At first glance, Eric Dolphy and Nat King Cole would not seem to have a lot in common. Dolphy, a gifted multi-instrumentalist who moved easily from alto saxophone to bass clarinet to flute, was primarily associated with the avant-garde movement of the early '60s. And Cole, of course, is best known to the wider music audience as a sweet-voiced purveyor of pop songs.
But both had a lesser-known side. In Dolphy's case, it was the capacity to play in unexpectedly lyrical fashion. And Cole, although highly visible as a pianist, has not been sufficiently acknowledged for his first-rate chops as a jazz artist.
Two new CDs provide unexpected perspective into Dolphy's not always apparent musical tenderness and Cole's unrelenting ability to swing.
"Eric Dolphy: The Illinois Concert" (*** 1/2, Blue Note) was recorded at the University of Illinois in 1963. Dolphy performs with his quartet--which included Herbie Hancock, piano; Eddie Kahn, bass; and J.C. Moses, drums--as well as with several university ensembles.
The most touching track is a solo bass clarinet rendering of "God Bless the Child" that is both emotionally engaging and musically intriguing.
Dolphy's bass clarinet is similarly affecting on "Something Sweet, Something Tender," as he contrasts its dark, woody low register with the vocalized sounds of his high notes. And, for fans of the edgier side of Dolphy's work, there are his characteristically disjunct lines on both alto saxophone (on "Iron Man") and flute ("South Street Exit"). As an added bonus, "Red 20 Planet" (written for jazz group and brass ensemble) and "G.W.," a big-band piece, reveal his less-known skills as an arranger-composer. Amazingly, this superb example of Dolphy's extraordinary abilities--originally recorded by the university's radio station--has never before surfaced, even in bootleg editions.
The same is true of "Nat King Cole: Live at the Circle Room" (*** 1/2, Blue Note), which was recorded in 1946 in Milwaukee and broadcast over a local radio station. It is the first time that the King Cole Trio--which then included guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller--was recorded live. As added perspective, it's worth noting that, although the Cole voice is as warm and mature as it was in later years, he was only 26 at the time of the recording.
Most of the album consists of vocal tracks, but there are several opportunities to hear Cole in a straight-ahead jazz mode--a lighthearted instrumental version of " 'C' Jam Blues" (Cole's only recording of the number) and brisk, up-tempo romps through "I've Found a New Baby" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" among them. Brief but to the point, they display his precise but swinging, minimalist lines as well as the propulsive surge of the entire trio.
There are vocal gems as well: a lovely version of "I'm Through With Love"; an easy-grooving take on "My Sugar Is So Refined" (which he never recorded in the studio, but which is done twice here); a bouncy "I'm in the Mood for Love." And how fascinating it is to hear early renderings of such Cole classics as "Sweet Lorraine" and "It's Only a Paper Moon."
Yet another remarkable album has also surfaced this month on Columbia Legacy. In the early '70s, the Mahavishnu Orchestra--with John McLaughlin, guitar; Jerry Goodman, violin; Jan Hammer, keyboards; Rick Laird, bass; and Billy Cobham, drums--was working at the cutting edge of jazz, blending electronics, rock rhythms, funk accents and an avant-garde sensibility into music that was insistently compelling. But when their third album was scheduled to be released in 1973, the band--then experiencing problems with personal communication--couldn't agree upon its quality. Shelved in favor of a live recording, it has been circulating as a bootleg copy for years.
Producer Bob Belden's discovery of the original two-track mixes created the opportunity for a studio-quality version. And listening to the powerful music on the "The Lost Trident Sessions"(*** 1/2, Columbia Legacy) can only make one wonder why it wasn't released earlier. Recorded when the band was at its creative peak, it sounds utterly alive--a set of performances that almost literally could have been recorded last week. What a shame that this synergistic set of performers could not find a way to stay together.