Eric Dolphy: The ‘Prophet’ of Freedom

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Recordings that make up Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions sat in a Long Island home, untouched, for decades.

(Photo: Jean-Pierre Leloir)

That voice, using a full range of instruments to express limitless emotion, was amply expressed as well with Mingus. The two musicians’ relationship, which began in Dolphy’s native Los Angeles, had reached an early peak with albums like Mingus At Antibes (Atlantic) and The Complete Town Hall Concert (Blue Note). Despite its ups and downs, the musical bond was so strong that Mingus repeatedly hired Dolphy, right up until his death.

While his reputation as a sideman grew, Dolphy built his own catalog as a leader. By the early ’60s, it already included two records of live performances at the Five Spot and three studio gems on Prestige’s New Jazz imprint: Outward Bound, Out There and Far Cry—the last recorded on Dec. 21, 1960, the same day he laid down tracks for Ornette Coleman’s singular Free Jazz (Atlantic).

Even as the New Jazz dates employed conventional song structures, they hinted at a subversive streak. By 1963, that streak had become more pronounced, and clearer still on 1964’s Out To Lunch!, recorded with Davis, Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone) and Tony Williams (drums). Posthumously released, that album widely is considered Dolphy’s most definitive; the new collection, with Hutcherson and Davis among the personnel, documents a moment of transition leading to it.

“You’re hearing changes, you’re hearing swing, but you’re also hearing this approach that really gives you a lot of room to express who you are as an individual,” Newton said.

For Dolphy—who was voted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame by readers in 1964—individual expression was paramount. Offstage, Smith said, he was an omnivorous consumer of knowledge and an assertive participant in seminar-like sessions her husband and Dolphy held in the Smiths’ residences, first in Harlem’s Flanders Hotel and, later, in their Long Island home. Onstage, Davis recalled, Dolphy rarely offered direction, preferring to give musicians full rein to shape their sound.

“There was never any discussion of the music,” he said. “We just played.”

That kind of trust, Davis said, reflected a closeness forged in the crucible of New York—at the Five Spot in a pressurized two-week residency, at Philharmonic Hall performing Gunther Schuller’s “Journey Into Jazz” under Leonard Bernstein’s watchful eye, at Town Hall contributing music between poet Ree Dragonette’s searing disquisitions on race. All of which proved powerful bonding agents.

In the 1963 sessions, that bond also was a morale-booster as Dolphy and Davis squeezed into a single day a series of sonorous duos built on a diverse set of vehicles: the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz ballad “Alone Together,” Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and, in two previously unreleased takes, Roland Hanna’s elegiac “Muses For Richard Davis.”

Though Dolphy was no stranger to duos with bassists—two duos with Ron Carter, for example, appear on an acetate disc produced at Esoteric Sound Studios—the interplay in the ’63 sessions has a quality of restraint that reflects a level of intimacy with Davis. The restraint is conspicuously unforced, particularly when Davis’ bow meets Dolphy’s bass clarinet—prompting the bassist, when asked what most stands out about the sessions 55 years after the fact, to cite Dolphy’s unique expressivity on that instrument.

“Nobody else played it like that,” Davis said. “Some good players would not even attempt to play it.”

The impact of the Dolphy-Davis colloquies on Newton was evident. “They bring tears to my eyes, how they understood each other as artists and human beings,” he said, adding that he was so taken by “Muses” that, for purposes of analysis, he devised a system for juxtaposing the two takes by simultaneously playing the improvisations—one on his main computer and the other on his laptop.

His conclusion? “Each time it’s like they had a thousand different ways of approaching how the improvisation could unfold.”

Beyond the duos, all of which were recorded on July 1, Musical Prophet offers a variety of settings that shed light on the various dimensions of Dolphy’s art. A quintet with Hutcherson, Woody Shaw (trumpet), J.C. Moses (drums) and Davis alternating with Eddie Khan on bass interprets two Dolphy originals, “Iron Man” and “Mandrake,” as well as Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”—a loping head-solos-head exercise whose conservative form belies the flickering of microtonality in Dolphy’s birdlike flute.

“Birds have notes in between our notes—you try to imitate something they do and, like, maybe it’s between F and F#, and you’ll have to go up or come down on the pitch,” Dolphy said in “John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Answer the Jazz Critics,” an article by Don DeMicheal that ran in the April 12, 1962, edition of DownBeat. “It’s really something. ... Indian music has something of the same quality—different scales and quarter tones. I don’t know how you label it, but it’s pretty.”

A sextet with Davis, Prince Lasha on flute, Sonny Simmons on alto saxophone, Clifford Jordan on soprano saxophone and Charles Moffett on drums provides the setting for some soulful multiphonics on “Music Matador.” Composed by Lasha and Simmons, the tune traffics in the kind of avant-Latin groove with which Dolphy, a Spanish-speaking Panamanian-American, was comfortable.

“It’s one of the least understood aspects of his language,” Newton said. The largest complement of musicians—10 in all, with the addition of Garvin Bushell on bassoon and the replacement of Moffett by Moses—is enlisted on “Burning Spear.” The song is named for Jomo Kenyatta, who acquired that moniker for his militant role in Kenya’s fight for independence and served as his country’s first prime minister and first president. The tune, a raucous celebration led by Dolphy’s exclamatory bass clarinet, is one of two in the collection that have an explicitly political edge.

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