Eric Dolphy: Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise (2003)
Hitting play on a reissue can be like stepping into a time capsule. In this case all the more so because the sound quality is Jurassic, but even despite incredible distortion and difficult resolution there's always room for more Dolphy on the shelf. Top-notch material here, displaying the same buoyant sense of adventure and unerring swing that made him a singular voice.
1961 was the young musician's second year on record as a leader and one of his most productive. Dolphy's quartet borrows bassist Reggie Workman and pianist McCoy Tyner from John Coltrane's contemporary groupsDolphy was quite busy with Trane that year, joing forces on Africa Brass, Ole Coltrane, and the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. Mel Lewis takes over the drum set.
The four tunes on the record, recorded live in Munich and originally released on Stash, are serious workouts from 11 to 23 minutes in length, featuring some involved improvisation. Dolphy sticks to the bass clarinet, an instrument he helped bring to the forefront of jazz. His tone is crisp one moment and rough the next: heads tends to be straightforward and solos span the entire range. But while free jazz would head into furious, overblown blasts of energy, Dolphy never really went that way.
The supporting cast has rarely played better, in all honesty. McCoy Tyner surfs his ongoing impulses with rippling single-note melodies, progressive chorded phrases, and dramatic swirls. You can hear traces of the blocky, energetic sound he would focus on in years to come, but at this point the pianist is still pretty loose and open. Reggie Workman, an underappreciated bassist, treats solos as an opportunity to explore inside/outside combinations and somehow manages to combine walking basslines with more interactive phrases.
Mel Lewis, the most conservative member of the group, is mostly buried in the mix behind crunched-up cymbal and snare work, but when there's less action you can hear how he fleshes out textures. Lewis is definitely not one to sit around.
Thank God for Random Chance's digital remastering. Having never heard the original, it's a bit scary to think about what the record would have sounded like in its native form. But if you're willing to put up with a dirty recording, Softly offers a welcome opportunity to flash back to one of the most important years in the history of the music.
Track Listing: On Green Dolphin Street; Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise; The Way You Look Tonight; Oleo.
Personnel: Eric Dolphy: bass clarinet; McCoy Tyner: piano; Reggie Workman: bass; Mel Lewis: drums. Recorded live in Munich, 1961.