Eric Dolphy was no ordinary musical talent. While attending junior high school Dolphy was offered a scholarship to the University of Southern California School of Music. His parents subsequently renovated a garage into a rehearsal studio on their modest Los Angeles city lot, a studio that would host the sounds of Gerald Wilson, Buddy Collette, Max Roach, and Clifford Brown during Dolphy's youth and early twenties.
Dolphys's boyhood dream of playing for the L.A. Symphony would never be fulfilled, but his intensive classical training would be funneled into the career of a major jazz musician and composer. Eric Dolphy's talent and dedication quickly opened doors to the highest echelons of the jazz world including the recordings of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. His accomplishments also brought him to the attention of such classical music notables as Gunther Schuller and Edgar Varese.
Dolphy's short life extended from 1928 to 1964. During these 36 years he established himself as a significant new voice in jazz, developing the resources of the primary instruments he chose to play - alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute. He was also a composer and arranger of note as his work on Coltrane's Africa Brass and on his own album Out To Lunch will attest.
During his career Dolphy recorded with many of the finest musicians of his time and Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings includes the bulk of his recordings as a leader. This superb box set covers the time period of April. 1960 to September, 1961, a time when the incredibly in demand Dolphy recorded enough material to result in the nine discs of this compilation.
Six of the sessions are Dolphy led sessions. On the other six, Oliver Nelson, Ken McIntyre, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Ron Carter, and Mal Waldron are the leaders. Nelson is the leader of two sessions. The quality of the bands, whether Dolphy led or not, is, with a couple of exceptions, remarkable. Dolphy had the authority and drawing power to play with the best musicians of his day from the very beginning of his career as a leader. To help put Eric Dolphy into perspective, his first recording session as a leader, Outward Bound , was graced by the presence of Freddie Hubbard, Jaki Byard, George Tucker, and Roy Haynes. The sound engineer for the recording was Rudy Van Gelder. At the time, Dolphy was 32 years old.
The box set opens with Dolphy's composition "G.W." a tribute to his mentor - trumpeter, composer, arranger, and big band leader Gerald Wilson. The introduction to "G.W." is a complex unison alto sax and trumpet passage that establishes the band as being at home in the harmonies of not only the traditions of jazz but also those of 20th century classical music. A spectacular Dolphy solo follows, almost as if brashly announcing a major new voice in jazz. The drama of the opening track - the nod to his mentor, then the fast paced angular alto solo with its intervallic leaps of striking originality - add up to one of the more astounding debut tracks in the history of jazz.
In short, this 1960 recording of "G.W." demonstrates that Dolphy has mastered the most severe challenges of be-bop, and then has added some new challenges of his own. The question becomes not who is this new leader and can he play, but rather who is this young master and who are his peers? After his saxophone virtuosity and sophistication is established (for anyone with the ears to hear), Dolphy proceeds in an almost casual manner to switch to bass clarinet on the next track, doubling the opening melody line of "On Green Dolphin Street" with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. Dolphy then slides into a lyrical, restrained solo that brings home that this new leader not only is a virtuoso on alto sax (and composer of note) but he is also a master of the bass clarinet. To add another twist - who in 1960 played jazz bass clarinet?
The third track "Les" has Dolphy returning to alto saxophone, significantly ratcheting up the tempo from the opening alto performance "G.W." If there was any doubt about the sax mastery of Dolphy, this track seems intent on burying the issue forever. The interplay between Hubbard and Dolphy is playful and fascinating for its breathtaking precision and imaginative risk taking.
The recording, having already established Dolphy as a composer, saxophonist, and bass clarinetist, moves on to the next track in which he picks up the flute on the Rodgers-Hart composition "Glad To Be Unhappy." The opening sad, sweet Dolphy solo, poignantly accompanied by Byard, takes off suddenly in mid-flight to become a display of the startling technique and the depth of emotion that was to typify the best of Eric Dolphy. By the end of the solo the realization sets in that this is the third instrument that this musician has mastered. The question concerning Outward Bound becomes has there ever been a more accomplished debut album by a young leader?
