LP reviews

LP REVIEW: Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions

Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions
(Resonance Records vinyl limited edition with booklet. LP review by Geoff Winston)

This three-LP vinyl set, drawn from the full Eric Dolphy sessions produced by Alan Douglas that gave rise to the Conversations and Iron Man LPs is, without reservation, extraordinary. The sound quality on these vinyl pressings is exceptional, using the surviving mono masters as the source for revisiting the sessions recorded on two days in July 1963.

The masters are from the priceless possessions entrusted to Hale and Juanita Smith by Dolphy before his fateful trip to Europe. He tragically died in a German hospital due to a misdiagnosis of his diabetes. Thanks to the tireless efforts of flautist James Newton, a Dolphy devotee and close friend of the Smiths, and the agency of LA-based Resonance Records’ Zev Feldman, via Jason Moran, these tracks have been lovingly restored and enhanced by Resonance, in the hands of the company’s president, George Klabin, and engineer Fran Gala, for release on vinyl on 23 November 2018, followed by CD release early in 2019.

Accompanying the tracks from those LPs is a carefully compiled selection of 85 minutes-worth of alternate and unissued takes along with a booklet of in-depth essays, interviews and photos which shed further light on Dolphy’s unique talent, his personality and the stories behind these recordings.

What is amazing about these mixes and vinyl pressings is the clarity and tingling, bright definition achieved, which enhances the listening experience significantly, especially when compared to earlier, perfectly acceptable releases of the two albums. It is a sparkling, full sound, imbued with a tactile precision that brings out the underlying detail as never before. When you listen, you really do hear the range and subtleties of each musician’s individual contribution in the acoustic separations, with the resulting whole very much a fulfilling sum of its parts.

The profundity of Eric Dolphy’s genius is no more deeply articulated than in his duets playing bass clarinet with bassist Richard Davis on Muses For Richard Davis (previously unissued; two takes) with their inescapably powerful, emotional reach, and their two spiritual interpretations of Alone Together. The richness of the bass hums with breathtaking resonance from the opening notes of Alone Together. A bassist to whom I played these tracks said that’s how he’s always wished his bass could be recorded. These are not just recordings, you feel as though you are in the room together with Dolphy and Davis.

Dolphy’s mental and technical dexterity, vision and virtuosity are revealed in the pin-sharp renderings of the three different takes of his intense, virtuosic solo forays on alto saxophone on Love Me. This pressing ensures that every note carries its full weight as one follows the tumbling intricacies of each astounding interpretation, which immediately bring to mind the pioneering invention of Coleman Hawkins’ unaccompanied tenor solo, Picasso, on which he laboured for two four-hour sessions, a month apart in 1948, before deeming one take to be suitable for release – which it was as part of Norman Granz’s monumental vinylite set, The Jazz Scene.

Eric Dolphy
Photo credit: Lee Tanner
Photo authorised for re-use by Resonance’s distributor 

The range of the ensemble pieces is a delight. As Newton notes, “these recordings are testament to Dolphy’s ability to assemble ensembles that could delve deeply in to his compositional language and his visionary approach as a bandleader”. Original Dolphy compositions and interpretations of those of others are heard as though for the first time, and with repeated listening the subtle variations of alternate takes can be appreciated alongside the originals. The outtake of Jitterbug Waltz features a quirkily off-beat flute passage from Dolphy which brings out a smile. In both versions the merest hints of drum and cymbal touches are positioned so discreetly. The humour and joyfulness of the Mexican-inflected Music Matador is captured to a tee both times.

The Iron Man tracks, originally issued four years after Dolphy’s death, comprising mainly Dolphy pieces, with its loose, almost messy, ‘live’ feel to the three larger group works (the title track, Mandrake and Burning Spear), were initially deemed ‘too futuristic’ by the record company, sadly echoing the fate of his recordings of Ellington with Chico Hamilton, when the record company had the suite re-recorded with Buddy Collette in his place. Luckily, the Dolphy recording was subsequently discovered by chance. In Burning Spear, it is still a surprise when it becomes obvious that there are two bassists playing, Davis and Eddie Kahn!

The brass work is superb, with the 18-year old trumpeter, Woody Shaw, given his break by the ever-generous and insightful Dolphy, rewarding the faith in his talent with truly mature and inspired contributions, while the section work utilised the talents of Sonny Simmons and Clifford Jordan. The ethereal, unearthly qualities of Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone playing are refined with great sensitivity, shimmering ever deeper within the sound strata that Dolphy created.

A special bonus in this set is the only other recording of the unnerving Personal Statement aka Jim Crow which exists outside of that released on Other Aspects in 1987. Robin D.G. Kelley, in his illuminating essay, explains the fascinating story behind these recordings made in March 1964. Kelley also discusses Dolphy’s Town Hall concert, sharing the bill with poet Ree Dragonette, around whose poems he wrote several compositions, including those that became Hat And Beard on Out To Lunch!, and Mandrake on Iron Man.

The insights offered by musicians who played with Dolphy are revealing. Herbie Hancock, drafted in as a 22-year-old to Dolphy’s group, says, “Playing with Eric pried open my brain as to what was possible in jazz.” Sonny Simmons movingly comments, in one of the publication’s July 2018 interviews, “It was sad how they treated Dolphy … It broke my heart. … He couldn’t work in New York.” Which is why he went to Europe. McCoy Tyner remembers Dolphy’s pockets “bulging with mouthpieces”! There is also a lovely conversation between Newton and bassist Davis which gets to the nub of his and Dolphy’s special musical relationship.

This major collection of recordings is, in effect, the bridge between the adventurous exuberance of Out There, the loose, confident energy of Outward Bound and the daring leap that was Out To Lunch!, Dolphy’s last studio recording as leader. It really is a joy to hear these sets entirely afresh, with the extra dimension that ultimately focusses on Dolphy’s outstanding talents and playing. David Murray puts his finger on it when he harangues against a commentator who describes Dolphy’s choice of notes as “unresolved”. “But those are the notes that make people great, in fact. The ones that he doesn’t seem able to define.”

I have one question, after reading in the touching reminiscences of Juanita Smith that Dolphy’s last telephone goodbye before leaving from the airport was to the Hale’s dog, Mitzi, adored by Dolphy. What kind of dog was Mitzi, and are there any photos of her, ideally with Dolphy?

The limited edition vinyl set, Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet, is an absolute ‘must have’ for any Dolphy fan. Start queueing at your local record store now (or ‘Get in line, now,’ for American readers)! It should be noted that the Dolphy Family Trust is the beneficiary of the proceeds from this release.

Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet will be available to selected independent stores only on 23 November, Record Store Day’s Black Friday event, where they can continue to sell the set after this date for one week only. After this initial period the set will then be made widely available for as long as stocks of the vinyl version last. The 3-CD version will be released on 25 January 2019.

LINK: Information on Record Store Day’s Black Friday event.
Eric Dolphy at Resonance Records

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