Eric Dolphy made weighty contributions to the music of Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, and John Coltrane, among others, but he left only a few studio dates as a leader before his tragic death from diabetes at 36. That’s all the more reason to treasure Far Cry, one of three albums that Dolphy made in 1960. (Outward Bound and Out There were the others; all three featured master drummer Roy Haynes.)
On Far Cry, as on other sessions, Dolphy is the very model of a jazz multi-reeds player, performing with equal fluidity and inventiveness on alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet. Alongside him is trumpeter Booker Little, who would die of kidney failure at age 23 less than a year later. Far Cry thus constitutes, along with Dolphy’s two-volume At the Five Spot, a crucial piece of the Booker Little discography, documenting a vibrant musical relationship cut short.
Little’s trumpet had a vitality and unpredictability that complemented Dolphy. Much the same could be said of pianist Jaki Byard, who played on Far Cry as well as Outward Bound and would go on to join Dolphy in one of the all-time great Mingus ensembles shortly before Dolphy’s death. Completing the Far Cry lineup is bassist Ron Carter, whose cello had given Out There such a texturally unusual twist six months earlier. Carter was just a few years away from making history with Miles Davis, achieving a sturdy and supple feel with Haynes on drums—intriguing in contrast to his far more famous and extensive work with Tony Williams in the Davis quintet. (Williams, not incidentally, played on Dolphy’s 1964 masterpiece, ‘Out to Lunch!’.)
Far Cry leads off with two Jaki Byard compositions: “Mrs. Parker of K.C. (Bird’s Mother)” is an alert swinger with Dolphy on bass clarinet, while the ballad “Ode to Charlie Parker” finds him simply radiant on flute (this full-band version is markedly different from the flute/bass duo with Richard Davis on Dolphy’s posthumous Iron Man). There are two standards: “Tenderly,” for solo alto saxophone, and “It’s Magic,” a ballad with some of Dolphy’s most stunningly agile bass clarinet on record. “Left Alone” is by pianist Mal Waldron, who would appear the following year on Dolphy’s Five Spot albums, while “Far Cry” and “Miss Ann” are shining examples of Dolphy’s own writing—springy, swooping melodic lines with a certain edge in timbre and tonality (he plays alto sax on both).
“Far Cry” offers a fascinating peek at Dolphy’s compositional process: It’s a slightly slower, more orchestrated version of the title track from Out There. And the bonus track, “Serene,” a bass clarinet ballad, is quite different from the pianoless version heard on Out There as well.