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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Guillaume Belhomme - Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography (Wolke Press, 2023)

By Paul Acquaro

A couple of years ago, the French publisher Lenka Lente published a slim biography on the ever influential and somewhat enigmatic Eric Dolphy, and at the end of 2023, an English version appeared from the German Wolke Press. At 112 pages, the book is like an energy bar of biographies, packing all of the calories in an easily accessible packet. Rich with information, Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography provides a thorough and concise overview of the musicians life and development, but this also comes with a gentle warning: the translation could use a little more work.

Sentence structure aside for the moment, what Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography does really well, and with an absolute economy of words, is present well developed sketch of a gentle musical giant. Dolphy (at least to me) was always a bit of a mystery because the avant-garde aspect of his playing was so well integrated into whatever structure or setting he was in. My first recording of his was the oft published Conversations, recorded in 1963, and as I found out from the book, a part of a session organized by Alan Douglas that also yielded the title Iron Man. However, as I also learned through the book, Dolphy's ability to color so well inside and outside the lines was both his USP, as well what perhaps has kept him a bit mysterious. Further revealed throughout the book is how this approach was very much tied to his reserved and rather adaptable personality. So, along with requisite recording dates and personnel listings, the book makes gentle connections between Dolphy the person and Dolphy the musician, suggesting that with his untimely and avoidable early death from diabetes, that the artist had not yet achieved the music that he was likely capable of creating - obvious when someone passes away in their mid-30s, but poignant nevertheless to read and ponder anew. Additionally, Dolphy's work and connection with Coltrane and Mingus are equally explored and detailed. The book has chapters of about three to four pages, each one, as the title expresses, it is more a sketch of the life and times of Dolphy, with an account of all the known sessions he took part in.

Now to turn to that tiny elephant in the room, the translation. Perhaps, I am a bit over sensitized to language, as a residue of my professional activities perhaps (Quick note, I am also aware that I could be much better with my own writing!), but what I want to simply convey is that some sentences and passages can be a bit confounding as they resolve into a certain poetry. Not a deal breaker, just a gentle warning. 

Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography And Discography is an excellent book for both the Dolphy-aware and the Dolphy-curious. While it may not cover previously unknown bombshell insights into the inner workings of the saxophonist who was, for his time, Out There and Out to Lunch, it does provide a really nice grounding in his life story and development of as a musician. I've personally found myself returning to the aforementioned recordings, as well as the newly discovered and released Evenings at the Village Gate with John Coltrane from 1961 with a renewed inquisitiveness.