Eric Dolphy Live: Here was a Man!

The Illinois Concert

Eric Dolphy is, I suspect, a problem for historians of jazz. On the one hand, he was surely one of the most inventive composers of the jazz era. On the other, it is not see easy to trace his influence in the way that Coltrane or Ornette Coleman's silhouettes are visible in so much later jazz. Except that, and here is an important footnote to the last comment, Dolphy's influence was very evident on Coltrane himself.

Out to Lunch is thought to be Dolphy's magnum opus. I am still making my mind up about it. I prefer Far Cry among his studio albums. I find Dolphy always more interesting and brilliant live, and there is a lot of that. His influence on Trane can be scene on two seminal recordings: The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions, and Live at the Village Vanguard. I am not sure but that the very sound of Dolphy's bass clarinet was enough to rearrange space and time around it. Surely this had something to do with the low horn orchestra that Trane arranged for the former recording. Dolphy also did a lot of recording with Charlie Mingus, but I haven't yet begun to assimilate that.

Dolphy left a magnificent set of live recordings, including his dates with trumpeter Booker Little: Live at the Five Spot, Vols. 1 and 2, and Memorial Album, and his recordings with otherwise unknown European jazzmen: Eric Dolphy in Europe, Vols. 1, 2, and 3.

Today I acquired another disc: The Illinois Concert. I am very surprised that Blue Note didn't call it "Eric Dolphy Meets Herbie Hancock." Hell, maybe they should have, as the collaboration between two of jazz's most interesting composers is the chief interest in the recording. It's a mixed bag. Part of the recording is a standard quartet, with two additional numbers pitting Dolphy against the University of Illinois Brass Ensemble, and the U of I Big Band. The recording is very uneven. Dolphy plays flute on 'South Street Exit," and he is so faint it sounds like his mike was in Indiana.

But the first cut, a good twenty minutes long, is worth the purchase price. Dolphy was the very model of what I call Page Four Jazz: Dolphy and Hancock are not playing 'Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,' they are canibalizing it for musical ideas. But it is one of the interesting things about this kind of jazz that it helps a lot if you know the melody they are chewing on. The dialogue between the titanic horn and piano displays nothing less than God's tool box for universe building. Also worth their weight in metaphysical gold are Dolphy's solo presentation of 'God Bless the Child,' one of his signature pieces, and 'Iron Man' which soars with rocket boots.

Dolphy was one of jazz's great tragedies. Born in 1928, he only begins his serious career in 1958. Six years later he died, of undiagnosed diabetes. It is nothing short of astounding how much extraordinary music he made in those six years. One might almost guess that he perished from exhaustion. But here, oh jazz fans, was a man.

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Kenneth Blanchard