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Eric Dolphy - Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions Music Album Reviews

Made months before he cut his masterpiece and almost exactly a year before he died, these newly excavated recordings show the exploratory vigor and versatility of the jazz revolutionary.

Eric Dolphy heard things differently—his ears seemed attuned to the notes between notes. And so, his own sound was unlike anything anyone had heard. He brought a brittle, scabrous tone to the alto saxophone and bass clarinet, using extended techniques like multiphonics, which allowed him to produce more than one note at the same time. His solos performed wide interval leaps, and he twisted into braying, off-kilter runs, often veering outside a piece’s basic chord structure. Dolphy drew inspiration from the rhythmically loose, microtonal quality of bird song, which he liked to transcribe; his flute playing fluttered, like a whistle.

This singular sound earned famous enemies. Miles Davis called him a “sad motherfucker,” and in an infamous DownBeat pan from 1961, the critic John Tynan labeled the music Dolphy was playing in John Coltrane’s group “anti-jazz.” Dolphy, though, appeared on some of the most vital jazz albums of the early 1960s—Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure. But his abrasive style could sound out of place in more traditional settings, so he struggled to get work. In 1964, he moved to Europe, hoping to find a more hospitable audience. He died the same year in Berlin, succumbing to undiagnosed diabetes at the age of 36.

A number of posthumous archival excavations have cemented his spirit as a bandleader and composer, including Out to Lunch!, recorded four months before his death and regarded as an avant-garde masterpiece. But for the past three decades, very few unheard studio recordings have emerged. Now, a new triple-album combines two previously released records and 85 minutes of unheard recordings, almost all taken from the same two-day session in the summer of 1963. Carefully curated, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions illustrates the breadth of Dolphy’s artistry and gives an intimate look at his process during the last full year of his life.

According to the collection’s producer, Zev Feldman, there were nearly eight hours of tape to comb through in order to find the essential cuts. Several of these recordings are alternate takes from two albums Dolphy made at that moment—Conversations and Iron Man, smartly included here for context. The new tracks are startlingly good, with Dolphy reveling amid fresh ideas in a variety of unique settings.

There are, for instance, two new solo alto saxophone recordings of “Love Me,” the longing romantic ballad most famously recorded by Frank Sinatra. They complement the original take from Conversations, the last album Dolphy released before he died. Dolphy rarely repeats himself, deploying well-timed pauses to let the echo of his surprisingly sultry tone ring into the room. An alternate take on Conversations’ “Alone Together” finds Dolphy paired with the great bassist Richard Davis. On the album, Dolphy, with his bass clarinet, is a spasmodic force against Davis’ rhythmically amorphous accompaniment. But here, Davis mostly walks the bass with rich, round notes, giving Dolphy a firmer foundation to hew closer to the uplifting melody.

Dolphy and Davis had one of the more meaningful connections in jazz; they communicated almost telepathically, as if completing each other’s thoughts. Their takes on “Muses for Richard Davis,” eerie and ruminative, are among the best work here. Rendering an unsettling drone, Davis’ bowed bass operates much the way a tanpura would in Indian music, which Dolphy admired. It occasionally aligns with the gritty tone of Dolphy’s clarinet, creating a satisfyingly disorienting frequency.

By the time of these recordings, Dolphy had been tinkering with unconventional instrumentation for several years; on 1960’s Out There, he moved bassist Ron Carter to cello. He doubled down on that mandate for these sessions, presaging the introspective chamber-jazz of Out to Lunch!, which he recorded seven months later. The vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson—a crucial presence on that album, contributing spare tone clusters and odd single-note embellishments—makes his first appearance alongside Dolphy in these sessions. His shifting chords, loose and echoing, imbue the music with a strange, nebulous feeling, like a theremin whose pitch keeps modulating.

Dolphy also recruited an unorthodox assemblage of horn and wind players, including two saxophonists, a flutist, a bassoonist, and trumpeter Woody Shaw, a late innovator on the instrument who makes his recording debut here. Together, their voicings are dense and unfamiliar, as on the alternate take of “Burning Spear,” originally from Iron Man. Ominous harmony and a jagged arrangement evoke a Stravinsky orchestration.

Dolphy is at his most ferocious with a full band. Though the Fats Waller composition “Jitterbug Waltz” is a relatively amiable tune, Dolphy warbles through his flute like a delirious songbird. During an alternate take for “Music Matador,” an upbeat, Spanish-tinged composition, he gobbles like a wild turkey on his clarinet, creating tension by working against the playful rhythm.

There is one song here that is not from those July 1963 sessions—“A Personal Statement,” a haunting meditation on race by the pianist Bob James (yes, the smooth jazz pioneer). Dolphy recorded it in March 1964, four months before his death. He plays all three of his instruments at different times, but his own eccentricity is overshadowed by the abnormally high countertenor of the little-known vocalist David Schwartz. This is an apt reflection of Dolphy’s willingness to put himself in unusual situations. Although he felt alienated by the domestic music scene, he managed to perform in a staggeringly wide range of settings—alongside drummer Chico Hamilton, with Charles Mingus, on a jazz-meets-classical album conducted by Gunther Schuller, in a big band backing Sammy Davis Jr.

Had he not died in the middle of his 30s, during his most creatively fertile period, Dolphy could have gone in several directions. Listening to these tracks now, it’s admittedly dispiriting to realize what he might have accomplished had he lived even a little longer. Still, Musical Prophet is a worthwhile compromise, a valuable reminder of his capabilities and vision. And it is gratifying, more than 50 years after his premature death, that he still has new things to tell us in a way no one else could.

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