Prestigious: A Tribute to Eric Dolphy
Songbook and tribute albums cause even slightly jaundiced jazz consumers to reflexively wince. Too often, such projects provide barely a fig leaf's cover for the same old same old. However, the countering gambit of mixing repertoire with "inspired by" originals frequently becomes mired by pat deconstructivism. Pianist Harold Danko and trumpeter Don Sickler resolve the quandary on, respectively, Prestigious and Reflections, through their intimate knowledge of their source materials and their contagious spirit in interpreting them. Subsequently, these albums are more rewarding than most similarly conceived recordings.
Given the improbability of Eric Dolphy's legacy being championed by Danko, whose resume is studded with names like Mulligan, Konitz and Jones-Lewis, it is not surprising he would focus on the multi-instrumentalist's early Prestige output, emphasizing blues variants like "Les" and "245," ballads like "Serene" and "The Prophet" and boppish cookers like "Miss Ann" and "GW." At first glance, his enlisting of such Steeplechase stalwarts as trumpeter Dave Ballou, tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jeff Hirshfield suggests an attempt to normalize Dolphy's music. Yet Danko's usual brand of modernist erudition proves to be an effective varnish remover, revealing the rich grain of Dolphy's compositions. Additionally, the contrast between the exclamatory Dolphy and Perry's more conversational tenor furthers this process. Still, Danko and his cohorts have not defanged Dolphy's music and have not polished it to an unnatural gloss. Throughout the program, Danko's sly nods to Jaki Byard and Mal Waldron, Ballou's smear-capped lines and the agile underpinning of Formanek and Hirshfield provide sufficient grit and bluesiness to win over initial doubters.
Besides being the front-runner for having the year's longest subtitle-Rare Post Bop Compositions of Trumpet Masters Miles Davis, Booker Little, Bill Hardman, Joe Gordon, Lonnie Hillyer and Tommy Turrentine-Sickler's Reflections is in the hunt for Most Inclusive Historical Perspective honors. Sickler's real achievement with this collection is how he takes a sliver of jazz history and reveals its richness with just a cursory survey. This is an endeavor where connoisseurship counts for a lot, and Sickler's is confirmed both in his choices of supple, poignant ballads like Turrentine's "Gone but not Forgotten" and Hillyer's "Minor Reflections" and cookers like Hillyer's "Soft Shoulder" and Hardman's "Politely." Yet such connoisseurship is found daily, if not hourly, in the prattle of specialist Internet list serves. It is the celebratory performances of Sickler, saxophonist/flutist Bobby Porcelli, pianist Ronnie Mathews, bassist Peter Washington and master drummer Ben Riley that makes all the difference. Sickler and his cohorts do not just faithfully convey the buoyancy, grit and lyricism of this body of work, they make it new.