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Courtesy of JRM Assistant Manager Dave Kuner


The Complete Prestige Recordings

Innovation in jazz has often been greeted with equal measures of hostility and approval. In the late 1950's the prime innovators were players like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, who challenged the prevailing notions of melody and song structure, ruffling plenty of feathers in the process. Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, as a member of Miles Davis' group, was playing increasingly lengthy and elaborate solos, basing his quest for musical liberation on intense, exhaustive explorations of harmony.

At the same time, saxophonist Eric Dolphy began to get his first national recognition as a member of the popular Chico Hamilton group. Prior to that, in his native Los Angeles, Dolphy had studied at Los Angeles City College with Lloyd Reese, who counted Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, and Charles Mingus among his pupils; taken lessons from multi-reed man Buddy Collette; played and recorded with drummer Roy Porter's big band; and kept a practice studio at his Father's house that became a renowned hang-out for jazz musicians during their trips to Los Angeles (it was here that saxophonist Harold Land met Clifford Brown and Max Roach and was asked to become a member of their quintet). In addition, Dolphy studied flute with Socorso Pirrola and Elsie Moenning, training which furthered his familiarity with classical literature and undoubtedly stood him in good stead during his stay with Hamilton, where polite chamber jazz was often the order of the day. After Hamilton, Dolphy began an on-again, off again association with the innovative bassist and composer Charles Mingus that would continue until Dolphy's death in 1964.Their relationship nurtured Dolphy’s adventurous instincts and encouraged his search for new forms of musical expression.

One part of Dolphy's search is documented on Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings, a superbly annotated nine-CD box set released late last year by Fantasy Records. The material Dolphy recorded for Prestige and its associated labels includes the first recordings released under his own name, as well as his appearances as a sideman and featured performer with the Latin Jazz Quintet and groups led by saxophonist Oliver Nelson, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Mal Waldron, and tenor saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.

- The Complete Prestige Recordings (9 CD Box Set) Available from Jazz Record Mart for $136.99

Considering that Dolphy died at the relatively young age of 36 (from complications brought on by an untreated case of diabetes), he's surprisingly well represented on record. The Prestige material covers a period of less than two years, but makes up a fascinating part of his legacy.

Dolphy's first session as a leader , 1960's Outward Bound, provides the first nine tracks of the Prestige box. Thirty-five years later, it may seem more like a cautious peek into the unknown rather than the reckless plunge into the future that its title implies, but it's indicative of Dolphy's carefully considered experimentation. Apart from his work on Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz in 1960 and his own Out To Lunch, a 1964 classic for Blue Note, Dolphy's search for musical freedom didn't disregard conventional chord changes and song structure entirely. The Dolphy originals "G.W." and "Les" on Outward Bound exemplify his approach to creating a fresh structure: divide the common 32 bar song or 12 bar blues form into irregular parts and stretch them into unusual shapes, a technique anchored in a resourceful melding of tried-and-true methods. Later recordings included here (most notably the landmark Live At The Five Spot sessions and pianist Mal Waldron's The Quest) feature structurally and harmonically adventurous tunes written by Waldron, reedman Ken McIntyre, and trumpeter Booker Little. All their songs suit Dolphy well, and show that his like minded bandmates were grappling with some of the same questions about music and coming up with similar answers.

Though there were certainly voices speaking out in Dolphy's favor throughout his career, his decision to move to the more receptive climate of Europe in 1964 - a mixed blessing, since the openness of the European musicians didn't necessarily mean that they were capable of playing at Dolphy's level—was undoubtedly prompted in part by negative comments in the press. One critic even dismissed Dolphy's music as "anti-jazz". But after listening to the Prestige recordings, it's difficult to comprehend the negativity of certain critics and musicians at the time. The dogged individuality of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman required that the typical player or listener give up many preconceptions