Of course, by the age of 32 Dolphy had extensive experience as a performer and sideman in the studio, but the maturity of his playing, the performance of the band, and the quality of Dolphy's four original compositions suggest to this listener that anyone would be challenged to find the equal of this debut. To try to put this in a larger perspective, on his first recording as a leader Eric Dolphy set the standard for many of the most talented multi-instrumentalists of the next forty years of jazz. David Murray, Julius Hemphill, James Carter, and Marty Ehrlich can all be considered to have followed the lead of Dolphy, but even in this group of astounding talents it is doubtful that the jazz world has yet heard Dolphy's equal.
Part of the pleasure of listening to Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings is hearing the various bands Dolphy played in as a leader or a sideman. The second session in the box set opens with Oliver Nelson's "Screaming the Blues," the title track to the album. This is a far more traditional, gospel and blues influenced session featuring a thoughtful band with a rhythm section that can boast of Richard Wyands, George Duvivier, and Roy Haynes. Not surprisingly, this session has a wonderful, dance like undercurrent that doesn't let up. As a soloist Dolphy shares the lead horn duties with the underrated Richard Williams on trumpet and the always solid Oliver Nelson on tenor sax. These three musicians cohere into a marvelous horn/sax section. Dolphy solos on alto and bass clarinet throughout the session, and although he is a bit more restrained harmonically than during his own sessions, Dolphy fits right in nudging along the other very able soloists.
Sometimes when listening to Dolphy both Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker come to mind in the context of their bands, that although these three great soloists were in many ways conceptually beyond their peers they do fit in somehow in a curious straddling of the past and future. Dolphy could play the blues and the very satisfactory Oliver Nelson session demonstrates how innovation and tradition can mesh in a fruitful alliance. As a closer to the session, Dolphy is featured on a modernistic "Alto-It is," a Nelson boppish composition that features Dolphy in an outrageously showy solo, framed by the horn/sax section in a sharp, vigorous performance - this is powerful ensemble work.
The next session finds Dolphy playing as a sideman on Ken McIntyre's Looking Ahead. Both Dolphy and McIntyre play alto and flute. Again, the band personnel is first rate with Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Arthur Taylor on drums. Five of the six compositions are McIntyre compositions featuring tight ensemble work. As a soloist McIntyre is somewhat predictable and not in class with Dolphy or the other musicians but McIntyre and Dolphy play beautifully on unison passages. The rhythm section casually keeps everything in the groove. The combination of McIntyre on flute and Dolphy on alto works especially well together on "Dianna."
Disc three starts off with the second Dolphy session as a leader. Out There features Ron Carter on cello and George Duvivier on bass. Roy Haynes returns in the drummer slot. The title track of the album has Dolphy in fleet form moving at a be-bop pace with somewhat dissonant harmonies. Dolphy's weaving in and out of the rhythm section in a wide looping manner suggests a different relationship to the rhythm section than the typical be-bop soloist.
The doubled voices of Dolphy on bass clarinet and Carter's bowed cello opens Dolphy's composition "Serene." This is a fascinating composition with a later pizzicato cello solo followed by a concise Haynes and Dolphy solo exchange. George Duvivier holds everything together throughout with a solid bass foundation. The session is interesting throughout with doubled voice combinations of cello and Dolphy on alto or clarinets (bass or B-flat). Solo exchanges and intertwining lines between Carter and Dolphy are particularly interesting; the combination of flute and bowed cello has a fresh sound and is affective throughout. There are flaws. At times Carter's intonation on bowed cello sounds a little off, but overall the exchanges between Carter and Dolphy and between Carter and Duvivier are worth a careful study. The rapport is wonderful.
This daring session was recorded only four months after Dolphy's Outward Bound debut as a leader. The contrast between the extroverted Freddie Hubbard/Dolphy debut exchange and the introverted Ron Carter/Dolphy follow-up exchange is striking. Certainly anyone following the development of the young Eric Dolphy must have cocked their heads at the emotional range demonstrated in these two sessions.
