At the time of his death in 1964, Eric Dolphy wasn’t exactly a household name. Despite a career working alongside heavyweights like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, his career as a leader was packed into a short four years. But here, in this impossibly short time, he left behind a wide range of music that’s still being poured over by fans and jazz aficionados: Fry Cry, Out There, and Out to Lunch.
A new three-CD set from Resonance takes a deep look into Dolphy’s career at a critical juncture: 1963, just after a memorable run at Prestige, and just before his landmark 1964 album Out to Lunch. Let’s dig in, shall we?
The set opens with the four tracks that comprise the 1963 album Conversations. With a little trill on the flute, Dolphy kick starts “Jitterbug Waltz,” where his lead is matched against Woody Shaw’s trumpet and Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes. Dolphy’s solo has him taking short bursts, running up and down the flute; when Shaw steps up for his solo, he takes things a little more methodically, keeping it simple with his sharp, pure tone. But Hutcherson’s solo, where he’s accompanied only by the rhythm section of Eddie Kahn and JC Moses, really takes off and there’s a compelling moment where him and Dolphy trade licks.
The rest of the album’s no slouch, either: “Love Me” is a solo track, where Dolphy shows off his considerable chops (well before Anthony Braxton did For Alto, too!) and “Music Matador” is reminiscent of Mingus’ music a few years previous.
Disc one closes with two unissued takes of Sir Roland Hanna’s song “Muses for Richard Davis,” a slow, brooding number propelled by Richard Davis’ arco bass playing and Dolphy’s bass clarinet. The two trade off each other, creating a deeply moody, atmospheric world where, as James Newton writes in the liners, “the two finish each other’s sentences.” It’s interesting, showing the magnetism between these two during these sessions.
The second CD is again, mostly comprised of an earlier album: this time it’s Iron Man. The title track is a rambunctious, driving performance where Shaw and Hutcherson both solo; Shaw also has a nice turn on “Burning Spear”. But the most compelling piece here is a version of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” where again Dolphy and Davis play against each others, their lines almost blending together, and creating a wonderfully compelling piece: I know I stopped everything to focus on it the first time I heard it. I wonder what Duke made of it.
The disc closes with “A Personal Statement,” which was previously released as “Jim Crow” in the late 80s. Something of an outlier here, it’s both written and performed by Bob James (yes, the “Nautilus” guy) and has Dolphy sitting in with James’ group. With it’s quick starts and stops, not to mention vocals, it’s pretty out there and is something of a showcase for Dolphy’s playing; it’s a world away from the stuff James would make a career out of.
The real meat of Musical Prophet, however, lays in the third disc, comprised completely of previously unreleased material. These aren’t slouches, or music better left on cutting room floor: they add to the originals, and help put them in context, showing the talent at work on these sessions. Two takes of the solo “Love Me” show how easily Dolphy could mix things up from take to take. On the second, he builds up into a frenzy, reaching into the high registers and just ripping up and down his alto – it’s powerful, fascinating stuff.
So is the alternate of “Alone Together,” where Davis holds it down on bass and Dolphy rolls up and down his bass clarinet. In the liners, Davis speaks of their relationship: “I felt there was something heavenly, phenomenal. He was just that kind of a person, angelic.” And indeed, throughout these sessions, the two pair show an incredible chemistry.
At the same time, the alternates also show the skill of Hutcherson and Shaw, both at that time young and unproven musicians. Even without comparing them to the master takes, their performances on “Mandrake,” “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Burning Spear” show them bursting with ideas and talent. Indeed, the alternate of “Spear” just explodes with energy, their solos blasting off into the stratosphere while JC Moses and Eddie Kahn push the music forward with a relentless energy.
Taken as a whole, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions is a remarkable package. Three discs, each of them with great, clear sound, and an expansive, nearly 100-page booklet stuffed with interviews, pictures and all sorts of information. And the music! It points forward to his masterpiece, sure, but you also see the seeds of the next generation in the playing of Hutcherson, Shaw and Clifford Jordan. It’s a remarkable release, and a must for anyone interested in Dolphy.