from the pages of April 1996

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Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings

By Sandy Carter

All jazz, in some sense, is new music. By nature, a deeply personal, improvised, and heterogeneous expression, the jazz tradition tends to nurture continual reinvention. However, some reinvention are less welcome and more disruptive than others.

Between 1958 and 1964, when the Los Angeles born multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy was laying down most of his recorded work, the jazz world was being shocked by sounds making the most radical and seemingly irreparable break with prevailing traditions. Musically, “free jazz” accepted atonality, freedom from chord based improvisation, irregular time, and unorthodox harmonies. Socially, it was a statement of black experience. White players such as Charlie Haden, Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger, and Scott Lafaro played key roles in this new avant-garde, but the directing energy and feelings of the music came from African-Americans. Or as Amira Baraka (then Leroi Jones) wrote, “The expression and instinctive (natural) reflection that characterizes black art and culture...transcends any emotional state (human realization) the white man [sic] knows about and New Black Music is this: Find the self, then kill it.”

Free jazz divided audiences, critics, and musicians more fiercely than any other stylistic innovation in music history. For incorporating jagged, dissonant melodies and “bad” sounds like shrieks and honks to express the most raw and disturbed emotions ever displayed in jazz, the new sound was termed “anti-jazz” and “hate music.” Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, the two primary instigators of this deconstruction of old covenants, as well as musicians they influenced and inspired -- John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, to mention a few -- were denounced as charlatans cloaking technical incompetence in radical ideology and sonic chaos. More than 30 years later, many of the free sounds of the 1960s remain too harsh and unbearably intense for a mainstream jazz sensibility. However, the music has come to have wide acceptance among musicians, and pioneers like Coleman, Taylor, and Coltrane have achieved the status of legends.

Because he died of insulin shock on June 29, 1964 at the age of 36, Eric Dolphy wasn't around to see his music appreciated beyond a small cult of fans and appreciative musicians. However, in a very brief, but remarkably prolific career, he managed to stamp his singular musical voice all across the “new thing” movement of the early 1960s. With Ornette Coleman (on the landmark Free Jazz sessions), and as a member of groups led by Charles Mingus and Coltrane, Dolphy established himself as a major figure in the avant-garde.

On alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet (which he virtually introduced as a solo jazz instrument), Dolphy played with searing passion and brilliant technical command. Because he was one of the most lyrical, classical, and harmonically oriented players associated with free jazz, he seemed at home in all the varied idioms of the jazz tradition. As his reputation grew, he demonstrated his skills in diverse and sometimes unprecedented settings, including groups led by Max Roach, John Lewis, Ron Carter, Mal Waldron, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, Andrew Hill, Booker Little, Abbey Lincoln, Gunther Schuller, and Leonard Bernstein. Unfortunately, for all the magic Dolphy created on bandstands and in recording studios, to a large part of the jazz community his talents remained suspect.

The general charge was that his music was too “outside” -- meaning the notes he played and wrote had little or no reference to chord changes. In his defense, Dolphy explained, “I think of my playing as tonal. I play notes that would not ordinarily be said to be in a given key, but I hear them as proper. I don't think I `leave the changes' as the expression goes; every note I play has some reference to the chords of the piece.” But for conventional ears, Dolphy's concept was hard to follow. And as his work grew more daring, particularly in his collaborations with Coltrane, he became more controversial. As a result, opportunities to work and record as a leader were rare.

Thankfully, the release of the nine-CD box set, Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige/Fantasy), affords a long overdue opportunity to hear Dolphy's unique and urgent recording sessions. Documenting an amazingly prolific period on the Prestige label during 1960 and 1961, the anthology includes studio albums such as Outward Bound, Out There, Caribe, and Far Cry, as well as marathon concert sessions recorded in Europe and New York's legendary Five Spot, all with Dolphy as leader. Because he was a compelling “sideman” on so many other sessions for Prestige and its New Jazz subsidiary, this collection is rounded out with performances led by Oliver Nelson, Ron Carter, Mal Waldron, Ken McEntyre, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

In the three decades since his death, many of Dolphy's contributions to jazz have flowed into the mainstream of the tradition and today some of his “outside” sounds no longer sound radical. Yet it's remarkable how much of the music on these nine discs still sounds strange and exciting. Dolphy's striking ensemble ideas, audacious soloing at breakneck tempos, gorgeous lyricism, eerie melodies, and odd harmonies remain refreshingly “out there.” When relegated to the role of accompanist, his contributions to the sound and logic of tunes make them memorable. Allowed the freedom to lead and record his own compositions, the music becomes timeless.

Of the 13 sessions compiled on this box set, material issued on the albums Far Cry and At The Five Spot are classics of modern jazz. These records joined Dolphy with the gifted young trumpeter Booker Little (who died of uremia in 1961 at the age of 23). On Far Cry, Dolphy and Little, supported by pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Roy Haynes, reveal a deep rapport on a diverse program that includes three passionate tracks paying homage to Charlie Parker, and exquisite performances of Dolphy's “Miss Ann” and “Serene.” The most striking moments, however, occur on Dolphy's unaccompanied alto sax reading of “Tenderly.” Now regarded as one of the most masterful solos in the history of recorded jazz, Dolphy's “Tenderly” is an intricate, but coherent construction of shifting moods, ideas, and tempos achieving a state of truly disorienting beauty.

With Dolphy exploring some of his most adventurous harmonic ideas and Little blowing with fire and precision, the live Five Spot recordings are also extraordinary. Working with a top flight rhythm section of Mal Waldron (piano), Richard Davis (bass), and Ed Blackwell (drums), Dolphy stretches the limits of bebop to a breaking point on long, intense interpretations of pieces by himself, Little, and Waldron. His reeds and flute are startling throughout, and the solos and interplay of the quintet's other members, on Little's “Aggression,” Waldron's “Fire Waltz,” and Dolphy's “The Prophet,” are consistently imaginative and complementary.

Before he was through, Dolphy recorded a number of other enduring works on other labels. Albums with Charles Mingus (Mingus At Atibes, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus) and John Coltrane (Live At The Village Vanguard, African/Brass, Ole Coltrane) contain a wealth of brilliant performances. His Blue Note debut Out To Lunch, with its marvelous fragmented rhythms and unusual instrumental textures, is an undisputed landmark of modern jazz. And no appreciation of Dolphy would be complete without acknowledging his work on Oliver Nelson's Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse!) and Booker Little's Out Front (Candid).

Dolphy once described his artistic objective as putting as much “human warmth and feeling into my work as I can.” Those who knew him say this generosity of spirit permeated his life. He was known to give up his own gigs to other struggling musicians and even when down to his last few dollars, he was seen buying groceries for the down and out. Accordingly, friend and bassist Richard Davis spoke of Dolphy exuding “an angelic passion for life itself.” Listen to any of the music on The Complete Prestige Recordings and you can hear the intensity of this passion fused to a relentless inventive imagination. Music that defined the shape of jazz to come. And a vision of freedom yet to be born.