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Review: ‘Musical Prophet’ Memorializes Eric Dolphy’s Radical Jazz Genius

In sessions recorded less than a year before his untimely death, the multi-instrumental marvel explored every aspect of his boundary-pushing art

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An expanded version of Eric Dolphy's 1963 New York studio recordings shines new light on this multi-instrumental marvel's eccentric genius.

© Don Schlitten

To say that Eric Dolphy died in his prime would be a massive understatement. While on tour in Berlin in June 1964, the multi-instrumental virtuoso — whose solos on alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute zoomed and zig-zagged like rogue comets — suffered sudden diabetes-related complications and passed away at age 36. In the prior year alone, he had performed with old friends John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, appeared on pianist Andrew Hill’s now-classic Point of Departure LP and recorded Out to Lunch!, his own magnum opus as a bandleader.

Dolphy’s final 12-month burst kicked off in July 1963 with two days’ worth of studio recordings that featured him in a variety of settings, from a mini big band to stark solo and duo performances. Out in scattered form before — partly on the albums Iron Man and Conversations — this material has now resurfaced as a welcome complete set, newly augmented with choice outtakes and alternates, on Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions. Available digitally, as well as in three-CD/LP versions, the package is the latest in a series of exemplary historical jazz sets to arrive in recent years via the Resonance label. If Out to Lunch! and the stellar 1961 live recordings Dolphy made at New York’s Five Spot document the musician at his small-combo best, Musical Prophet lets us hear just how much he could do with both larger and more pared-down ensembles.

The jewels of the originally released ’63 sessions were a series of duets between Dolphy and bassist Richard Davis. A consummate improviser and musical communicator, Davis — a future NEA Jazz Master who would later elevate not only Dolphy’s own Out to Lunch!, but also Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and countless other sessions in a wide variety of genres — shared a particularly close bond with the late multi-instrumentalist. “Playing with Eric was just a phenomenal marriage of music,” Davis tells flutist and Musical Prophet co-producer James Newton in the release’s admirably extensive liner notes.

The intimacy and focus of these duo tracks still startles: On “Alone Together,” with Dolphy on bass clarinet and Davis bowing and plucking in turn, the two move from the furthest reaches of pure-sound improvisation to strutting, deep-in-the-pocket swing, while on “Ode to Charlie Parker,” Dolphy’s flute lines flutter over Davis’ patient pulse. Two previously unreleased duo takes of pianist Roland Hanna’s somber “Muses for Richard Davis” are priceless finds that embody the same level of meditative communion.

Three takes of the Thirties ballad “Love Me,” two of them out here for the first time, show how adept Dolphy was at unaccompanied performance. His alto lines reconcile vibrato-heavy romance and squawking, dive-bombing eruptions, sometimes in the space of a single breath.

Dolphy also tried his hand at a fuller sound during these sessions, arranging some pieces for bands of up to 10 players. Among these, the festive “Music Matador” (penned by sidemen Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha) sounds like Dolphy’s typically eccentric take on exotica, while “Burning Spear” combines dense modern-classical–esque passages with scorching post-bop. Leaner tracks like “Iron Man” and “Mandrake” feature spiky, off-kilter themes and rousing solos from the leader, trumpeter Woody Shaw and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

The only selection here not recorded in July ’63, “A Personal Statement” (an alternate take of a lengthy 1964 piece originally released on 1987’s Other Aspects), matches Dolphy’s alto with an operatic countertenor singer and the poised abstractions and loping swing of a trio featuring pianist — and future hip-hop sample god — Bob James.

Musical Prophet is the sound of a man bursting with ideas. Taken as a whole, these diverse works show just how broad Dolphy’s creative ambitions were, and underscore how tragic it is that he didn’t get more time to explore them.

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