Every few years I dust off Ted Dunbar’s “A Nice Clean Machine for Pedro” and challenge my students at Wesleyan to learn it – such a gorgeous and deceptively challenging tune. Last year I wrote about Ted’s impact as an educator (which you can read by clicking here), but now it’s time to talk about his unique and powerful voice as a guitarist and composer.
I first encountered his music in my first year at Rutgers. He came in one day to Ralph Bowen’s illuminating Jazz Theory class (which was a pipeline to Ted’s rigorous, multi-year Jazz Improvisation curriculum) and looked us dead in the eyes and said “Look, you got your chords and you got your ideas*, and you gotta hear ‘em fast and you gotta hear ‘em accurate, because they don’t arpeggiated on the bandstand, you dig?**”
* Ideas (pronounced “EYE-deeyz”) = melodic improvisational content
** In other words, you have to get your aural skills together because in a real-life musical situation nobody’s going to spell things out for you.
Anyway, once I was done crapping my pants over what lay before me, I thought I should explore the music behind this charismatic, beloved, feared person. And I wasn’t expecting to find some of the most lyrical improvisation and sensitive accompaniment I had (or indeed have) ever heard. Yes, there was harmonic sophistication, much of it informed by his deep synthesis of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept, filtered through his years of deep friendship with Dr. David Baker and eventually developed into Ted’s own harmonic system that he called Convergence. But the soulful, melodic, interactive qualities and thematic development, while not entirely without precedent, coalesced into a unique style that resonated (and still resonates) powerfully with my own musical sensibilities.
Narrowing down this list to 10 was hard given that I have (and enjoy) the vast majority of Ted’s discography. Some on this list are no-brainer “desert island” picks. In the fringe cases, I aimed to emphasize work that is in print (that means you can listen to it NOW) and in which Ted is featured prominently. As such, left on the cutting room floor were out-of-print albums by Don Patterson, Lou Donaldson, Billy Taylor (with the Jazzmobile All-Stars), J.J. Johnson, Susanna McCorkle, Michal Urbaniak, Willis “Gator” Jackson and David Schnitter, among others, Likewise, I left off some great records to which Ted contributed noticeably, but not as a featured soloist, including sessions by McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Sam Rivers, Diana Ross (yep), Frank Wess . . . okay, you get the idea.
So here goes:
1 ) “A Nice, Clean Machine for Pedro” from Blues in Five Dimensions by Mickey Tucker
I vividly remember the first time I heard this tune, in a lesson with Ted on his cassette boombox. He told me the story behind it (ask me in person sometime and I’ll tell you, maybe even in faux-Ted-voice) and the lyricism and joy in the song left an indelible mark. Extra points as he put this album (by his frequent and cherished collaborator, the great Mickey Tucker) forth as the best he’d ever done, particularly high praise for what is technically a sideman album.
2 ) “Blue Monk” from Peruvian Blue by Kenny Barron
Ted and Kenny had such a great hook-up – hearing them play (especially duo) at school was a real lesson in guitar/piano interactivity (on par with Bill Evans and Jim Hall – yes, I said it). Aside from a great but out of print record from the mid-70s, this one track from Kenny’s second album as a leader is what we have to document that.
3 ) “There Comes a Time” from Ego by Tony Williams Lifetime
I don’t know if there’s been another tune quite like this – hard rocking polyrhythmic 5/4 time with psychedelic Larry Young organ, oodles of percussion (thanks to Tony, Don Alias and Warren Smith) and endearingly trippy vocals from Tony. Oh yeah, and utterly nasty guitar from Ted, who had just replaced John McLaughlin in the band.
4 ) “You Say You Saw What?” from Secundem Artem by Ted Dunbar
The one exception I made to the in-print proviso on this list is here, as I had to represent his output as a bandleader on the long-defunct Xandau label. This one is from his sophomore effort as a leader, featuring Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Al Foster and a young Steve Nelson on one of his first record dates. This moody, multifaceted original tune by Ted depicts a sighting of a UFO, which makes me particularly nostalgic given Ted’s fondness for outer space.
5 ) “The Loud Minority” from The Loud Minority by Frank Foster
There are a few great examples of Ted’s longtime relationship with composer/saxophonist Frank Foster. While I love the live stuff they did with Mickey Tucker and Billy Hart, I chose this rocking and politically outspoken epic from 1972, prominently featuring Frank, Ted, Harold Mabern and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
6 ) “Little Sister” (from House of David by David “Fathead” Newman)
Ted had a particularly sweet hook-up with organ-based groups dating back to his very first record date with Gloria Coleman. This hard-swinging track features Ted with comparatively unknown organist Kossi Gardner alongside longtime Ray Charles sidemen Milt Turner and Fathead.
7 ) “Summertime” from Svengali by Gil Evans
Ted had a clear fondness for Miles Davis, both as a conceptualist and as an exemplar of highly lyrical improvisation. It is then appropriate (and significant) that when Gil Evans decided to remake his classic arrangement of “Summertime” (from Miles’ Porgy and Bess album), he chose Ted to play the lead part and be the sole soloist on the track, now imbued with a funky backbeat.
8 ) “Sop City” (from Smokin’ by Curtis Fuller)
I remember Ted teaching me this song in graduate school, before I had heard this album that so well demonstrates folks of Ted’s generation keeping the flame of hard-swinging jazz in the 1970s. In addition to Ted and Curtis, we hear trumpeter Bill Hardman, and pianist Cedar Walton (on electric piano), saxophonist Jimmy Heath, bassist Mickey Bass (on electric bass) and drummer Billy Higgins. This track just edges out several from Albert “Tootie” Heath’s Kwanzaa record from the following year, also featuring Jimmy and Curtis (alongside Kenny Barron and Heath brother #3, Percy).
9 ) “On Return” (from Gentle Time Alone)
There are few things as gorgeous as hearing Ted Dunbar play a ballad. This one, from his last album as a bandleader (again, featuring Mickey Tucker), is just one of many examples I could have picked. For someone as harmonically hip as Ted was, his pure melodicism was so exceptional.
10 ) “Hang In There” (from Sankofa/Rear Garde by Hamiet Bluiett)
This bouncy Latin original by Ted (alongside Bluiett, Clint Houston and Ben Riley) is a good example of Ted operating as the sole chord-playing instrument in a rhythm section. While he had an unusually sensitive capacity to function compatibly with a pianist, hearing him take the load on his own is always a treat. So too is hearing how he navigates soloing with just bass and drums.
Honorable Mention: “I Love This Life” from Uptown Groove by Zachary Breaux. This “tune” is basically an interview with Ted in which he reflects poignantly on some of his notable musical experiences. You need to listen to it.
Twas you who really turned me on to Ted Dunbar, especially “A Nice Clean Machine….”. Had to dig into my collection to find examples of his playing I had either forgotten or missed. Mr. Dunbar certainly covered a lot of musical territory in his career. Thanks for the new reminder!