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April 2000

Eric Dolphy
The Illinois Concert
Blue Note Records

This unexpected set of 1963 performances is a reminder of the bracing astringency Dolphy brought to jazz in the 1950s and early '60s. His unaccompanied four-bar bass clarinet introduction of "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" encapsulates the reasons that the young woodwind wizard made so strong an impact. It puts into a neat and irresistible package instrumental mastery, rhythmic urgency, audacious interval leaps, tonal refraction, humor and a speech-inflected delivery emblematic of the individuality that is the one attribute shared by the best jazz musicians.

Twenty-six years after this recording and 25 after Dolphy's death, he is strong medicine for many listeners in a time when homogenization, rather than individuality, wins the prize. During its 20-minute performance, Dolphy does everything with "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" but acknowledge the melody. He drops hints, and the underlying structure of the song is there, but his solo is abstraction squared, subdivided, fragmented. The rhythm section of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Eddie Khan and drummer J.C. Moses support him with rock-steady fidelity, but in his a capella "God Bless the Child," Dolphy takes just as compelling a trip without them.

Dolphy's flute is so far from the microphone that it requires concentration-which is rewarded-to hear his solo on the blues "South Street Exit." An ensemble from the University of Illinois jazz band backs his alto for "South Street Exit" and "Red Planet." The entire band, one of the best college jazz bands ever, is behind him on "G.W." The sound quality and balance of the ad hoc recording are far from perfect, but Dolphy's roistering solos make that beside the point.

Originally published in April 2000
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