Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Eric Dolphy – Live at the Five Spot Vol. 1 (Fantasy 1961, 1989)

This was the first in the series of legendary live recordings that Eric Dolphy made at the Five Spot Café in New York City in 1961. At this time he was performing with the John Coltrane Quartet and was also embroiled in controversy, after a writer in Downbeat had labeled both Coltrane and Dolphy as “anti-jazz.” For these recording, he was joined by Booker Little on trumpet, Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums.

The selections on this disc (and on the series as a whole which includes Vol. 2 and The Memorial Album) are quite long and allow the band to stretch out at length, exploring the themes in depth and allowing for much instrumental solo space. The intense “Fire Waltz” begins the album with Dolphy on alto saxophone as he is for most of this record. Dolphy’s register hopping tone is often speech like and can be seen as a logical extension of Charlie Parker’s alto explorations in the 1940’s and 50”s. Booker Little has a more mainstream and centered tone on trumpet. He was very young when this was recorded (and sadly would pass on not long after) but his voice is his own, born of Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, but moving easily into the more open territory Dolphy was exploring.

The two takes of Little’s “Bee Vamp” and the extended exploration of Dolphy’s “The Prophet” allow the band ample opportunity to explore this new territory. The music has a sense of freedom but it never truly leaves the melodic based nature of bebop and hardbop behind. Mal Waldron also makes the most of his solo space – he’s aptly suited for this role, having mastered melody and harmony as Billie Holiday’s accompanist for many years in the 1950’s but also having played with Coltrane and the other modernists.

This is some of the finest music of the era, combining the tradition of the past with the adventurous nature of the free and avant-garde music that was beginning to take hold in jazz at that time. Unfortunately, neither Dolphy or Little would have much time to continue their explorations, but they left an amazing legacy for other seekers to follow.

Rating: 10

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