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Saint Eric Dolphy

“Eric Dolphy was a saint…” Charles Mingus

Eric Dolphy died in Berlin at the age of thirty-six from a complication related to diabetes, his promise and talent enshrined in less than a dozen releases. A master of several wind instruments, Dolphy’s work with the ensembles he led remains some of the most innovative music of the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, his inimitable and prolific work as a sideman is arguably unequaled in the annals of jazz. It seems cliched to state this, but one wonders (like one wonders about too many musicians of the last half of the twentieth century) what music he would have created had he lived a few decades more.

On the 1st and 3rd of July in 1963, Eric Dolphy assembled ten other musicians at Music Maker’s Studios in New York City. The music this ensemble recorded during those sessions resulted in two record albums: Conversations and Iron Man. In November 2018, as part of the Record Day promotion, Resonance Records released a new edition of these sessions that included mono versions of the two original albums along with ten bonus tracks, mostly alternate takes on a few of the songs that appeared on the original releases. It is now in general release and includes a beautifully designed package featuring a ninety-five-page booklet. The booklet includes the track listings, several interviews with fellow musicians and a couple of reviews. While not all the musicians gathered together by Dolphy appear on every track, it is fair to say that this ensemble is what an industry promotion department would call a supergroup. In addition to featuring those who had collaborated with Dolphy before—bassist Richard Davis and vibraphonist Bobby Hutchinson—these recordings also introduced trumpeter Woody Shaw to the larger world.

Like so many other musicians of the time, Dolphy reflected on the world around him in his music. Indeed, the movement for Black liberation in the US and overseas is the inspiration for at least two of the works included in this project. One, titled “Burning Spear” after the Kenyan anti-colonial fighter Jomo Kenyatta, is a spirited, full-on ensemble piece that features the entire ensemble Dolphy put together for these sessions. The CD includes the track included on the record along with an alternate take. Kenyatta, whose name Burning Spear would also be adopted by reggae artist Winston Rodney, had done some prison time for fighting against the British colonial powers in his home country of Kenya. He ultimately became its first ruler after independence. He led his nation down a capitalist path but was an early member of the movement of non-aligned nations (Non-Aligned Movement).

The other politically-tinged composition is the Bob James tune titled “A Personal Statement (Jim Crow).” This tone poem is both an expression of the sorrow and anger felt by so many Black Americans living in apartheid USA. Upon hearing this song, this reviewer is reminded of Wadada Leo Smith’s compositions addressing the Civil Rights and Black liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The tears of the children, the fears of the adults are present throughout, vocalized by Dolphy’s winds and James’s piano. The contrast of the fluted birdsong and the plucked bass inside this song binds the tune into one journey through a land still oozing poison from the wounds of white supremacists. As the song progresses, however, the fear instilled by white supremacy shrinks away, replaced by a more beatific vision of humanity.

When asked about what he thought Dolphy was trying to achieve with his music, drummer Joe Chambers responded in an interview that appears in this CD’s liner notes: “Freedom….” Chambers continues, explaining that playing in Dolphy’s group during this period was about “free interplay…. (it was) A five-part counterpoint.” In a manner similar to what Dylan’s mid-sixties recordings (specifically Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde) would do in rock music, Dolphy pushed the boundaries of jazz in these sessions, moving its creative boundaries outward into new spheres that redefine the genre itself. Like John Coltrane, whom he played with more than once, Dolphy stretched the existing forms of jazz to their fullest, all the while maintaining a musical discipline that transcended tradition and the forms themselves. In doing so, the music of Dolphy and his fellow hard bop artists became a new form of its own; a form heard today in the work of certain artists, like the aforementioned Wadada Leo Smith.

Advertisements for the album Iron Man (one of the two original albums made from these Eric Dolphy sessions) that appeared in an industry magazine when the record was first released featured Eric Dolphy in a cartoon. The panels of the cartoon serve as a memorial to the man and his music, characterizing the man and his work as a superhero. This recording does nothing but enhances that characterization.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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