Sadly underappreciated, Eric Dolphy was a multi-talented flautist, bass clarinetist and alto saxophone player whose career as a leader was only about four years, from 1960 to 1964. But, what a remarkable body of work he left, whether heading his own combos or working with such legendary performers as Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.
Born in Los Angeles in 1928, Dolphy was performing music from an early age and supported by his father who built him a studio at their home. He graduated from Los Angeles City College and made his mark locally by performing in the bands of stalwarts Chico Hamilton and Gerald Wilson, the latter still living at age 93. Getting wider exposure with Hamilton, Dolphy left his employ and went to New York in 1959, the year that John Coltrane recorded Giant Steps, Miles Davis issued Kind of Blue, and Ornette Coleman made his controversial debut in New York after also having come out from Los Angeles.
Another Los Angeles connection was made in the Big Apple when Dolphy got reacquainted with LA native Charles Mingus and joined his band, working with him for about a year. Although Dolphy left the Mingus group, he continued to work with the great bassist and composer on and off for the remainder of his life.
It was in Los Angeles that Dolphy met Coltrane who was on tour there with Davis and, in late 1961, the tenor sax giant asked Dolphy to join his band. Coltrane had just signed with the new Impulse! label and Dolphy was involved in the first two albums cut with the company. The first was Africa/Brass in whic Dolphy's arranging skills were put to use with the remarkable track Africa, down to the simulation of animal sounds and other interesting uses of a variety of big band elements. On the next album, Live at the Village Vanguard, Dolphy was given extended opportunities to solo on the track "Spiritual," where his clarinet offered an interesting contrast to the leader's tenor and soprano sax work.
Dolphy was rewarded by stridently harsh criticism offered of him and Coltrane during this period and the two were labeled, infamously, as "anti-jazz." Strangely, there doesn't seem to have been that much of a concern when Dolphy was part of the ensemble that performed Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking record Free Jazz late in 1960 and which was released just a couple of months before the Village Vanguard recording was made.
Meantime, Dolphy was signed to Prestige Records and, not that atypical for that label, made a wealth of recordings in less than two years during 1960 and 1961, including such classic albums as Out There and Outward Bound, which titles none-too-subtly implied that Dolphy was playing far "out of the mainstream." Actually, his work always featured ballads and down-tempo pieces that highlighted his ability to play with gorgeous lyricism, though the up-tempo tracks definitely showcased his angular and rapid runs that gave him a distinctive sound.
By 1964, Dolphy had signed with Blue Note Records and made the masterpiece Out to Lunch, a record that blended his ability to play "new" music with clear references to the past, utilized top musical talent like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, drummer Tony Williams, bassist Richard Davis and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. He also was a featured sideman in the excellent Point of Departure album by another underappreciated jazz musician, pianist Andrew Hill.
Dolphy then embarked on a tour of Europe with Mingus and decided to remain there, partially because his fiancee was working in Paris. His plans included working with such free jazz stalwarts as Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, but in late June he collapsed at a concert (some sources say at his hotel room) and was taken to a hospital. Evidently, staff there thought that, as a jazz musician, he must have been on overdosed on drugs and he was left in a room unattended. A diabetic, Dolphy then lapsed into a coma and died. He had just turned 36 years old and was to be married soon. The jazz world lost an immense talent and, by all accounts, a kind and gentle man.
Dolphy made superb classic live recordings in 1961 at the Five Spot Cafe in New York with the fanstastic trumpet player Booker Little, who died of uremia at age 23 very shortly after and these will be highlighted here in the future. But, there is also the remarkable album The Illinois Concert, recorded in March 1963 and basically lost until over a quarter century later when it was issued by Blue Note. Dolphy was the only jazz figure invited to a festival at the University of Illinois and the event featured a tense panel discussion that basically led classically-trained faculty to look down upon Dolphy for being a jazz player, though he did sometimes play in classical works.
Still, at his performance, Dolphy wowed many of the audience members and music students with several pieces performed with a quartet featuring drummer J. C. Moses, bassist Eddie Khan, and a young Herbie Hancock, soon to join Miles Davis. The concert opened with a 20-minute rendering of the classic "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" and the notable aspect to this piece is that the quartet didn't play the melody until the very end of the song, though it was referred to throughout, especially via Dolphy's bass clarinet.
A showcase for the leader on that instrument was his solo work on the great Billie Holiday classic, "God Bless the Child." How any of the faculty, or suspicious critics, could speak against Dolphy given the inventive, probing and technically stunning playing of this piece is anyone's guess. Dolphy also played flute on his "South Street Exit" and then switched to alto for another original, "Iron Man," which would be recorded subsequently in the studio for an album of that name.
Then comes the most interesting part of the show: Dolphy and quartet were joined by students from the university's music program for big-band renderings of two songs. One is a tune that John Coltrane fans will recognize as "Miles' Mode" from the eponymous album released that same year, but which appears to be a Dolphy original, though credited to Trane on that record. The melody, based on the twelve-tone row from modern classical music, provides an ideal launching pad for solos and the brass from the larger ensemble, including future jazz notable Cecil Bridgewater, adds greatly to the song. Then, the enhanced group performed "G.W.," a tribute to Dolphy's Los Angeles mentor, Gerald Wilson, and also his first piece written with a big band in mind, though this was the first recording of it in that format. On both big band works, Dolphy plays alto sax.
Restored and mastered from the original tapes, this record is a rare opportunity to hear Dolphy in a setting with a big band, highlights his multi-faceted talents on three instruments, and utilizes a solid backing band, including Hancock, who went on to great fame with Davis and on his own. There's no doubting the greatness of the Five Spot recordings with Little, but this is a top-notch record and a great overview of the amazing Eric Dolphy.
Eric Dolphy: The Illinois Concert (10 March 1963)
1. Softly As In a Morning Sunrise 20:17
2. Something Sweet, Something Tender 1:28
3. God Bless the Child 8:45
4. South Street Exit 7:30
5. Iron Man 10:57
6. Red Planet 12:26
7. G.W. 7:40