The next session issued as Caribe is not heavyweight Dolphy. It's akin to Charlie Parker's latin tinged South of the Border recordings, although Dolphy plays in a small group setting paired with the Latin Jazz Quintet. The instrumentation includes piano, bass, drums, vibes, timbales, and congas. Throughout Dolphy is the predominant soloist. There is something appealing about hearing Dolphy in this relaxed setting. The band plays comfortably together, and pianist Gene Casey and bassist Bill Ellington are notable. Dolphy provides a bit of intensity to the session but no one gets too worked up, and oddly enough Dolphy fits right in. At times there is a blues or gospel overlay to the proceedings with "Sunday Go Meetin' " being a highlight for the playing of the band as a unit and for Dolphy's flute solo.
The following session finds Dolphy as a sideman in Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis' fourteen piece big band. This is quite a band with the likes of Jimmy Cleveland, Clark Terry , Richard Williams, Jerome Richardson, Oliver Nelson, and Roy Haynes aboard. The able pair of Oliver Nelson and Ernie Wilkens provided the arrangements. With this lineup, and Davis in the solo spotlight, not much is likely to go wrong, and that was the case. The band and Davis are inspired throughout. Dolphy in the second alto sax chair, behind Nelson, doesn't get to solo on these six tracks but the session does leave you wondering how much of Davis did Dolphy listen to growing up. They do share a vocal orientation to the instrument and in moments, and I do stress moments, the bluesy Davis sounds like a much more conservative Eric Dolphy.
The second half of disc four presents another classic Dolphy session as a leader. Far Cry presents the talented quintet of Dolphy, Booker Little, Jaki Byard, Ron Carter, and Roy Haynes. The performance is as good as the cast. What is notable it that the disc opens with two Jaki Byard compositions "Mrs. Parker Of K.C." and "Ode To Charlie Parker." The Byard and Dolphy solos suggest how far away from a classic be-bop conception the band has moved. The "Ode To Charlie Parker" opens with a plaintive trumpet and flute dialogue. Booker Little's beautiful ballad paced solo intertwines with Dolphy's more aggressive, faster paced flute. The be-bop of Dolphy, no matter what instrument he plays, is not the be-bop of the 1945-55 era. The intense linear focus of classic bebop has been broadened rhythmically and harmonically.
Dolphy's now fairly well known composition "Miss Ann" is notable for the boppish unison opening and subsequent Dolphy solo on alto. As in many of Dolphy's recordings he seems to be waiting on the other soloists. His intensity and daring is imposing and I would imagine more than a bit intimidating. Booker Little holds his own in the fast paced exchange with Dolphy toward the end of the performance. The last track of the session, the solo alto performance of Dolphy on "Tenderly" is a Dolphy show piece and could be played to good effect to most any Dolphy doubter.
Disc five returns us to the Oliver Nelson band of Screamin' The Blues minus the trumpeter Richard Williams. Again, this is Nelson's session. Much of the music is along the lines of Nelson's early blues and R & B influenced work. The rhythm section of Wyands, Duvivier, and Haynes can hardly be praised enough for their precision and clarity of conception as a unit. The rapport and the energy generated between Nelson and Dolphy in their unison work is something to behold; there is great power in their passages together. The solo contrast between the simpler, bluesy sax style of Nelson and Dolphy's sometimes almost baroque solo style is somehow compatible. Dolphy's deep sense of the blues is conveyed through even in the complexities of his most modernist mode. This is another excellent Nelson/Dolphy session. "Images," "Ralph's New Blues," and the title track "Straight Ahead" are highlights.
The following session presents bassist/cellist Ron Carter as the leader with the very able cast of Dolphy, Mal Waldron, George Duvivier, and Charlie Persip. Entitled Where? this session opens with an intriguing bass clarinet and cello unison line in "Rally". The Dolphy/Carter combination of sonorities is odd and surprising. The following track "Duet" features and extended dialog between Duvivier and Carter. Waldron and Persip provide low key, excellent support for the two bass masters at play. At times, one bassist switches off into the solo slot while the other bassist drops back into the trio.
"Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise" has an energetic Dolphy on alto above a very attentive band. Charlie Persip's low-key ego is a real plus throughout the session, his accompaniment and his sharp, lively solos add to this impressive group. Throughout this session Carter's bowed bass work is excellent. Being Ron Carter's session, we hear a considerably more restrained Dolphy than in most of the box set. Perhaps out of respect for Carter's conception of the overall session, he tones down his typical harmonic and rhythmic flights. He certainly is far more conservative than on his own session Out There which presents the exact same musicians minus Waldron. Pianist Mal Waldron is a welcome addition, and the comfortable rapport of the band is evident. Dolphy contributes a series of solid, imaginative solos on all three of his instruments.
