In summer of 1961, Eric Dolphy was selected as Best New Alto Saxophonist in down beat's International Jazz Critics' Poll. As the poll results were going to press, he played a historic gig (which would eventually be chronicled on three Prestige LPs) at the Five Spot Cafe in New York City. A month later, the saxophonist left for Europe where, in early September, his classic Copenhagen Concert was taped. It's quite likely that Dolphy, who died suddenly in 1964 of diabetes and a possible heart attack, did the best playing of his al-too-brief recording career during these transatlantic, summer-of-'61 gigs. Though he wasn't the first American artist who had to leave his homeland to continue his musical and monetary quest, he was understandably bitter. When told that he'd won the critics' poll, he merely asked: "Does that mean I'm going to get work?"
Today, when the revolution wrought by Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane has been abdorbed into the mainstream of jazz as well as rock, it's almost hard to remember or believe how much resistance this music initially met. From tradionalist musicians to critics who derided it as "antijazz," the New Wave (as some called it then) embodied a lonely fight. The truth, of course, was that much of it wasn't all that new: in this double album's beautiful liner notes, fellow jazzmen remark on how easily one could skip back and forth between be-hop and free jazz when playing Eric Dolphy's music.
What really irked reactionaries from boppers on down was probably not so much the liberties that Dolphy, Coleman & Company took with harmony and rhythm, but their insistence that American music should get back to the speechlike yawp-squawks that spawned it. "To me," said Dolphy, "jazz is like part of living, like walking down the street and reacting to what you see and hear.And whatever I do react to, I can say immediately in my music . . . The human thing in instrumental playing has to do with trying to get as much human warmth and feeling into my work as I can."
That direct, human quality - in his person as well as his playing - had a lot to do with why so many people who knew and worked with Eric Dophy tended to echo Charles Mingus in calling him "a saint": He simply exemplified what all the truest music has always been about. Which makes Dolphy's work particularly relevant today for reasons that should be obvious. The unearthing of The Berlin Concerts is a god-send because these tapes were made at the height of his powers. The Copenhagen dates were only a week away, and in some ways, this record sounds like a warmup for them. Dolphy's bob-entrenched sidemen are workmanlike though littel more, and if he'd had a bassist equal to Chuck Israels or Richard Davis, I'd have loved to have heard one of those great extended duets he wrote history with. But what comes across throughout this set - especially in his alto sax solo on "The Meeting" and in the unaccompanied bass-clarinet masterpiece "God Bless the Child" - is the warmeth and intimacy of those rich, jugular vocalisms. Ornette Coleman may have been closer to the spawning barnyard and John Coltrane may have cornered the fire sermon for all time, but Eric Dolphy was the sparrow's heart, pulsing in the briefest of springs.
ERIC DOLPHY: THE BERLIN CONCERTS - Inner City, 3017. CAPTION: Picture, ERIC DOLPHY WAS "THE SPARROW'S HEART, PULSING IN THE BRIEFEST OF SPRINGS."