The music collected on Eric Dolphy’s Musical Prophet: The Expanded New York Studio Sessions (1963) is so unyielding and so open, it’s hard to accept the musician would be dead in just under a year. After rejoining former band leader Charles Mingus for a tour of Europe, Dolphy died from diabetic shock on June 29th1964. Having suffered stinging criticism back home in the United States, the musician hoped to leave the disparagement behind and become a musical ex-pat. Unaware he had diabetes, Dolphy slipped into a coma and expired in a Berlin hospital. He was 36 years old. Equally skilled across three instruments — flute, bass clarinet and alto saxophone — Dolphy put out eight albums as a leader in his lifetime. More than 22 others were released after his demise. Most recent among those posthumous releases, Musical Prophet is perhaps the most remarkable, as it includes among its three discs nine previously unissued tracks, making a complete album of unheard music.
Across the last year, several previously “lost” recordings have ushered the work of long deceased acknowledged greats into a golden era of re-issued and newly discovered jazz. Resonance Records has long been at the forefront of this rediscovered music. But with the release of Musical Prophet, they step solely into the limelight. While much of the music on these three discs has been in release, those nine songs that have not are beyond reproach.
America was brilliantly musical during the jazz era. Trying to justify what followed can be a difficult task for the trained ear. Few of the musicians who became famous as rock superseded jazz in popularity ever directly engaged with music’s compositional language. At the same time, the family piano disappeared from households. This oncoming musical naivete delighted record company marketing execs. You didn’t need to read music to care about pop. You didn’t really have to like music to listen to it. Back in jazz-land, the musicians working the creative stratosphere wrote compositions often bracketed by classical themes. Avant Garde players like bassist Henry Grimes, saxophonist Giuseppi Logan and pianist Cecil Taylor all studied at conservatory, where they learned the music of Béla Bartók, Modest Mussorgsky and Arnold Schoenberg, the creator of the twelve-tone theory known as Serialism. Miles Davis recorded a piece by the French composer Léo Delibes in early 1957. All of this musical intellectuality demonstrates how wide the chromatic spectrum of jazz had become when Eric Dolphy waltzed his way into the New York scene.
Born in Los Angeles to West-Indian immigrants, Dolphy’s virtuosity materialized early on. By high school, Dolphy was regularly gigging in the night clubs of a tuneful swath of Angeleno geography that gave its name to a sub-genre of jazz now known as the Central Avenue Sound. Charles Mingus, Chico Hamilton, Gerald Wilson, and Hampton Hawes all got their start on Central Avenue. Each of them brought Eric Dolphy into their bands. At the same time, Dolphy was studying classical flute and singing in the church choir while developing his clarinet and saxophone technique in a shed his father built behind their home. Dolphy was literally woodshedding in a wood shed.
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