The next session is Mal Waldron's classic recording The Quest. It opens with a fiery, somewhat meandering Dolphy alto solo on "Status Seeking," followed by Booker Ervin's tenor that is earthbound and intense. The session long dialog between Dolphy and Booker is a fruitful study in contrasts. The rhythm section is outstanding with Waldron, Joe Benjamin, and Charlie Persip. Ron Carter plays cello throughout. Pianist Mal Waldron's lyrical solos play off well against the Dolphy/Ervin horn section. Waldron is a brilliant accompanist who plays in a subtle, measured solo manner that meshes particularly well with Dolphy. All six compositions are by Waldron including the magnificent "Fire Waltz." A highlight of the session is Dolphy's melodic flute solo on "Warm Canto," the interaction among Dolphy, Waldron, and Carter's plucked cello is intricately beautiful. This is an exquisite trio of soloists playing off of each others creating sheer magic.
The famous session that completes disc 6 is the Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot recording. With Booker Little on trumpet, Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, this is one of the truly great jazz bands. It is one of the endless number of jazz misfortunes that this band did not record more than once, and that this unit could not have stayed together to develop into what they could have become. Booker Little was to die a few months after this recording at the age of 23, of uremia.
The music recorded that night in July of 1961 takes up three tracks on disc 6, all of disc 7, and two tracks on disc 8. It opens with an extended Dolphy/Little duet on "Someone In Love." This lovely track is followed by Dolphy playing a long solo bass clarinet version of "God Bless The Child." The latter has been discussed as being one of Dolphy's finest performances on record. What is notable about this band is the easy going comfort of these five musicians playing together. Certainly the music is not casual; it's often intense, but there is an underlying feeling of trust and confidence in what is transpiring. In short, the lack of a big ego in the way is part of the success of this band. Waldron, Davis, and Blackwell each solo superbly on the long Dolphy composition "Aggression" highlighting the balance of this unit; they are also an immensely flexible, responsive rhythm section that is a match for the brilliance of the two major soloists. This is classic jazz.
The bulk of disc 8 and all of disc 9 takes us to Copenhagen, Denmark for two concert performances. Dolphy is backed by the Danish rhythm section of Bent Axen on piano, Erik Moseholm on bass, and Jorn Elniff on drums. The fare is standards and two Dolphy compositions. Chuck Israels steps in on one track of the second night playing a 13 minute duet, with Dolphy on flute. This is an able trio though not brilliant. The playing is somewhat uneven but throughout Dolphy soars above the rough spots which usually involve an over eager young drummer or a pianist who at times seems more worried about not making a mistake than being creative. The core of this band is the relationship between Dolphy and the impressive Erik Moseholm on bass.
Some of the highlights of the concert recordings are the opening to "Don't Blame Me," an excellent extended flute solo backed by the trio. The alternate take is also a gem. Dolphy is consistently interesting especially playing bass clarinet on "God Bless The Child" and on Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low." The duet between Dolphy and Chuck Israels is also memorable. Dolphy plays beautifully track by track and when the band is playing well it becomes obvious why these promising musicians were chosen by Dolphy.
Overall, Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings presents some of the best work that Eric Dolphy recorded in his too short career. The musicians and bands Dolphy recorded with on these discs are always interesting and many of the bands are extraordinary. It has been a pleasure to listen to this music. In our time Eric Dolphy's place in jazz history seems somewhat up in the air. At times he seems to be acknowledged in a cursory manner deprived of the sustained attention that a major figure deserves. By the evidence of this box set alone we are talking about one of the finest jazz musicians to have graced the history of jazz.
It should be noted that 6 of the 9 discs are studio recordings engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. The sound quality is excellent, as one would expect. The live recordings are well recorded with minor flaws. All of the tracks have been re-mastered since the original releases. The accompanying booklet is one of the better box set booklets I've seen, with a clear presentation of the details of the recordings. The photos add up to a memorable jazz essay on Dolphy, along with two written pieces by Zan Stewart and Bill Kirchner. As if it isn't already obvious, this box set is highly recommended.
