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Although he’s revered today as one of jazz’s truly original voices, saxophonist Eric Dolphy was not universally celebrated during his lifetime. Embraced by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, with each of whom he recorded landmark albums, Dolphy nonetheless proved a hard sell to critics, the public and even fellow musicians. Like Coleman, who had his alto tossed onto the street during a club date at which he was severely beaten, Dolphy provoked strong reactions.
“Nobody else could sound as bad as Eric Dolphy,” exclaimed Miles Davis in a 1964 interview in Downbeat, a publication that had coined the term “anti-jazz” to describe Dolphy and Coltrane’s music. “The next time I see him, I’m going to step on his foot. … I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker.”
“When I saw Eric Dolphy for the first time, I couldn’t stand Eric Dolphy, because I felt like he couldn’t play the saxophone,” confided drummer Rashied Ali during an interview included in Fire Music, Tom Surgal’s thoughtful new documentary about the origins of avant-garde jazz. “And then the second time I saw Eric Dolphy, he turned out to be my most favorite musician of all times.”
[caption id="attachment_17248" align="alignnone" width="1008"] Eric Dolphy (Photo: Jean-Pierre Leloir)[/caption]
Many listeners will likely relate to Ali’s experience. While Dolphy’s distinctive tonal signature on alto sax and bass clarinet, and birdsong-inspired flute, may take some getting used to, his virtuosity and joyful expression seem to have won over a good number of doubters. Since his death at age 36 in June 1964 — he was an undiagnosed diabetic with a sweet tooth — his albums have entered into the pantheon of modern jazz, his posthumous release Out to Lunch now regarded as a paragon of the form. Six months after his death, the same magazine that had derided his artistry featured Dolphy on the cover, their readers having selected him by a wide margin as their top choice for inclusion in the Downbeat Hall of Fame.
Time has been kind to Dolphy’s legacy, an important segment of which is explored on the new set Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance). The three-disc collection features in full the albums Conversations and Iron Man, which were recorded over two days in July 1963, along with alternate takes and a surprise or two. Tracks such as the Mexicali-influenced “Music Matador” and a playful reimagining of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” from Conversations, and the title track and “Mandrake” from the Iron Man, burst with creative vitality and a sense of fun. The core group of Dolphy, saxophonists Sonny Simmons and Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Woody Shaw, flutist Price Lasha and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson maintain a sense of ecstatic swing, even as they strain against the tethers of bebop, thanks also to alternating bassists Richard Davis and Eddie Kahn, and respective drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett.
Producers Zev Feldman and James Newton pored over hours of tape. They carefully curated the unreleased material, including a live in-studio recording of “A Personal Statement,” which was composed by the date’s young pianist, Bob James, and features David Schwartz’s haunting vocals; and two versions of the Roland Hanna-penned “Muses for Richard Davis,” a somber duet for bass clarinet and arco bass. The alternate takes offer fascinating insights into Dolphy’s creative process.
“You hear the formation of his ideas,” says Feldman, talking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “You hear how this man was thinking, and he was coming up with all sorts of different things. It was just a miracle that we were able to find this stuff.”
For Feldman, the process began when pianist Jason Moran pointed him in the direction of Newton, a professor of music at UCLA, in 2014. Newton’s friends, Hale and Juanita Smith, had handed over to him a cache of unreleased Dolphy recordings and other artifacts — including scores and musical studies — that Dolphy had left with the Smiths before embarking on a European tour in 1964. Dolphy never returned. Having collapsed in a dressing room in Berlin, he fell into a coma and died some time thereafter.
And while some of the music had been previously released, and reissues of both Conversations and Iron Man have popped up on various labels over the years, no one had really done justice to the sessions’ significance in Dolphy’s discography. Feldman wanted to correct that. “These records are important because they show the progression of where he was going and what direction his music was heading in,” he explains. “It’s obviously where [his] Prestige/New Jazz [recordings] leave off and literally right before one of the most important recordings of jazz, Out to Lunch. We’re going to listen to him with vibraphone and trumpet and it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, is this where he’s going?’”
[caption id="attachment_17250" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Zev Feldman of Resonance Records (Photo: Courtesy Twitter)[/caption]
In addition to the remastered recordings — preserved in mono, as the original stereo pressings are lost to the ages — Musical Prophet comes with a 28-page booklet filled with insightful interviews, essays and little-seen photographs of Dolphy and his cohorts. Included are the reminiscences of Juanita Smith, who talks about the worrisome knot that developed on Dolphy’s forehead, perhaps foreshadowing his illness; bassist Davis, whose remarkable duet with Dolphy on “Come Sunday” provides an emotional highlight on Iron Man; and Sonny Simmons, whose stringent tenor sax features on both albums.
Simmons had come to New York City with flutist Prince Lasha specifically to look for Dolphy. The musicians were in a record shop in Los Angeles when a song by Dolphy came over the sound system. Lasha perked up, asking his younger colleague who that was and where he could be found. Eric Dolphy, New York, Simmons responded. “I said, ‘You gonna be ready to leave in two weeks?’” Lasha recalled in an interview in Surgal’s film Fire Music. “I wanted to see this motherfucker, you know what I mean?” The admiration proved mutual and Dolphy put Lasha and Simmons on the Conversations/Iron Man sessions, to which they contributed the vibrant composition “Music Matador.”
In his interview with Feldman, Simmons recalls the vituperative criticism of Dolphy, the saxophonist’s sweet-and-sour sound just too unconventional for the mainstream. Downbeat did allow Dolphy and Coltrane to “answer the jazz critics” in a 1962 cover story, the musicians defending themselves against charges that they played too long, too anarchistic, that they didn’t swing. “It was sad how they treated Dolphy,” Simmons asserts. “They beat him down in the press. Among the musicians, they didn’t like him. It broke my heart.”
Of course, Dolphy’s music has emerged triumphant in the decades since his death, as audiences have caught up to his pioneering sound. The Resonance set hardly sounds dated, and the brightness of the ensemble’s playing reflects the participants’ excitement in making this music.
Producer Feldman, who spent four years on the project, acutely felt his responsibility to do right by what he calls “the bastard stepchildren” of Dolphy’s discography. “It was really about giving a lot of love to these recordings,” he says, “really paying close attention to them, so that we could cement them into history.” — Bob Weinberg