The music collected on Eric Dolphy’s Musical Prophet: The Expanded New York Studio Sessions (1963) is so unyielding and so open, it’s hard to accept the musician would be dead in just under a year. After rejoining former band leader Charles Mingus for a tour of Europe, Dolphy died from diabetic shock on June 29th1964. Having suffered stinging criticism back home in the United States, the musician hoped to leave the disparagement behind and become a musical ex-pat. Unaware he had diabetes, Dolphy slipped into a coma and expired in a Berlin hospital. He was 36 years old. Equally skilled across three instruments — flute, bass clarinet and alto saxophone — Dolphy put out eight albums as a leader in his lifetime. More than 22 others were released after his demise. Most recent among those posthumous releases, Musical Prophet is perhaps the most remarkable, as it includes among its three discs nine previously unissued tracks, making a complete album of unheard music.
Across the last year, several previously “lost” recordings have ushered the work of long deceased acknowledged greats into a golden era of re-issued and newly discovered jazz. Resonance Records has long been at the forefront of this rediscovered music. But with the release of Musical Prophet, they step solely into the limelight. While much of the music on these three discs has been in release, those nine songs that have not are beyond reproach.
America was brilliantly musical during the jazz era. Trying to justify what followed can be a difficult task for the trained ear. Few of the musicians who became famous as rock superseded jazz in popularity ever directly engaged with music’s compositional language. At the same time, the family piano disappeared from households. This oncoming musical naivete delighted record company marketing execs. You didn’t need to read music to care about pop. You didn’t really have to like music to listen to it. Back in jazz-land, the musicians working the creative stratosphere wrote compositions often bracketed by classical themes. Avant Garde players like bassist Henry Grimes, saxophonist Giuseppi Logan and pianist Cecil Taylor all studied at conservatory, where they learned the music of Béla Bartók, Modest Mussorgsky and Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of the twelve-tone theory known as Serialism. Miles Davis recorded a piece by the French composer Léo Delibes in early 1957. All of this musical intellectuality demonstrates how wide the chromatic spectrum of jazz had become when Eric Dolphy waltzed his way into the New York scene.
Born in Los Angeles to West-Indian immigrants, Dolphy’s virtuosity materialized early on. By high school, Dolphy was regularly gigging in the night clubs of a tuneful swath of Angeleno geography that gave its name to a sub-genre of jazz now known as the Central Avenue Sound. Charles Mingus, Chico Hamilton, Gerald Wilson, and Hampton Hawes all got their start on Central Avenue. Each of them brought Eric Dolphy into their bands. At the same time, Dolphy was studying classical flute and singing in the church choir while developing his clarinet and saxophone technique in a shed his father built behind their home. Dolphy was literally woodshedding in a wood shed.
Out to Lunch! is likely Dolphy’s best-known work. Recorded in 1964, months after the music on Prophet, it appeared just after Dolphy died. Coltrane was devastated by his compatriot’s death, telling Downbeat Magazine soon after hearing the news, “Whatever I’d say would be an understatement. I can only say my life was made much better by knowing him.” Dolphy’s impact on Coltrane came with the equal force of Coltrane upon Dolphy.
After Dolphy left his band, Coltrane went on to form his mythologically brilliant quartet. Dolphy, in turn, linked back up with Mingus and plotted the fateful move to Europe. He also recorded these sessions, and the Lunch dates. While Mingus and Coltrane are hailed as geniuses and celebrated on postage stamps, Dolphy remains a footnote. Musical Prophet could change that. The release immediately climbed to number two on Billboard’s Jazz chart, the highest position of any Eric Dolphy album.
The sessions that make up Prophet birthed two albums released in the sixties. Conversations, released in ‘63, is collected on the first disc along with two unissued tracks recorded with bassist Richard Davis. Iron Man, from ‘68, is found on the second disc alongside a 15-minute radio performance of A Personal Statement. The third gathers the seven other unheard songs. A Personal Statement stands out from the rest of the collection due to its dramatic countenance and later recording date. Across the performance, singer David Schwartz matches his operatic voice with Dolphy’s volleying across the flute, sax and clarinet. Elegiac in sections, boisterous in others, the song is strikingly disconcerting, as much for Schwartz’s ability to seed drama into wordless sections as for Dolphy’s absolute ownership of the Bob James composition. Imagine that Beyoncé stripped pop from her repertoire in favor of the adrenalized theoretical music of John Zorn. Not for everyone, but of certain magnitude.
In 2014, Hale and Juanita Smith, close friends of Dolphy, sold their collection of Dolphy ephemera to the Library of Congress. An essay cobbled from an interview with Resonance’s Zev Feldman and Juanita Smith is included in the packaging. At the end of it, Smith offers her take on the importance of her friend: “I’m just so sorry his (Dolphy’s) life was cut short, because he was onto something. He really was. Just like Coltrane. Both of them. They were searching and they were both onto something.” While most items from the Smith/Dolphy collection consisted of musical charts and papers, it also included the undiscovered alternate takes. Since much of Prophet’s music is already in release, the unreleased music takes center stage. That search Smith speaks of is best demonstrated on the unreleased disc’s last song, Mandrake. With Hutcherson’s vibraphone framing out the sound of Davis’s hardy bass work, the tart geometry of Dolphy’s alto solo comes not as aggression, but exploration. His solo highlights the curve of the musical ceiling for the band as they swing back in to populate his ideas. You don’t even realize there’s no piano. It is an incandescent performance that presages Lunch’s feistiness, without sacrificing its own unique identity.
