Graded on a Curve:
Eric Dolphy,
Musical Prophet

The discography of the late and very great Eric Allan Dolphy remains one of the gleaming jewels of ’60s jazz, but he’s still too often summarized as an outstanding, highly distinctive collaborator who produced one true masterpiece as a leader. Resonance Records’ Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions is poised to help eradicate this misnomer, reissuing two superb but frequently underrated LPs in mono with 85 minutes of additional material and contextualizing it all with a 100-page book offering a range of perspectives and a wealth of photographs. Featuring the outstanding bassist Richard Davis and the recording debt of trumpeter Woody Shaw, it’s out on 3LP for RSD Black Friday.

Eric Dolphy died tragically young in Berlin on July 29, 1964. A quarter century later, he was still routinely described, casually in conversation but also in newspaper/ magazine articles and even reference books, as a free jazz musician. The fact that he contributed to Ornette Coleman’s epochal and still radical Free Jazz session aside, in the copious notes to this set, flautist and release coproducer James Newton mentions (which is to say, it’s not a major statement) that during the time-period covered by this set, Dolphy wasn’t playing “free.”

The observation comes in the midst of an extended reflection on the multiple facets and influences that constitute Dolphy’s artistry, and it’s right on the money. No doubt many are thinking the clarification need only be made that the man belonged to the era’s jazz avant-garde, and that’s true, but the distinction should be made that, even as he’d been derided by moldy figs (prominently in the pages of Down Beat) as playing “anti-jazz,” Dolphy wasn’t a particularly strident contributor to the movement.

Well okay, but then what was he? A little further into the liner booklet, saxophonist Sonny Rollins nails it with pith: “He was an experimental musician.” To this it can be added: a master of three horns, and an individualist on each. There are of course many examples of instrumental doubling, and less frequently, tripling in jazz, but Dolphy’s excellence on alto sax, the demanding bass clarinet and flute goes beyond the status of rarity. On all three, his playing is amongst the most instantly recognizable in jazz.

Dolphy was also one of the most adaptable players of his era, famously fitting into and enriching the work of Coleman, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, but also contributing productively to records by Chico Hamilton, Gil Evans, Ted Curson, Oliver Nelson, Andrew Hill, George Russell, Freddie Hubbard, John Lewis, and Gunther Schuller.

The aforementioned individualism could often strike the ear as idiosyncratic in more straight-ahead contexts (his work with The Latin Jazz Quintet, actually two totally different bands with the exception of his involvement, is especially notable for this quality), but if he could stick out, it was never like a sore thumb; there’s not an album with his name on it that his participation didn’t improve.

While he didn’t record a lot as a leader, helming only five studio sessions in his lifetime (which is minute given Dolphy’s stature in jazz history), he excelled in that role as well, though in jazz guides he’s often represented for the fruits of the last, 1964’s Out to Lunch! This isn’t an example of those doing the synopsizing getting it wrong, as the Blue Note LP is a masterpiece, with its close proximity to Dolphy’s death (it was recorded in February of the year and is designated as a posthumous release) only magnifying what might’ve transpired had his diabetes been diagnosed.

However, this high-quality reissue of the sessions from directly before the one that produced Out to Lunch! gives proper magnification to Dolphy’s command of the studio and emphasizes his well-rounded brilliance sans Blue Note magic. With one exception, everything on Musical Prophet was recorded on July 1 and 3, 1963, with a seriously impressive group of players.

Along with Davis and Shaw, there’s Sonny Simmons on alto, Prince Lasha on flute, Clifford Jordan on soprano sax, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Eddie Khan on bass, and J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett on drums. This is a massive aggregation of New Thing-associated talent, with Hutcherson and Davis constantly in demand in a variety of stylistic situations during this era; both were in the band for Out to Lunch! Shaw’s impact was felt more in the ensuing decade, though he does play and has three compositions on one of Blue Note’s edgier ’60s releases, organist Larry Young’s Unity.

Simmons and Lasha recorded jointly for the Contemporary label (two early “inside-out” LPs The Cry! and Firebirds), while Jordan worked with Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore and was part of Mingus’ mid-’60s group (also recording frequently as a leader). The fascinating Bushell played with Coltrane (his career spans back to the ’20s in connection to Fats Waller and Cab Calloway), Khan with Andrew Hill and Jackie McLean, Moses with Hill, Roland Kirk and Archie Shepp including two LPs with the New York Contemporary Five, and Moffett with bassist David Izenson in Ornette’s amazing mid-’60s trio.

