Fowler recalls. "He did a piece for big band, and I was part of that. [Guitarist] Jim Duckworth was also a big influence. We played Sonny Sharrock and that kinda stuff in a group called The Jim Spake Action Figures. And the drummer Samurai Celestial, who was once with the Sun Ra Arkestra, was around Memphis quite a bit back then."

Ultimately, Fowler introduced Chris Parker to Hurt. The two eventually married and settled in Little Rock. When Fowler moved to Lake Desoto, Arkansas, in recent years, after many peregrinations, the three reconnected. "Initially it was Chris who had the brainchild of the Dopolarians," says Fowler. "It started with a project we did in Arkansas to commemorate the integration of Little Rock's Central High School. Chris and his wife, Kelley Hurt, who's from Memphis, wrote the No Tears Suite for that. Chris called me and [trumpeter] Marc Franklin. We also ended up getting Brian Blade, who is one of the best drummers of his generation. And that made us realize, 'We can play with great players.'

"So we figured, let's work with the people who we'd love to work with. And also make it still be really Southern. There's this frustrating thing, where it's assumed you have to be in New York or Chicago or San Francisco to do avant-garde jazz music. But if you look at the history of the music, it almost all started in the South, whether it's Ornette Coleman or Pharoah Sanders or Sun Ra. All these people [in Dopolarians] were born and grew up in the South, other than William Parker. And we recorded it in New Orleans. A lot of it was fully improvised music, but it feels like the blues in a way that a lot of avant-garde music doesn't. It feels soulful. Some of these people are really into the Hi Rhythm Section and Stax music."

While Friday's show will be something of a homecoming, Fowler says it will also serve as a memorial to Fielder, the de facto leader of the group, who passed away just over a year ago. "The new drummer is Chad Anderson — a protégé and a great friend of Alvin's for many years. And Kidd Jordan's doctor just told him he can't travel. So we have the great Douglas Ewart coming down. Everyone in this group is somehow connected through these weird threads."

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