This lovingly and lavishly packaged set reissues two of reedman Eric Dolphy's LPs along with outtakes from the two day 1963 sessions which yielded them, along with some unreleased later material on which Dolphy was a sideman. The set places a well-deserved focus on one of the pioneers of what became known as the New Thing, whose voice was tragically silenced less than a year later from undiagnosed diabetes at the age of 36.
Even during his brief period of activity he was recognized as a startling new voice, appearing alongside Ornette Coleman on the seminal Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960) and with John Coltrane on many albums including the legendary Live! At The Village Vanguard (Impulse, 1961).
Even so the group arrangements here tend to the conservative, Dolphy having not yet found the collaborators capable of realizing the free floating swing of his classic Out To Lunch! (Bluenote, 1964). What's more, like Coleman, his impact has been dulled over the years just because he was so influential on a whole cadre of reedmen, among them Anthony Braxton, James Newton and Oliver Lake, that the advances he achieved are now almost taken for granted.
However Dolphy's legacy has been suitably lauded by artist's as diverse as Lakewho recorded two tributes Prophet, (Black Saint, 1981) and Dedicated To Dolphy (Black Saint, 1994)and Alexander von Schlippenbach and Aki Takase, who commemorated the 50th anniversary of his death with So Long Eric (Intakt, 2014), a far-reaching rethink of his compositions.
The first of the reissued LPs, Conversations (Douglas International, 1963) was the only one to be distributed during Dolphy's lifetime. Perversely it comprises only covers. The bounce of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" spotlights Dolphy's swooping flute, as well as offering solo space for trumpeter Woody Shaw and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. A second take appears on the disc of previously unissued studio material, on which Dolphy's solo takes a modified but similarly compelling turn, while Shaw is more waspish. Dolphy straps on his bass clarinet as part of a reed heavy sextet for "Music Matador," a calypso-like tune jointly credited to Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons, who get their only solos of the session on this number on flute and alto respectively.
At this stage still confined by the practices of the era, Dolphy breaks out most radically in solo and duets format. One such is "Love Me," an alto saxophone solo which is one of the more revelatory rewards in this package. With its wide intervallic leaps and melodic phrases appended by percolating upward runs which threaten to overwhelm but never quite do so, it provides a clear antecedent for Braxton's For Alto (Delmark, 1969) tour de force. Two alternate takes are included, the first largely follows the same trajectory but is a minute shorter, while the second is the equal of the issued take and stretches the song form even further, before ending in greater abstraction.
Next up is "Alone Together," a tremendous dialogue between Dolphy on bass clarinet and bassist Richard Davis, full of dramatic adventure. Most arresting are the out of tempo sections where they stretch the norms. Davis switches between stuttering pizzicato and rich arco, while Dolphy flutters his key pads and gives bursts of vibrant vocalizations. The alternate starts very differently, much more straight forward rendition although still worthwhile. The two unreleased takes of Roland Hanna's dirge-like "Muses For Richard" for the same instrumentation seem slightly lugubrious in comparison, and it's easy to hear why they didn't make the cut.
The second LP from the sessions was Iron Man (Douglas International, 1968) issued posthumously four years after Dolphy's death, this time containing four of the leader's own charts. For all his prowess on flute and bass clarinet, alto saxophone was where Dolphy's most exciting work came. The title cut for quintet provides a splendid example where his lines vault like an Olympic gymnast, not only audacious but perfectly poised. He similarly seesaws between the registers on "Mandrake."
Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" once more pairs Dolphy's bass clarinet with Davis' assured bass, but it's not such an ear-opener as "Alone Together," being if anything too reverential. A ten player group delivers "Burning Spear," which again features Dolphy's bass clarinet. But once they negotiate the multipart theme, it settles into a conventional string of solos, and a passage for twin basses, but it's a far cry from Coleman's Free Jazz say, recorded two and a half years prior.
The final previously unreleased track, "A Personal Statement" is an oddity. A concert piece by pianist Bob James, who later became a luminary of the smooth jazz scene, it combines through-composed elements for quartet and counter tenor voice with a swinging middle section. While Dolphy brings his full range of expression to the date, it remains a welcome addition to his discography without bringing anything new to the table in terms of his talent.
But it's great to have the two LPs back in circulation. And one of the additional delights of the set is the ability to hear the differences between the issued takes and the alternates as it shows how much was left to spontaneous invention, especially in the solo and duo tracks. Less so the group outings where the variation is largely down to length of solos in unchanged order. But the real treasures which speak with undimmed vigor, and are the reason it merits attention, are the unaccompanied excursions and the duets with Davis.
Disc 1: Jitterbug Waltz; Music Matador; Love Me; Alone Together; Muses For Richard Davis (previously
unissued 1); Muses For
Richard Davis (previously unissued 2). Disc 2: Iron Man; Mandrake; Come Sunday; Burning Spear; Ode
to Charlie Parker; A
Personal Statement (previously unissued); Disc 3: Music Matador (alternate take); Love Me (alternate
take 1); Love Me (alternate
take 2); Alone Together (alternate take); Jitterbug Waltz; Mandrake (alternate take); Burning Spear