Saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy died in 1964 at the age of 36 having actively recorded for well less than a decade. In his brief career, he was allied with or sought out by Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, Booker Little, John Coltrane, Oliver Nelson, Ron Carter, and Andrew Hill. The impact of his music is still growing. Today, it’s easy to see what a clear influence he has been on 21st-century jazz, as his approach to composition and improvisation eerily prefigures and has influenced music by artists such as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and even Frank Zappa. The new jazz of artists such as Anna Webber, Matt Mitchell, Jonathan Finlayson, and many others can be said to emerge—perhaps indirectly but maybe very clearly—from Dolphy’s devotion to fresh and novel approaches to forms rather than pure freedom.
In 1963, Dolphy made some of the most intriguing recordings of his career in New York with a wide array of ensembles, from solos and duets to larger bands. Though this music has never been considered his masterpiece (that would be his one Blue Note release, Out to Lunch), the current consolidated release of these dates, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions, is a minor revelation and reminder that Dolphy’s musical brilliance was broad and exceedingly human.
Dolphy’s playing was quirky. He favored wide and unusual intervals in both his composition and improvisation, which has always been unconventional for a wind player—the fingering on the saxophone, clarinet, and flute favors fast, linear runs that ripple up and down in smaller steps. This unusual style, however, was mischaracterized in its time as being part of “free jazz”, a loose term in the early 1960s for almost all the music that was beginning to move beyond conventional post-bebop harmony and swing rhythms. And while Dolphy took liberties with tone and sometimes played well beyond convention, the great bulk of his playing was highly structured and not pure “energy music”.
The current collection of Dolphy’s two July 1963 stints in the studio (plus one track recorded separately featuring a piano trio led by, no kidding, Bob James) captures a most unusual side of the musician. Given freedom by original producer Alan Douglas, Dolphy assembled a large group of his favorite musicians and created arrangements, combinations, and structures that were more ambitious (which is to say, often employing larger groups or more complex arrangements) than on most of his recordings. Musical Prophet suggests, then, the kind of music that Eric Dolphy might have created more of had he been granted a longer or more affluent life.
Some of the music here was previously released in various forms, but there is a new cache of recordings and alternate takes that makes this three-CD collection feel like a full portrait of Dolphy in the year before his death. (Leaving a tour with Charles Mingus and hoping to hook up with saxophonist Albert Ayler’s band while abroad, Dolphy fell into a diabetic coma that was misdiagnosed by careless doctors who assumed that, as a jazz musician, the clean-as-can-be artist was overdosing on drugs. Damn.) The best-known tracks in this collection feature a more typical small group featuring Dolphy’s alto sax, young trumpeter Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, and a rhythm section of Richard Davis on bass and J.C. Moses on drums.
“Iron Man”‘s theme is a wild, uptempo line that lurches and pops, using the odd intervals that were so characteristic of Dolphy’s playing. Eschewing piano for vibes makes the sound of the accompaniment both more percussive and more open, as Hutcherson both clatters and rings with ambiguous chords that give Dolphy tons of room for his urgent, spiky playing. It’s not just the notes that he plays, the lurching runs that are alternately fluid and spastic, but it is the insistent sound and attack that really makes you listen with fascination. “Mandrake” is similarly pitched, a mid-tempo swing that alternates with a double-timed skip and a pulsing, funky theme. Dolphy solos first, a phantasm of odd squiggles that nevertheless fit the ringing harmonies of Hutcherson, followed by a more conventionally melodic solo from Shaw.
The same group tackles Fats Waller’s theme “Jitterbug Waltz”, except here Dolphy plays his flute with a strong tone, whipping unusual harmonies around the theme as played by Shaw. It’s hard not to imagine Henry Threadgill thinking of this very performance when he formed his trio Air and started playing old ragtime tunes by Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton themes. Both Dolphy’s playful irreverence here and Threadgill’s work on Air Lore suggest the ways that the newer, freer jazz was easily simpatico with a jazz tradition that had always been a bit quirky and maybe less doctrinaire than modern jazz had become by the early 1960s.
These tracks, however, are the most conventional of these sessions. Two compositions are treated to arrangements for an expanded group featuring five horns: Dolphy and Shaw, plus Clifford Jordan’s soprano saxophone, Prince Lasha on flute, and Sonny Simmons on alto sax. Dolphy’s “Burning Spear” opens with a fanfare and then moves into a tumbling swing section. Hutcherson, Moses, Davis and a second bassist (Eddie Khan) move each track with a joyous fire. The ensembles seem to be a direct precursor to the brilliant David Murray Octet of 20 years later, and the style of the improvising, which is both swinging and melodically free without being honking and squealing, similarly suggests how the players of the late 1990s would bring “free” playing and structured playing into easy cooperation. The “solos” all overlap a bit, and there is a near-continuous dialog between horn players, Hutcherson’s chatty vibes, and one bassist who is playing a flow of commentary and texture, both bowed and plucked. Dolphy’s extraordinary playing on bass clarinet leads off—pungent, crazy, laughing, cool, and rich in blues. Hutcherson’s solo is just as fine, seeming to be a different direction for his instrument that moves away from Milt Jackson’s bebop/blues vocabulary into the realm of the tribal. That same year, Hutcherson would join Dolphy on the saxophonist’s only Blue Note record, Out to Lunch, where the vibes would seem even more revelatory.
