Although his iconic Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964) is one of a handful of undisputed avant-garde jazz masterpieces, Eric Dolphy's stature has never quite risen fully to the level of the jazz titans. Some of this is probably due to his untimely death at age 36, just as he was reaching new creative peaks; and some of it is just unfair obscurity, as he never received the steady major-label support that would have allowed him the widest possible audience. But one can simply look at the contributions he made to some of jazz's most essential recordings to appreciate the magnitude of Dolphy's genius. Whether on Charles Mingus's Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (Candid, 1960), Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960), John Coltrane's legendary Village Vanguard recordings (Impulse!, 1961) or Andrew Hill's Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1965), Dolphy's presence was pivotal to the creation of some of the most path-breaking music of the early 1960s. And his convincing mastery of three different instrumentsalto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, with a distinctively recognizable voice on eachoffers another reason to include him among the true giants of the music.
Fortunately, Resonance Records has provided a document capable of doing justice to Dolphy's indispensable role in modern jazz. Musical Prophet is a lovingly packaged, three-disc re-release of two under-recognized Dolphy gems, Conversations and Iron Man, along with over 80 minutes of previously-unreleased, remastered music from the original Alan Douglas-produced sessions of 1963. Dolphy entrusted the additional music to his friends Hale and Juanita Smith before his trip to Europe in 1964, just months prior to his death from untreated diabetes, and it was later given to James Newton, who worked with Resonance in finalizing the selections found here (from over seven hours of music). Together, these tracks give us a glimpse of various instrumental groupings, each of which realizes a different facet of Dolphy's artfrom solo performances, duos with his long-standing bassist Richard Davis (an under-appreciated jazz giant in his own right), and mid-to large-sized ensembles (quintet, sextet and tentet) featuring, among others, trumpeter Woody Shaw and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.
The presence of Davis and Hutcherson, both of whom would appear the following year on Out to Lunch!, makes it tempting to see this session as a warm-up or prelude to that record. But rhythmically speaking, the music here is much less adventurous than the later album, generally keeping within standard parameters of swing and meter. That's not to say that drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett don't provide plenty of pop and sizzle; Moses in particular brings feisty power in abundance to "Iron Man" and "Mandrake," two of the more muscular offerings of the sessions. But if there is a connecting thread between this music and the Out to Lunch! album, it's the harmonic freedom that Davis and Hutcherson provide. Hutcherson's suspended shimmerings float enticingly, fueling Dolphy's outward launches, while Davis's fundamental malleability is the perfect complement to Dolphy's untethered spirit.
Those already familiar with Dolphy's repertoire will once again revel in the tight ensemble playing found on both the Conversations and Iron Man sessions, with excellent opportunities for re-encountering Dolphy's superlative work on flute, alto, and bass clarinet, not to mention the superb contributions from up-and-comers like Shaw (then just 18 years old), Sonny Simmons and Clifford Jordan. But the additional music is also terrific, especially Dolphy's solo tracks and his bass clarinet/bass duos with Davis. The two new versions of Dolphy's alto solo on "Love Me" are illuminating in revealing more dimensions of his range and lyricism, and the previously-unissued duo renditions of Roland Hanna's "Muses for Richard Davis" are simply gorgeous, underlining Dolphy's astonishing rapport with his longtime friend and colleague. On these capacious improvisations Davis frequently leads the way, melodically and harmonically, and Dolphy's willingness to cede that ground to him in the course of their conversations symbolizes the way in which he always put his virtuosity at the service of his larger musical vision.
The set's printed materials are outstanding as well, with wonderfully informative essays by Newton and Robin D. G. Kelley, heartfelt reminiscences from some of Dolphy's musical contemporaries, including Simmons and Davis, and reflections from kindred spirits such as Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman and David Murray. Additional photographs and mementos provided by Juanita Smith are similarly invaluable in capturing Dolphy's irrepressible warmth and deep humanity.
Resonance has already established a formidable reputation in documenting jazz's rich legacy, and in adding Dolphy to its roster, the label has made yet another fine contribution to the ever-evolving story of this remarkable music.
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