During Eric Dolphy’s all too brief life—he died on June 29, 1964, at the age of 36, while on tour in Europe with Charles Mingus—he recorded precious few albums as a leader that were released during his lifetime. For many, his legacy is inextricably bound to his associations with Booker Little, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane, and on his contributions to such landmark recordings as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Little’s Out Front, Mal Waldron’s The Quest, George Russell’s Ezz-thetics, Max Roach’s Percussion Bittersweet, Mingus’ The Town Hall Concert, and Coltrane’s Olé Coltrane, Africa Brass, and Impressions, among dozens of others.
Dolphy would eventually eclipse his sideman reputation with his own albums, most notably 1964’s posthumously released Out to Lunch, his final studio session and his only formal one for the Blue Note label. Out to Lunch is essential to any modern jazz record collection, featuring all original Dolphy compositions performed by the spectacular lineup of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Tony Williams, with Dolphy playing his main instruments—alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute.
But anyone interested in Dolphy would be remiss to overlook his prior studio documents, including 1960’s Outward Bound and Out There, and, especially, the two albums reissued as part of the new Resonance Records deluxe edition Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 Studio Sessions. Recorded on two days in early July 1963, Conversations and Iron Man capture Dolphy in a transitional phase in which he was still interpreting other people’s compositions—“Jitterbug Waltz” (Fats Waller), “Music Matador” (Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons), “Love Me” (Victor Young and Ned Washington), “Alone Together” (Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz), and “Come Sunday” (Duke Ellington)—while establishing his own voice as a writer, with “Iron Man,” “Mandrake,” “Burning Spear,” and “Ode to Charlie Parker.” The programmatic mix across the two albums showcases plenty of the idiosyncratic soloing for which Dolphy was rightfully famous in an era that lionized singular improvisers. It also sheds light on the directions he was taking in his composing, which would fully flower on Out to Lunch.
Available on 180-gram vinyl as a three-LP set, and in three-CD and digital download formats, The Expanded 1963 Studio Sessions comes with an entire disc of alternate takes, plus two previously unissued takes of Roland Hanna’s “Muses for Richard Davis,” appended to Conversations, and a 15-minute bonus track of “A Personal Statement,” added to the end of Iron Man. This last piece, also known as “Jim Crow,” was recorded eight months after the New York sessions in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with its composer, pianist Bob James (yes, that Bob James), bassist Ron Brooks, percussionist Robert Pozar, and experimental vocalist David Schwartz.
The story of how all this material came together is fascinating. Dolphy had possessed master session tapes recorded in mono. The original releases, produced by Alan Douglas (best known for his work on posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums, as well as jazz recordings for United Artists) were stereo, but those masters seem to have disappeared. Stored in a suitcase that Dolphy gave to friends before the European tour, they found their way to flutist James Newton, who brought them, through circuitous connections, to Resonance’s Feldman.
The crucial story, of course, is the music. Three tracks—“Iron Man,” “Mandrake,” and “Burning Spear”—feature nine musicians: Dolphy, William “Prince” Lasha on flute, Huey “Sonny” Simmons on alto sax, Clifford Jordan on soprano sax, Woody Shaw on trumpet, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, either Richard Davis or Eddie Kahn on bass, and either J.C. Moses or Charles Moffett on drums. An exciting, almost feral quality animates these pieces, as well as “Music Matador,” on which Bushell sits out. Like Dolphy, jazz itself was in a period of transition, as structures were loosening, and freer, transgressive individual and collective improvisations were opening new frontiers. Inspired in part by field hollers and birdcalls, and prone to extreme leaps in intervals, Dolphy is flying in these contexts on all three instruments, and he stimulates brilliant performances from his collaborators.
Some of the most riveting and breathtaking moments, however, come in Dolphy’s three solo takes of “Love Me,” on alto, and his emotionally deep communications with Davis during their duets on “Ode to Charlie Parker” (flute and bass) and “Alone Together,” “Muses for Richard Davis,” and “Come Sunday” (bass clarinet and bass). Dolphy’s instrumental command is as stunning as his musical language is unique, and when Davis plays arco, the spirit swells in hushed ecstasy.
In addition to 85 minutes of previously unreleased material, Musical Prophet comes with a booklet packed with photos, essays, and interviews that further flesh out our understanding and appreciation of Dolphy, and we can’t help but wonder where his inimitable genius would have taken him.