Expanded Reissue of Dolphy’s “Conversations” & “Iron Man” Released

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WP 2019 - 2ERIC DOLPHY, MUSICAL PROPHET / WALLER: Jitterbug Waltz (2 tks).2,4 LASHA-SIMMONS: Music Matador (2 tks)1,5. WASHINGTON-YOUNG: Love Me (3 tks). DIETZ-SCHWARTZ: Alone Together (2 tks). HANNA: Muses (for Richard Davis) (2 tks). DOLPHY: Iron Man.1-4 Mandrake (2 tks).1-3 Burning Spear (2 tks).1-4 B. JAMES: A Personal Statement [Jim Crow].6 ELLINGTON: Come Sunday. BYARD: Ode to Charlie Parker / Eric Dolphy, a-sax/fl/bs-cl; 1William “Prince” Lasha, fl; 1Sonny Simmons, a-sax; 1Clifford Jordan, s-sax; 2Woody Shaw, tpt; 3Garvin Bushell, bsn; 2Bobby Hutcherson, vib; 6Bob James, pno; Richard Davis, 4Eddie Kahn, 6Ron Brooks, bs; 2J.C. Moses, 5Charles Moffett, dm; 6Robert Pozar, perc; 6David Schwartz, voc / Resonance Records, no number, available for online order HERE

It has always struck me as ironic that the many jazz lovers who seem to detest anything classical have usually admired the work of Eric Dolphy. Born to Panamanian immigrants (thus he was not technically African-American), Dolphy’s aesthetic was firmly rooted in classical music, first learning the clarinet and then the oboe. Inspired in his young teenage years by the music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, he switched to the alto saxophone and also picked up the flute. His improvisations, often considered a form of free jazz, were anything but; in their wide-ranging intervals and even much of the structure of his solos, he was always closer in form to the music of Stravinsky and Bartók and, in fact, seldom swung like a jazz musician.

Which is not to say that he wasn’t brilliant, only that he was not a conventional jazz improviser. Yet he was claimed as a “musical son” by two of the most brilliant jazz musicians of his day, saxist John Coltrane and bassist-composer Charles Mingus, both of whom admired him and vied for his participation in their recordings (Dolphy wrote several of the arrangements for Coltrane’s Africa/Brass Session) and live performances. Mingus eventually won out, and in fact it was while on tour of Europe with Mingus that he died in June 1964, unexpectedly, of insulin shock. The German doctors who initially treated him did not understand that he had incipient diabetes (though he told them so) and attributed his condition to drug use, not knowing that Dolphy took no illegal drugs. They gave him Narcan, which sent his sugar levels sky-high. By the time they administered the insulin it was too late; he went into a coma and died. Mingus, stunned and furious, carried on a verbal war against the German doctors for some time afterward.

Dolphy’s albums Conversations and Iron Man, both recorded on June 1 & 3, 1963, several months before his classic Out to Lunch Blue Note session, were great albums originally released by a tiny record label, Douglas International, and later issued on almost as small a label, Vee Jay. They’ve since come out on small bootleg labels like Celluloid, but this is their first official re-release in a 3-CD package that includes a full album of alternate takes. Among the alternate takes included here is the unusual A Personal Statement, a.k.a. Jim Crow, which was recorded in Ann Arbor, MI on March 2, 1964 with an entirely different line-up.

The reason why they aren’t as well known or highly respected as Out to Lunch is their rarity, but the performances are excellent. This reissue is in mono because the producers claim that the original stereo tapes have disappeared, yet reviewer Michael Fremer, on the blog site Analog Planet, explains that the stereo takes have indeed been issued—a few times, in fact—by the bootleg versions of these two albums, and indeed I found the stereo versions of all the issued tracks available on YouTube as listed below (click on the titles to pull up the videos):

Jitterbug Waltz
Music Matador
Love Me
Alone Together
Muses
Iron Man
Mandrake
Come Sunday
Burning Spear
Ode to Charlie Parker
A Personal Statement

Having the solo and duet tracks (with Richard Davis on bass) in stereo really don’t make much of a difference to my ears except that the bass is actually a bit quieter and, separating itself somewhat from the bass clarinet, gives one a little better aural perspective, but the full band performances clearly sound better and far less congested in stereo.

Yet real jazz aficionados will want this Resonance set for the valuable and often stupendous alternate takes and the equally rich and detailed booklet notes, both of which add to our understanding and appreciation of Dolphy. The 100-page booklet explains that the tapes used for this release were in a suitcase of “valuable material” that Dolphy gave to his composition mentor, Hale Smith, just before he left for Europe with Mingus. Not all surviving takes have been issued here, only the very best and most complete, but as Fremer points out in his blog post, the booklet alone is worth the price of the album as it finally gives us a clear picture of Dolphy’s art and career. Just between you and me, however, this could have easily been a 2-CD set, ending the first disc with Burning Spear (which makes the CD run close to 82 minutes) and picking up the second with Ode to Charlie Parker (which runs about 76 minutes), but the producers apparently wanted the CD release to match the gimmicky LP issue in disc length. As has been proven many times on YouTube videos by sound engineers, there is absolutely NO audio difference between LPs and CDs in how music reaches your ears, and I warn you in advance that LPs still accrue ticks, pops, crackle and surface wear that CDs do not, thus I advise against the LP release.

