Eric Dolphy was dead at 36. Among jazz’s most innovative improvisers, he died of undiagnosed diabetes; died not knowing his place in history was assured, after suffering such relentless sniping and slurs in New York as drove him to Europe. Some mistook his leaping melodic lines for untutored freedom, but the smarter ones – John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach among them – understood his genius. Dolphy’s studio-album output as leader was minuscule, given his stature as a multi-instrumentalist revolutionary; one with a different voice on each instrument: on flute almost a classicist; on alto saxophone a bebopper on a trampoline; on bass clarinet a ghost grieving for those left behind.
This triple set expands on the Conversations and Iron Man album sessions with a wealth of previously unleased recordings, including musical conversations between Richard Davis’s bass and Dolphy’s bass clarinet that transcend time and idiom. The biggest surprise, A Personal Statement, comes from an extraneous session that improbably combined Dolphy’s vaulting alto with future smooth-jazz pianist Bob James, a rhythm section and the astonishing voice of countertenor David Swartz. This must be heard to be believed.