Saturday, November 15, 2008

More than a dollop of Dolphy

More than a dollop is what you will get if you get your ears around Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings. This box set consists of 9 discs, and when you have got it you have by God got Dolphy. It doesn't include his most famous recording, Out to Lunch. But it does include Far Cry, perhaps his second most famous album. Far Cry is what first interested me in Dolphy.

The Prestige Box also includes the justly famous Five Spot sessions, with trumpeter Booker Little. The latter might be Dolphy's finest hour. The Prestige Box has a lot more. About six complete albums, by my count, with a lot of pieces from other stuff, like four cuts from Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis'
Trane Whistle. It also has Ron Carter's Where?, and Mal Waldron's The Quest. Oh, and there are two discs with Oliver Nelson as lead.

That is a lot of solid if frequently challenging jazz. I have written before of the problems that jazz box sets present to the collector. One new problem is very evident here: when the collection includes several sets recorded under someone else's name, they get scattered all over your iTunes library. In this case I decided to change the album information on the tracks to reflect what was originally issued, and file it under the leader's name. This means that I have several partial albums, since no tracks were included from the Lockjaw Davis disc that Dolphy wasn't on. It's really great that I can pop a disc into my computer and iTunes will get the track names for me. But we really need some better conventions for file tags.

Dolphy had a short but magnificent career. His first recording listed on the Jazz Discography Project is in 1948, when he was twenty. He died in 1964 from undiagnosed diabetes. In between, he records a lot of very basic music, and shows up on a lot of seminal discs by other jazz giants. He is on Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, George Russel's Ezz-Thetics, and Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard and the Africa/Brass Sessions. He was equally adept at the alto saxophone, the flute, and the bass clarinet.

I think it was the latter that should have been in his funeral boat when it was shoved out to sea. The deeply hollow sound, sucking up all reality around it, was what Dolphy was about. He is clearly associated with free jazz, and sits behind Ornett Coleman on, well, Free Jazz. Dolphy's Out to Lunch is a basic document of that movement. It's pretty chaotic and occasionally down right mysterious. Almost all of it has the character of a machine producing a lot of noise as it does one is not quite sure what. But I find I can listen to it now with interest.

Dolphy was clearly a genius of improvisation. He has a persistant fondness for a slightly sour, unexpected sound; but his compositional weaving mostly produces a tapestry that is coherent and compelling. I have loaded three Dolphy pieces onto the current site.

One is the title number from Far Cry. Dolphy's opening presents the sound mentioned, but the tune as a whole is mainstream hardbop. Booker Little plays trumpet, Jackie Byard piano, Ron Carter bass, with Roy Haines on drums. "Fire Waltz" is a classic Dolphy composition, recorded at one of his live sessions at the Five Spot Cafe. Booker Little again on trumpet, Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. Waldron's solo is especially worthy of note. Live at the Five Spot 1&2, and the Memorial Album, might be Dolphy's best recordings.

"God Bless the Child" is a solo piece, with Dolphy playing the bass clarinet, also recorded in 1961 at the Five Spot. It is included on a hodge podge album, Here and There, which is all in the Prestige box. Dolphy spins the powerful, buzzing and sqeaking horn so fast at times, it's a wonder he wasn't being followed by storm chasers. But then he spins it out slow and thoughtful, as if to wonder what all the action was about.

Eric Dolphy is worth investing in. I can recommend without reservation: Far Cry, Live at the Five Spot 1&2, and The Memorial Album. One more recording that in the box set but, mysteriously, doesn't appear in the Penguin Guide, is Mal Waldron's The Quest. Booker Ervin is on that one, and that can't be bad. A fine version of "Fire Waltz" is also there.

There are two stories about Dolphy's death. One has it that he collapsed into a diabetic coma in his hotel room, and died from insulin shock at the hospital. Another is that he collapsed on stage, and when they brought him to the hospital, the doctors assumed it was drugs. They left him in bed to sleep it off. If the latter is true, chalk up one more jazz fatality to heroin.

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