“Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings” is a nine-CD
set, chronicling Eric Dolphy’s most prolific period as a recording
artist, both as a leader and sideman. Although the period in
question spans only 17 months, it should be noted that
between April 1, 1960 and September 8, 1961, Dolphy was
featured on 18 Prestige and New Jazz recordings. At this time,
New Jazz was a subsidiary of the Prestige label. In addition to
these sessions, Dolphy also recorded with other artists and labels
during 1960 and 1961, a truly prolific output for a two-year period.
The arrangement of the 13 Prestige/New Jazz sessions on these
CDs is chronological, with running times between 73 and 77
Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) was a classically trained musician, and a
highly skilled technician on his three chosen instruments:
alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute. On rare occasions,
he even played the B-flat clarinet, alto flute and piccolo. As a
Jazz player, he was aligned with the then-nascent, avant-garde
movement that was revolutionizing Jazz. This movement began
around 1959, which was also the year Dolphy moved to
New York, after growing up in California. Two prime architects
of the avant-garde Jazz movement were Ornette Coleman
(1930 – ) and Cecil Taylor (1929 – ).
While Dolphy stated that his improvising often sounded as
though he was “leaving the changes” of a chordal structure,”
he insisted that “Every noted I play has some reference to
the chords of the piece.” After listening to many of his
recordings, including the ones in this mammoth set, I’d have
to agree with his statement. I’ve rarely found Dolphy’s playing
to be as “avant-garde” as John Coltrane’s could be, during
the 1960’s and toward the end of Coltrane’s career.
Nevertheless, Dolphy’s playing was still “out there,” and it
could be quite exhilarating, particularly when he was joined
by some of the stellar musicians included on this CD set.
The Jazz notables here include Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes,
Ron Carter, Mal Waldron, Booker Little, Clark Terry, and
Oliver Nelson, along with a host of others.
As I mentioned earlier, Dolphy was often a sideman, and
was one of two alto saxophone players (with Oliver Nelson)
featured on “Trane Whistle,” a big band album by Eddie
“Lockjaw” Davis. In fact, Dolphy didn’t solo at all on this disc,
but was merely a section player in a very good big band,
playing more standard arrangements. I had no problem with
this, because it provided a nice respite from the more
“adventurous” fare that came from the various other smaller
group configurations. The music from every album in this set
is included in its entirety; therefore, there are two or three
songs, such as “Bass Duet” on Ron Carter’s album, “Where?”
that have no Dolphy contribution whatsoever. The variety of
the music and musicians on this set affords the listener with
a comprehensive overview of Eric Dolphy’s playing.
The accompanying booklet provided a clear road map of all
of these musical sessions, as well as the corresponding albums,
and included reproductions of cover art for all 18 original
discs. I found this most helpful. Zan Stewart and Bill Kirchner
also contributed informative essays, discussing Dolphy’s life
and artistry, which I found to be essential reading. Unfortunately,
the only missing elements were the original liner notes from
each of the 18 albums. Aside from that omission, I’d give this
1995 CD release the highest marks.