“Music Matador”, composed by Simmons and Lasha, is a calypso theme using the same extended ensemble, Dolphy again on bass clarinet. The leader’s solo inevitably connects him to Sonny Rollins as a melodic master, but the most surprising work here is the playing by Lasha and Davis’s perfectly intoned bass playing, which works so high in his register that he often sounds like a cellist. The way that Dolphy plays as a soloist over the theme itself is jaunty and exuberant and, despite his modernist style, arguably not different from the way Louis Armstrong used to play over the bustle of his bands’ clatter: a clarion voice surfing the energy. Dolphy is that way—his playing reaching forward to today and backward to the music’s origins.
The most lasting and haunting material on Musical Prophet, however, captures Dolphy in more intimate settings. There are four duets with bassist Richard Davis, each a minor masterpiece. The standards “Alone Together” and “Come Sunday” were previously released but are wonderful to hear again. Dolphy’s bass clarinet and Davis’s hugely ranging bass seem to overlap in tonality, like cousins despite coming from different families of instruments. The long introduction to “Alone Together” is all free play and impressionism, texture and improvisation around a tonal center without any hint that they are zeroing in on a beautifully written melody. Then it creeps up, begun before you realize it about four minutes in, arriving like a naive, found thing. Dolphy plays the tune, but Davis doesn’t accompany as much as spin a sweet and sour counter-melody that has its own character. Soon enough, though, Davis starts swinging, and the bass clarinet plays a largely double-timed solo that might serve as a thesis statement for how Dolphy took bebop harmony and infused it with additional chromaticism and signature intervallic leaps to create a new vocabulary. Ellington’s “Come Sunday” gives Davis the melody on bowed bass, with Dolphy playing a sometimes fluttering, sometimes legato accompaniment. As the leader solos, Davis never puts down the bow, playing a stately counter-melody. The out chorus hands the tune to Dolphy, in a gorgeous reversal that simply underlines the main point: that the two seem lusciously interchangeable throughout, one mind on two instruments.
“Ode to Charlie Parker”, also previously released, features more traditional pizzicato playing by Davis. It is mainly notable as a demonstration of Dolphy’s brilliant playing on flute, where his sound is gentle and pure at once, but developing a distorted yearning when he reaches up for an urgent high note, particularly if that note comes at the tail end of a dramatic intervallic leap. If the leader’s sound is less jarring on flute, then it is also more astonishing because no one had ever taken such a daring approach to the instrument in jazz before. Dolphy reinvented the jazz flute just as Coltrane reinvented the soprano saxophone.
But the two unissued takes of “Muses for Richard Davis” (a composition written by pianist Roland Hanna) are the revelation here. Davis plays a contemplative melody, arco, as Dolphy’s bass clarinet accompanies, sotto voce, before an improvisation by Dolphy moves to the center. On this track, Dolphy plays more within the composition’s boundary and to lovely, considered effect. While the leader’s compelling solo style isn’t much in evidence, this piece demonstrates how in tune he could be with a larger purpose in a song. It is a good reminder of how effective he was, for example, playing on Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, where he was part of a more conventional ensemble playing within the established tradition but still shining with the tone and intelligence of his melodic choices.
More spare still are the three takes of “Love Me” for solo alto saxophone, a format that Dolphy favored long before the next generation of players turned it into a bit of an endurance contest. Dolphy sustains interest by playing the melody with a hard clarity, alternating with scrambling runs that blend scales, arpeggios, and tangles of Dolphian chromatic squiggles. The results are riveting on each take. He never sounds like a true “new thing” player who thrives on pure energy or tone but rather like a very precise if harmonically liberated traditionalist. He will leap two octaves in a single bound, popping the low tones, for example, in what today would be called “extended technique”, all with practiced care. That these virtuosic performances are wrapped up in just a few minutes makes them that much more powerful.
Then there is the peculiar “A Personal Statement”, written/organized by Bob James (yes, the guy who wrote the “Theme from Taxi” and sat behind or at the center of so much funk-lite proto-smooth jazz over the years—but who also was a fine jazz pianist and producer) for his trio, a countertenor singer, and Dolphy. It is 15 minutes long and sets the alto saxophone in conversation with an operatic voice working themes related to civil rights, while James’s trio plays a minimally and freely on the side. The abstract clusters and rumbles from the piano trio come off as some sort of imitation of the avant-garde to these ears, and the singer seems idiomatically out of place, with Dolphy being the best thing here, connecting with the trio at times and often mimicking or blending with the singer to create a shared sense of conversation. When all three parts come together is a version of swinging time, leading to a harmonically intriguing piano and alto solos, the feeling is: junk the singer and let these guys play. The free-time improvisation and written chamber music that follows will be of interest, perhaps, but it serves more to demonstrate the range of Dolphy’s interests and possible extensions into new forms than as successful art.
But, of course, even if “A Personal Statement” seems like a jumbled thing, it underlines the wonder of this whole set: to allow us to hear more completely the sweep of Eric Dolphy and his music, freed from some of jazz’s standard forms. Musical Prophet presents him as a musician, not of a single camp but flowing outward toward many possibilities. And in that sense, he emerges as the ultimate role model for the composers and players of the last 25 years, so many of whom have worked diligently to move freely across the history, styles, and camps of this great music. Don’t fence me in, you can imagine them saying—I want to be like Eric.
Of course, Dolphy gracefully held this ground first, straddling styles, forms, influences, and collaborators. His brief career meant that his ambitions and further reach would be left to other musicians inspired by him. Musical Prophet is as a good a template as any for what Dolphy’s offspring would have to explore—and live up to.