Resonance Records reissues Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions, which primarily focuses on two July 1963 commercially-issued recordings for Douglas Records.
At the conclusion of his sixth and final recording date, on June 2, 1964, Eric Dolphy, who had remained in Europe after an April tour with Charles Mingus in the hope that he might find more consistent employment and a more sympathetic environment in which to follow his creative muse, remarked: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air; you can never recapture it again.”
The message was prophetic: A month after wrapping the proceedings of the date known as Last Date, Dolphy, an undiagnosed diabetic who consumed honey in large quantities, collapsed onstage during a Berlin performance. Dolphy was well-known among his peer group for not indulging in drugs or alcohol. But the doctors treated him on the assumption that their patient — African-American, a jazz musician — was suffering from the effects of an overdose. On June 29th, Dolphy — a virtuoso practitioner of the alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, whose sui generis tonal personality on each instrument was integral to some of the most consequential recordings ever made by the likes of Mingus, John Coltrane, Max Roach, George Russell, Ornette Coleman, and Oliver Nelson — was dead. He was 36.
Dolphy’s interactions with the aforementioned masters occurred between late 1959 (when Dolphy, a son of Los Angeles, moved to New York after a year on the road with Chico Hamilton) and the spring of 1962, when he ended a seven-month run with Coltrane. For much of this period, he was signed to Prestige Records, which released Dolphy’s first three leader albums (the last was Far Cry, from December 1960) and another ten that he either co-led or functioned as a sideman. But after leaving Coltrane, Dolphy began a lengthy period of experimentation and R&D, developing compositional procedures that coalesced his interests in streams of Black American Music spanning Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker to the field holler, as well as elements culled from world music, birdsong, and 20th century European ideas.
The new 3-CD/3-LP release, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions, which primarily focuses on two July 1963 recordings for Douglas Records titled Iron Man and Conversations, is a comprehensive deep-dive into the first commercial documentation of Dolphy’s evolving sonic vision. Both formats contain 85 minutes of previously unissued material transferred from the original reel-to-reel mono session tapes that generated the LPs, and are packaged with a beautifully-produced, well-researched 96-page booklet. Said booklet includes an erudite critical appreciation by Professor James Newton, the virtuoso flutist who contributed the tapes to Resonance on behalf of the Eric Dolphy Trust, and an authoritative contextual exegesis by Professor Robin D.G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk’s biographer. Newton contributes an interview with the magisterial bassist Richard Davis, whose duo conversations with Dolphy on “Alone Together,” Jaki Byard’s “Ode to Charlie Parker,” Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” (and the never-issued-until-now “Muses for Richard Davis”) are key signposts in the art of applying extended techniques to melodic narrative.
In addition to a clear account of the album’s origin story, co-producer Zev Feldman includes illuminating interviews with vibraphone legend Bobby Hutcherson and alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons, both participants in the ensemble portions of Iron Man and Conversations; with Juanita Smith, the widow of composer Hale Smith, to whom Dolphy brought the tapes for safeguarding before embarking on his 1964 European sojourn; with Han Bennink, who played drums on Last Date; and with Sonny Rollins, who was Dolphy’s good friend.
Feldman also presents testimonies from Steve Coleman, Marty Ehrlich, Oliver Lake, Nicole Mitchell, David Murray, and Henry Threadgill, a cohort of late 20th century/early 21st century speculative jazz avatars who testify to Dolphy’s influence on their respective conceptions.
You can hear the future calling on the three quintet tracks (Dolphy’s “Iron Man” and “Mandrake,” and Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”), on which 22-year-old Hutcherson and 18-year-old trumpeter Woody Shaw (his debut recording) join Dolphy as solo voices. The instrumentation foreshadows the vibraphone-bass-drum rhythm trio sound that Dolphy would deploy seven months later on his most completely realized album, Out To Lunch, on which Hutcherson and Richard Davis performed along with Freddie Hubbard and Tony Williams. A four-horns, bass and drums ensemble (co-composers Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons on flute and alto saxophone, Clifford Jordan on soprano saxophone, and Dolphy on bass clarinet) plays the ebullient, Mexican-tinged “Music Matador.”
Perhaps the most radical track is the intense, episodic “Burning Spear,” dedicated to Kenya’s newly-installed Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta. Both configurations coalesce into a tentet, propelled by drummer J.C. Moses with loose, ferocious swing; Dolphy — who seems to be communicating with otherworldly beings in his opening solo on both takes — fully exploits the coloristic possibilities that the expanded ensemble provides.
The Dolphy-Davis union picks up on the template established by Dolphy’s extended 1960 dialogues with Charles Mingus on “Stormy Weather” and “What Love.” Each track is, as Newton points out in his booklet essay, “among the most accomplished duo collaborations in the music.” To these ears, the first among equals is “Alone Together” for the mutual intuition and chance-taking that permeates both the previously unissued take, which is a “straighter” reading of the tune, and the issued version, on which Dolphy limns the outer partials with authoritatively rendered multiphonics and harmonics.
But perhaps the most important lesson of Musical Prophet is that, as devoted as Dolphy was to experimentation and sonic extremity, he was, first and foremost, an incandescent musical poet, an inflamed, exultant spirit devoted to the creation of beauty. As Newton writes: “The plaintive cry and intensely personal ruminations of the soul found in field hollers are never too far from the equation in Eric Dolphy’s art… Dolphy taught us…how precious is the cry that reaches out to touch others, love them and give a lift to help them face challenges beyond imagination.”