Eric Dolphy’s “Mandrake”
During the sixties, jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy searched out a wider distillation of sound than their predecessors. They did so by shifting whole and semi tones across a modal orbit. As jazz broke away from the structured harmony of bop and post-bop, musicians embraced George Russell’s Lydian theory of modal music and Schoenberg’s Serialism. Moving away from chord-based scales toward the less conventional modalism allowed the musicians to phase out traditional rules of harmony and melody in favor of a freer, more complex scales. Chords melted away. Changes turned into fire. Notes erupted along new horizons.
Dolphy never fully disengaged from melody. Long a director of ensembles and a key component of Coltrane’s orchestral Africa/Brass sessions, Dolphy sprinkled discordance directly into his charts, best exemplified by that album’s song, Africa. His idiosyncratic balance of angular tones with more rhapsodic tunefulness placed Dolphy smack in between Coltrane and Ayler’s ministerial expressionism and the chromatic instincts of Davis and Mingus. Writing in Black Music Research Journal, Robin Kelley (also an essayist for Musical Prophet) noted that Dolphy and other Avant Garde jazz musicians, “were quite willing to jettison traditional notions of swing and functional harmony in the name of freedom.” At the same time, Dolphy would not completely banish lyricism from his music. Instead, he bounced the melody across the broader resonance these new tone shifts offered to him.
John Coltrane’s “Africa,” from Africa/Brass
For the July 1963 recording sessions, Dolphy surrounded himself with a group of astute players. After some critics likened his music to abject noise, Dolphy brought in notable producer Alan Douglas (most famous for his decision to overdub guitar on posthumous Jimi Hendrix records), and the band recorded two day-long sessions on July 1stand 3rd. According to the musicians, Douglas produced but Dolphy was in charge. Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson was three years into his career. Trumpeter Woody Shaw was eighteen, recording his very first sessions. You’d never assume them novices from the nuance of their work here. Dolphy’s close friend Richard Davis played bass on the sessions along with Eddie Kahn, and with this release, the two unissued takes of “Muses for Richard Davis” are among the strongest examples of their connection. Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha, the alto saxophonist and flautist for the sessions, co-authored the song, Music Matador, which appears on Prophet twice, once as originally released, and once in an unheard alternate take. Notably, Dolphy didn’t hire a pianist for the session, preferring to let Hutcherson’s vibraphone and the bass work of Davis and Kahn and drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett stretch across that territory. Garvin Bushell’s bassoon makes an appearance on three songs, too, easing the piano-less burden.
Dolphy’s “Jitterbug Waltz”
Of the previously issued songs, Jitterbug Waltz is the top of the musical heap. It flutters with unexpected horn lines spreads across its players. Dolphy’s intuitive ability to diaphanously fuse band members together is such that, on Jitterbug, instruments are swapped out before the listener realizes the change has come and gone. Without a piano to intervene, the horns fly unabashedly above the rhythmic grammar of the drums and bass. In lesser hands, this would veer into chaos. Here, it lopes elegantly across the clef.
Gary Giddins offers a smattering of Dolphy in his great examination of the genre, Visions of Jazz. Most of those consist of sentence long references focused on his work as a session player. Only once in the book’s 653 pages is there mention of a Dolphy penned composition. That’s no put down of Giddins, but instead a snapshot of how vastly overlooked Eric Dolphy has been. He was just 36 when he died. His legacy wafted through the rest of the decade. As the seventies shifted into guitar histrionics and disco, Dolphy’s music was relegated to record collector bins and jazz shows on the low end of the radio dial. His influence eroded.
To hear Dolphy only as a load bearing beam for the musicians he supported is to make the same mistake many critics made during his life. By focusing on these pre-Lunch sessions, Feldman gives listeners a close in glimpse of Dolphy’s oncoming tempest. He’s leading a group rather than augmenting one. Still, Dolphy’s supportive nature is on display here. By recruiting two relatively young and unknown players (Bobby Hutcherson and the teenaged Shaw) into his band, Dolphy guaranteed these recordings would share the vitality percolating inside of him. His deep personal connection with bassist Richard Davis allowed for the distinct and synergistic music they recorded as a duo on the first day of the Prophet sessions. On the two takes of Alone Together, the timber of Davis’s upright combines with Dolphy’s bass clarinet to blend a warmth into the emotionally conceptual music. In the free jazz of horn playing leaders, the songs can bottom out in metallic dissonance. That can be bliss, once you learn how to take it. But it’s not a first step into ecstasy, by any means. By taking those tonal and modal textures and addressing them with the resonant wood of the clarinet and the bass, Dolphy and Davis bring the listener closer. Theirs is a conversation, as noted in an included essay, not an exhortation. At the, Dolphy had come under fire for his conceptual take on modal jazz. Because of that critical backlash, he made the decision to go to tour Europe with Mingus and settle down over seas.
There is a sadness that comes along with Musical Prophet. Dolphy wasn’t wholly embraced in America so he went to Europe where he died. The compressed indolence of systemic racism played a large part in his death. Because of his open-hearted intelligence, his friends — the Smiths — understood the true significance of his work. That’s the victory Resonance Records has won in delivering this music to us. We live in an era where simplified formulaic pop dominates the musical terrain, where manipulative stars like Ryan Adams are tirelessly promoted by immoral PR flaks until their dark secrets go supernova. Musical Prophet is a virtuous antidote to the crushing and tuneless amorality of the music business. With its release, Eric Dolphy is anointed at long last.
Eric Dolphy, April 1964
Eric Dolphy, September 1961
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material magazine. He is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. Mr. Cherry’s work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website- www.henrycherry.com