Eric Dolphy ‘Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions’ 3LP/3CD (Resonance) 5/5

One of the year’s most awaited re-issues, containing no less than eighty five minutes of previously unheard additional material, this beautifully assembled and lavishly illustrated package, is a serious contender for pole position in the 2018 re-issue albums roster alongside, predictably, the John Coltrane set. For those not already acquainted with the superlative music, it captures Eric Dolphy at his absolute peak in the same year, 1963, that he recorded the Blue Note classic ‘Out To Lunch’, with some of the musicians who featured on that seminal album as well as a host of others. Just one year later, he would tragically die, aged just thirty-six, while on a European tour.

While the two original LPs, ‘Conversations’ and ‘Iron Man’, have been issued previously, they have never been so lovingly wrapped up and embellished by this amount of historical context and that is worth a separate paragraph of explanation. It should be stated from the outset that Eric Dolphy, as a leader, recorded but five albums under his own name, but was a truly prolific sideman, working with John Coltrane, Chico Hamilton, Oliver Nelson and a host of others. Little wonder, then, that when he did come to record, he could count on the support of musical titans of the era such as vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassists Richard Davis and Charnett Moffett, and an array of horn players including trumpeter Woody Shaw and saxophonists Clifford Jordan, Prince Lasha (on flute here) and Sonny Simmons.

The extended box set inner sleeve booklet is surely going to win an award for its comprehensive coverage, under the overall control of archivist Zev Feldman, who previously worked on a Charles Lloyd project for Resonance, and to give you just a flavour of what awaits the lucky recipient of this collection, the pictorial accompaniment is nothing less than stunning. Comprising LP size black and white photographs that capture the very essence of Eric Dolphy, we are consequently able to see beyond the music itself and into the inner sanctuary of the man, at once meditative and ebullient in character. Those very portraits in fact emanate from the key photographers of the era, and. indeed, of jazz history in general one might add. They include Jean-Pierre Leloir, Don Schlitten, Lee Tanner, Val Wilmer and Francis Wolff. To begin with, a colour reproduction of a relatively little known, if highly influential, American magazine, Jazz Review from 1960, with, on the front cover, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and vocalese exponents, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. How one envies being back in that moment of time and discovering such treasures first time over. Of the plethora of personal testimonies, that of fellow reedist/flautist and Professor of Music at the University of California in Los Angeles, Herb Alpert Music School, stands out above the others, namely that of James Newton. As Newton rightly points out, Eric Dolphy excelled in exploring the human condition and an integral part of his philosophical outlook was to embrace plurality. In practice, this meant Dolphy could find a home alongside musicians of the post-bop tradition as on his recordings for Prestige with Booker Little and Mal Waldron, as part of a larger ensemble as on the Impulse recordings of John Coltrane, but equally with the Latin Jazz Quintet. This is why Newton refers to Eric Dolphy as a, ‘Musical architect’. The music within is refreshing and challenging in equal measure and consequently makes for an enriching experience.

Another highlight, however, is the testimony of Japanese jazz aficionado, Masekazu Sato, who indicates just how popular Dolphy was in the land of the rising sun. It is an indication of the high esteem that Eric Dolphy is still held in that some of the major names of the jazz saxophone should similarly pay homage to his work and these include Steve Coleman, David Murray, a contemporary in Sonny Rollins, and Henry Threadgill. One of the most touching aspects of this package are the smaller personalised touches that make all the difference. For example, showcased in the inner booklet are an assortment of personally owned Downbeat magazines that now lie in the possession of close family friend, Juanita Smith, between 1960 and 1964. That tiny attention to detail is a hallmark of this magnificent re-issue throughout.

With such a splendid display of musical memorabilia to accompany, the music itself had better be outstanding to live up to the billing and it truly is. Dolphy can be heard in a variety of contexts and excels in all. Thus, we hear him on three duet pieces with bassist Davis on, ‘Ode to Charlie Parker’, but also Ellington’s, ‘Come Sunday’, while the sheer intensity of the man’s voice on alto saxophone can be enjoyed on a solo rendition of, ‘Love me’. However, pride of place goes to those sumptuous quintet recordings where Dolphy himself alternates between bass clarinet, flute and of course alto saxophone, with a crack quintet team including Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, Clifford Jordan, Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons sharing duties. The natural empathy that flows between him and these musicians is all too evident of numbers of the calibre of ‘Burning Spear’ and ‘Music Matador’.

Of particular note to CD enthusiasts, a separate 3CD edition of exactly the same material and length will become available as of 25 January 2019.

Tim Stenhouse