Out of a swell of applause emerges an acrobatic bass clarinet improvisation unlike any ever recorded. The flourish resolves into the iconic vamp of Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke’s jazz classic Epistrophy, launching a rendition of the tune that runs over eleven minutes. Yet it takes only those first 10 seconds to realize that you are hearing one of the preeminent reed instrument players of the 20th century.
So begins Eric Dolphy’s Last Date, an album rich with avant-garde musical invention and unrivaled virtuosity, yet shrouded in tragedy. The performance on June 2, 1964, was not Dolphy’s last concert, nor even his last to be recorded, but the title is appropriate since the album was his first recording to be released posthumously. Just twenty-seven days after this live set, the 36-year-old composer and musician died in a Berlin hospital of diabetic shock.
Dolphy’s instrumental prowess is the stuff of legend. His fluid phrasing and stunning leaps across multiple octaves on the bass clarinet, an instrument requiring massive breath support, are studied to this day by orchestral reed players at European conservatories. On flute, he could shift from the warmest, lushest classical tone to haunting, hollow, primal cries in an instant. Indeed, his dynamic feats on these two instruments make his much-admired wizardry on alto sax—the instrument for which he is best known—seem almost pedestrian.
It would be hard to imagine a better choice than Epistrophy as the album’s opener. Written in 1941, the piece was one of the first of Thelonious Monk’s many landmark compositions that propelled jazz into the modern era. Yet its driving, syncopated melodic motif perfectly embodies jazz’s street music roots. Exploiting the full range of his bass clarinet, Dolphy takes this “split personality” to the extreme. Throughout his solo, he juxtaposes relentlessly frantic, atonal phrases with tribal trills and bluesy bent notes that harken back all the way to 1920s New Orleans. Special kudos to bassist Jacques Schols for his funky, laid back, soulful solo on this track.
Although he opens and closes the piece on alto sax, Dolphy returns to bass clarinet for his solo on pianist Misha Mendelberg’s crazily named contribution to the album, Hypochristmutreefuzz. The piece is a perfect platform for Dolphy’s far-reaching melodic and harmonic experimentations.
Dolphy’s distinctive alto sound, with its blend of hints of Charlie Parker and avant-garde overtones, comes to the forefront throughout his compositions, The Madrig Speaks, The Panther Walks and Miss Ann. The first of these is an extraordinary piece of jazz writing, with a beautiful suspension of rhythm that appears cyclically throughout the piece. The main theme begins with a harmonically challenging, interval-based run landing on a dissonant trill, but the resolution of the phrase reveals Dolphy’s talent for subtle lyricism, even as he refuses to stop pushing the tension. As far as I know, no one is sure what a “madrig” is, but there are indications that the word had currency in the Black Nationalist movements of the 1960s, an intriguing possibility given both the title’s reference to a panther and the tune’s undercurrent of defiance.
In the end, it is Dolphy’s work on flute that always has been and remains my favorite element of this remarkable album. South Street Exit is an incredibly inventive take on the traditional 12-bar blues form, with a melody that beautifully embodies Dolphy’s love of unconventional arpeggios. In his solo, Dolphy alternates between aggression, introspection, and lighthearted whimsy. Arguably, however, it is Mendelberg’s bouncing, rhythmic piano solo that claims highest honors on this track. I have in fact recorded a (woefully inadequate, in my estimation) version of this piece, one of only three covers to appear among my four jazz CDs.
Even if you have never made peace with the dissonances and rhythmic irregularities of modern music, you owe it to yourself to at least listen to the first two and a half minutes of the fifth track on Last Date, Dolphy’s astonishing flute rendition of the beloved standard, You Don’t Know What Love Is. His 23-second, classically constructed solo introduction is a musical flying carpet ride to another plane of existence. Building on that classically ethereal foundation, he performs his ornate but tasteful rendering of the melody accompanied only by bowed bass drones. Yet amidst all the formality and grace, Dolphy sprinkles in some of the most chillingly perfect, blues-infused pitch bends ever produced on flute.
The overall effect is at once spellbinding and heartbreaking, a powerful reminder that not one of us truly does know what love is. Yet the mystery of the search infuses every breath of a lifetime with meaning, wonder, and the most beautiful sadness.
And sadness, a vast and powerful sadness, is indeed the inevitable and appropriate emotion experienced by anyone who listens to Last Date, especially if they also watch the companion video documentary of the same title. On June 28, 1964, Eric Dolphy fell into a coma during a tour stop in Berlin. Attending physicians claimed that they had performed blood tests and identified Dolphy’s (previously undiagnosed) diabetes, but that he suffered a fatal insulin reaction when they attempted to treat his condition.
Fellow musicians and many others close to Dolphy tell a very different story. They insist that hospital staff, blinded by stereotypes, assumed that the African American jazz musician was suffering from a drug overdose and errantly assigned him to the detox ward. They either failed altogether to perform the simple blood test that could have saved him or conducted it only when they realized their error, far too late.
Which story is true, or whether the truth lies somewhere in between, we cannot know. Hospitals did not keep detailed records in the 1960s. What we do know is that Eric Dolphy most certainly was not a drug addict. He lived his whole life sober and was one of the most disciplined, hardest working musicians in all of 20th-century music. Almost certainly, his death could have been prevented with prompt diagnosis and careful treatment.
The volume of groundbreaking music that Eric Dolphy produced in the four years before his untimely death is almost beyond comprehension. What he could have accomplished with another 30, 40, 50 years or more is truly beyond imagination.
In the final seconds of Last Date, we hear Dolphy’s own words from a moment when he addressed the audience. “When you hear music,” he said, “after it’s over, it’s gone—in the air. You can never capture it again.” I wholeheartedly agree that no musical moment can ever truly be reproduced, even with the best recording technology existing today or yet to come. The performance does indeed melt into the air. But I do not accept that it is gone. A wave once formed reverberates across vast times and distances, and the musical waves Eric Dolphy created over 50 years ago still set our souls vibrating today.