Made under the auspices of Alan Douglas, portions of these sessions were issued in ’63 on the FM label as Conversations, with additional selections released posthumously in ’68 on Douglas International as Iron Man. There have been numerous reissues since, but there’s always been a misleading lack of panache hovering around their availability, meaning they’ve commonly been received more as choice nuggets for Dolphy lovers rather than wholly appropriate points of entry into the man’s work. And so, Musical Prophet is a corrective of sorts.

Resonance retains the essence of Conversations and Iron Man on LPs one and two while adjusting them to include bonuses (the original releases were short). This is smart, as both records offered distinct pleasures that the extra stuff effectively illuminates. As it offers selections for group plus Dolphy solo and in duet with Davis, it’s been said that Conversations doesn’t really cohere into an album statement, but that’s only of one overlooks an album statement that communicates the versatility of the leader.

As such, it gathers its own sense of continuity, swinging into a pretty and increasingly edgy reading of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and retaining this sensibility but adjusting it with a Latin flavor in “Music Matador.” It’s a fine inside-outside combo punch, but then “Love Me” presents Dolphy alone on alto in a striking blend of beauty and prodigious skill. Side two opens with a remarkable duet for bass clarinet and upright bass, “Alone Together.”

It’s a setting further explored in the two unreleased bonus versions of the Sir Roland Hanna composition “Muses for Richard Davis,” where the bowed bass from the subject of Hanna’s esteem interacts exquisitely with Dolphy’s bass clarinet, broadening and strengthening the original LP’s concluding segment and, in the process, making an already fine record even better.

Iron Man has always connected as a more unified group statement, which underscores its chronological fit in the leadup to Out to Lunch!, though the opening title-track and “Mandrake” are distinguished with verve reminiscent of Dolphy’s work with Coltrane; intensifying this similarity is Khan’s bass solo, which brings Jimmy Garrison to mind. It’s also important to note that Iron Man is loaded with Dolphy originals, while Conversations has none.

Iron Man does offer a sweet version Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” and ends with the bonus “A Personal Statement,” which Dolphy lovers might recognize from the posthumous ’80s Blue Note collection Other Aspects. Recorded in March ’64 in Ann Arbor, MI (and post-dating Out to Lunch!), it features a wholly different group of musicians including vocalist David Schwartz singing countertenor, with the group executing an intriguing anti-segregation declaration (its alternate title is “Jim Crow”).

Along with the obscure drummer Robert Pozar (whose ensemble cut a cool Bill Dixon-produced LP for Savoy’s short lived New Jazz Series in ’67), the lineup for this track includes future smooth jazz merchant Bob James on piano (however, he started out in a much more progressive mode, issuing a pair of “New Music”-influenced albums for Mercury and ESP Disk with his trio in ’63 and ’65, respectively. “A Personal Statement” is also his composition).

The track might seem like an outlier, and it kinda is, but it also bonds with the original contents of Iron Man and Out to Lunch! to establish Dolphy as in the thick of greatness prior to his premature death and powerfully suggesting a sustained trajectory of quality had he lived. Folks who already own Conversations and Iron Man might be hesitant to pony up for this set, but both are offered in sharp-sounding mono editions (the stereo masters are currently lost), and the extras, from tapes entrusted by Dolphy to his friends Hale and Juanita Smith and then passed on to Newton, are consistently up to snuff.

Rather than just dumping all the contents into the package, there was critical dialogue between Newton and Resonance’s Zev Feldman over what to include, a decision that bears fruit in the listening, as the alternate versions of “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Music Matador,” “Alone Together,” “Love Me” (two takes), “Mandrake,” and Iron Man’s “Burning Spear” thoughtfully cohere into a legit LP rather than a mere depository of outtakes. Released in conjunction with the Eric Dolphy Trust and the Alan Douglas Estate, the four sides unwind with nary a hint of profiteering.

The icing on the cake is the booklet, which is loaded with background info from Feldman and remembrances from not just Newton, Rollins, and the Hales, but a cross-section of insights from Davis, flautist Nicole Mitchell, bassist Joe Chambers, saxophonist David Murray, drummer Han Bennink and more. What’s especially cool is that unlike occasional historical collections, there’s no overriding agenda or axe to grind in the text, instead offering perspectives that sometimes conflict. Ultimately, the only agenda is celebrating Eric Dolphy’s work, and Musical Prophet pulls that off with panache to spare.

Conversations
A+

Iron Man
A

Bonus Material
A

Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions
A+

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