Eric Dolphy: Some Reflections

I have been listening to the recently issued 3 Cd box set Eric Dolphy: Musical Prophet.

eric dolphy
Eric Dolphy

It is a fascinating collection of tracks and a reminder of how good Eric Dolphy was, and of how much really interesting and quite radical music was emerging in the US in the mid to late 1960s.  That music either directly or indirectly influenced so much of what is happening in jazz in Europe today.  As most reviews of the collection have noted, the most remarkable tracks in the collection are the duet tracks with Dolphy on bass clarinet interacting with bass player Richard Davis.  There is a very satisfying beauty about the way they weave in and out of each other’s lines on Alone Together and two tracks with the title Muses for Richard Davis.  The third Cd has an alternate take of Alone Together and it is very interesting to hear how Dolphy is rather more adventurous on this take and clearly settled for the more conservative take for the issued album.  It is nonetheless a great piece of music.  Also of great interest are the solo performances on Love Me; there are two alternate takes of this track and the same phenomenon noted for the Alone Together track is evident; the alternate takes are significantly more adventurous.  There is also another fascinating if strange bonus track: A Personal Statement, a piece composed by Bob James, now known for smooth jazz, with vocalist David Schwartz.

This has led me to re-visit other Dolphy Cds and tracks. Out To Lunch is clearly his masterpiece with its wonderful balance and integration between intriguing compositions and the improvisations from Dolphy himself, Freddy Hubbard on trumpet and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, plus brilliant drumming from a very young Tony Williams.

coltrane albumListening to Dolphy’s contributions to the John Coltrane Quintet on its 1961 European tour is a revelation. This was the only tour that brought Coltrane to Britain and he played seven cities here before going on to continental Europe for fourteen days.  A number of bootlegs from the Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki – there are no known bootlegs of the British dates – have been issued on a 4 Cd box set with the title So Many Things. The repertoire is more or less similar through with My Favourite Things, Blue Train, Impressions, I Want To Talk About You and long solos from Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Dolphy.  What fascinates me is the way that Dolphy develops his solos throughout the tour.  He does not solo on every track, and I remember that at the Birmingham concert, which I was at, he kept going off stage.  If one listens to the tracks in chronological order, the way he is varying his solos and developing his voice as the tour goes on is evident.  So, for example, on My Favourite Things at the first house in Paris he does not solo, in the second house he solos on flute, in Copenhagen and Helsinki he also solos on flute and develops really interesting and different ideas in both solos.  In Sweden, the final concert on the CD, Dolphy again plays flute on My Favourite Things in both houses, but on this occasion solos before Coltrane but after Tyner on both versions.  Both solos strike me as being very different from his other solos on the tune on this tour and on other tunes in other contexts.  On both versions he builds a solo that starts fairly conventionally but gradually goes ‘out’; the solo in the second house is slightly shorter and maintains its coherence rather better than that in the first house.

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Dolphy on Flute

Dolphy’s presence in the Coltrane group of this tour was controversial. Simon Spillett in his excellent notes accompanying the CDs reports that Dolphy was occasionally booed on the tour, but I can hear no evidence of that in the applause on the CDs; perhaps this happened on the UK leg no recordings of which exist.  Coltrane himself seems to have had mixed feelings about his presence in the band, and was quoted in one interview as stating that  the group ‘sounds more like a quartet plus than a quintet’ and ‘with Dolphy added it makes things even harder’! (Simon Spillett’s sleevenotes)

Despite these issues, I am fascinated by what the Cds show of the development of Dolphy’s style in the early 60s and the way that he always tried to create something original in his solos.

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