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Original LP cover of “Conversations”

In the opener, Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz, Dolphy actually swings on the flute although, as usual, his lines are unorthodox to say the least. On this track, too, we hear the excellent trumpet playing of Woody Shaw, who atypically follows Dolphy’s lead in his own very angular solo, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes.

The album takes a left turn into oddness, however, in William “Prince” Lasha’s Spanish-tinged composition, Music Matador, and Dolphy’s playing likewise turns more abstract as he puts down the flute and picks up the bass clarinet. Dolphy established the bass clarinet as a standard jazz instrument at just about the time that the regular clarinet disappeared, due in large part to the emergence of the soprano saxophone which was brought into modern jazz by Coltrane. Prince Lasha plays the flute solo on this one and Clifford Jordan wails on tenor sax. This is a constant feature of these sessions: Dolphy was somehow able to get all the other musicians on the date on his wavelength so the stylistic vein of each solo remained consistent with the others.

Love Me is played by Dolphy a cappella on the alto saxophone in so startling, and strange a manner that one would never recognize the tune in a million years, and the atonal bass solo opening of Alone Together, which leads into an even stranger improvisation by Dolphy on bass clarinet, bears only a superficial resemblance to the original song. This is jazz turned into modern classical music; there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Only at 6:30 into the tune do we hear a jazz pulse, and then mostly from the bass (Richard Davis), but it’s later fractured so much that the jazz beat comes and goes. Davis plays the dual role of rhythmic support for Dolphy and commentator on his ongoing improvisation—and this goes on for 13 ½ minutes.

The previously unissued takes of Muses for Richard Davis (the master take, not included here, was originally released by the Japanese label Marshmallow Export in 2013 on a CD that included Alone Together, Iron Man, Love Me and Mandrake) picks up where Alone Together left off except that it’s a dolorous piece taken at a slow tempo (two takes of it). This was not only a long piece that wouldn’t fit on a conventional LP of the time (which only ran a little over 40 minutes at most—many labels, particularly the small, cheap ones, didn’t like crowding too much music on an LP), but obviously too odd to appeal to most jazz lovers.

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Original cover of “Iron Man”

Moving on to the next album, Iron Man is a very atonal jazz piece by Dolphy that sweeps up the whole band on this session (here including Garvin Bushell on bassoon) in a wild, late-period Stravinskian jazz romp. Dolphy is all over the map, as usual. Woody Shaw’s trumpet solo pulls the music back somewhat towards tonality but is still very creative in its own way. The bassist here is Eddie Kahn, not Richard Davis, and it shows: his solo is just OK, nothing to write home about. In my review of Pablo Aslan’s fascinating jazz string quintets, I mentioned that Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, so often used by jazz musicians as a basis for improvisation, is not really one of his strongest pieces, but here Dolphy turns this very ordinary little dollop of music into an aural feast, weaving angular, contrapuntal lines around its simple melody in an extraordinary manner.

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Alternate cover of “Iron Man,” art by Abdul Mati Klarwein

Burning Spear is yet another remarkable piece, combining (it seems) two clashing tonalities against one another. It almost sounds like a piece of music by the avant-garde classical composer Harry Partch as anything in jazz. Here, Shaw is more up to the challenge of the music, playing a brilliant solo if not one on Dolphy’s higher wavelength, and Kahn does a surprisingly good job spurring the band forward with some hard, driving licks that fit in. Dolphy had recorded an entirely different version of Ode to Charlie Parker on his album with trumpeter Booker Little; this one is just flute and bass, and although Kahn is not Richard Davis he does a credible job of supporting Dolphy’s fascinating variations.

A Personal Statement is highly unusual, almost sounding as if it combined jazz with Oriental music. Vocalist David Schwarz, believe it or not, is not a jazz singer but a classically-trained countertenor whose voice sounds more natural and less “hooty” than most of his falsetto-trained brethren. I couldn’t find much info about him online except that he was a former classmate of pianist Bob James (there was also a violist named David Schwartz active at the same time…same person?), but it seems that this track first other aspectssurfaced on a Blue Note release in 1987, Other Aspects, which also included Inner Flight I & II, Dolphy’n, and Improvisations and Tukras which were recorded much earlier, in 1960. These, too, came from the suitcase that Dolphy gave to Hale and Juanita Smith for safekeeping. It is in various tempi, like a classical piece, and develops as such, with Bob James’ atonal piano solo a highlight of the side. At 9:08 there is a very strange passage in which Schwarz sings staccato, percussive lines in tandem with Dolphy before the tempo slows down and James plays a brief piano interlude. Schwarz is also called upon to do some vocal portamento slides while Dolphy plays around him. At 12:47, Schwarz moans some slithering lines in his natural voice, which is a tenor, while the tempo increases and the percussion bashes around him, before moving back up to his higher range singing the words “Jim Crow” now and then. A very strange piece indeed!

The alternate takes are all excellent and the solos, especially Dolphy’s but also the others, markedly different from the issued versions—particularly Love Me, both of which are even further-out than the issued take. It’s obvious why this take of Jitterbug Waltz was rejected: the ensemble is very sloppy and not together despite the outstanding solo work. These add considerably to our understanding of Dolphy’s art, which as it turns out is perfectly in keeping with 21st century jazz but much too far in advance of its time for 1960-64 for most jazz buffs to appreciate.

There are no two ways about it: the music on this set is terrific, even with the somewhat cramped mono sound (enhanced as much as is humanly possible via digital remastering), and the booklet even more so. Well worth investing $29 in!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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