Disc 1) "Outward Bound" with Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbbard, Jaki Byard, George Tucker, and Roy Haynes (tracks 1-9). "Screamin' The Blues" with Oliver Nelson, Eric Dolphy, Richard Williams, Richard Wyands, George Duvivier, and Roy Haynes (tracks 10-11).
Disc 2) above band continued (tracks 1-4). "Looking Ahead" with Ken McIntyre, Eric Dolphy, Walter Bishop, Jr., Sam Jones, and Arthur Taylor (tracks 5-10). "Out There" with Eric Dolphy, Ron Carter, George Duvivier, and Roy Haynes (track 11).
Disc 3) above band continued (tracks 1-6). "Caribe" with Eric Dolphy and the Latin Jazz Quintet, including Gene Casey, Charlie Simons, Bill Ellington, Manny Ramos, and Juan Amalbert (tracks 7-12). "Trane Whistle" with Eddie "Lockjaw Davis," Melba Liston, Jimmy Cleveland, Clark Terry, Richard Williams, Bobby Bryant, George Barrow, Jerome Richardson, Bob Ashton, Oliver Nelson, Eric Dolphy, Richard Wyands, Wendell Marshall, and Roy Haynes. Arrangements are by Oliver Nelson and Ernie Wilkens. (tracks 13-14).
Disc 4) same band continued (tracks 5-12). "Straight Ahead" with Oliver Nelson, Eric Dolphy, Richard Wyands, George Duvivier, and Roy Haynes (track 13).
Disc 5) same band as above (tracks 1-5). "Where?" with Ron Carter, Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron, George Duvivier, and Charlie Persip (tracks 6-11). "The Quest" with Mal Waldron, Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin, Ron Carter, Joe Benjamin, and Charlie Persip (track 12).
Disc 6) same band as above (tracks 1-6). "Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot" with Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell (tracks 7-9).
Disc 7) same band as above on the entire disc (tracks 1-5).
Disc 8) same band as above (tracks 1-2). "Eric Dolphy in Europe" with Eric Dolphy, Bent Axen, Erik Moseholm, and Jorn Elniff (tracks 3-7) add Chuck Israels on track 6 only for a duet with Dolphy.
Disc 9) same trio as above with Dolphy on the entire disc (tracks 1-7).
* In the above list, the leader of the session is listed first in order of musicians.
Disc 1) G.W., On Green Dolphin Street, Les, 245, Glad To Be Unhappy, Miss Toni, April Fool, G.W., 245, Screamin' The Blues, March On, March On.
Disc 2) The Drive, The Meetin', Three Seconds, Alto-Itis, Lautir, Curtsy, Geo's Tune, They All Laughed, Head Shakin', Dianna, Out There.
Disc 3) Serene, The Baron, Eclipse, 17 West, Sketch of Melba, Feather, Caribe, Blues In 6/8, First Bass Line, Mambo Ricci, Spring Is Here, Sunday Go Meetin', Trane Whistle, Whole Nelson.
Disc 4) You Are Too Beautiful, The Stolen Moment, Walk Away, Jaws, Mrs. Parker Of K.C., Ode To Charlie Parker, Far Cry, Miss Ann, Left Alone, Tenderly, It's Magic, Serene, Images.
Disc 5) Six And Four, Mama Lou, Ralph's New Blues, Straight Ahead, III-44, Rally, Bass Duet, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, Where?, Yes Indeed, Saucer Eyes, Status Seeking.
Disc 6) Duquility, Thirteen, We Diddit, Warm Canto, Warp And Woof, Fire Waltz, Like Someone In Love, God Bless The Child, Aggression.
Disc 7) Fire Waltz, Bee Vamp, The Prophet, Booker's Waltz, Status Seeking.
Disc 8) Numbers Eight/Potsa Lotsa, Bee Vamp, Don't Blame Me, When Lights Are Low, Don't Blame Me, Les, The Way You Look Tonight.
Disc 9) Woody'n You, Laura, Glad To Be Unhappy, God Bless The Child, In The Blues, Hi-Fly, Oleo.
Website: Fantasy Records