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Eric Dolphy: The Illinois Concert

The commercial release of Eric Dolphy’s March 1963 performance at the University of Illinois is significant on several counts. The program includes early readings of Dolphy’s “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” “South Street Exit” and “Iron Man,” featuring Dolphy at the helm of a quartet featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Eddie Khan, and drummer J.C. Moses. The concert concludes with two arrangements for large ensembles, the most glaringly underdocumented facet of the multi-instrumentalist’s compositional prowess. One of those pieces is “Red Planet,” known to most jazz fans as the John Coltrane composition “Miles Mode;” as scholars have built a credible case for Dolphy’s authorship, detailed in Dolphy biographer/ discographer Vladmir Simosko’s liner notes, the release of this arrangement will be a salient reference point for any ongoing authorship debate.

The Illinois Concert also offers a rare glimpse into how Dolphy structured a major concert. Intriguingly, he leads off with an almost twenty-minute version of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” which makes for an interesting comparison with Coltrane’s November ’61 Village Vanguard recording of the tune, one of the few from those epochal sessions that did not include Dolphy. Whereas the Coltrane version was concise to the point of seeming scripted, Dolphy’s is free-ranging, exploring some ideas at length, while quickly dispensing others. There is a continuously evolving rhythmic interplay within the quartet; while Moses and Khan swell and ebb, maintaining an inviting buoyancy, Hancock shifts between prodding chords, rippling arpeggios, and bluesy inflections, with a seeming determination not to trespass on McCoy Tyner’s turf. On top of this, Dolphy, on bass clarinet, builds solos from jarring fragmentary statements, occasionally double-clutching between ideas to produce a pronounced anticipatory tension. The most fascinating contrast between the two performances is that Dolphy doesn’t attempt to match the warmth and glory of Coltrane’s “Sunrise,” but settles for a mitigated resolution, as he is rendering the beginning of just another day in the trenches.

“Something Sweet, Something Tender” (which appeared fully formed on Out to Lunch) is utilized as a short introduction to “God Bless the Child,” signaling the tone of Dolphy’s unaccompanied bass clarinet showcase. While this performance does not have the emotional spikes of the ’61 versions, it is a deeply moving, highly charged performance, arguably his most cogent recording of the song. “South Street Exit” is marred by Dolphy’s flute being off-mike; still, this is an engaging take on Dolphy’s sprinting blues, which he would reprise on Last Date. The quartet portion of the program ends with an excellent reading of “Iron Man,” whose driving theme (which, at this date, had not quite jelled into its final form) is particularly well-suited to Hancock’s more avantish tendencies; Dolphy’s screaming alto solo is a high point of the program.

The two final large ensemble performances are nothing less than revelatory. On “Red Planet,” Dolphy’s quartet is augmented by a brass ensemble consisting of five French horns, two baritone horns, and a tuba (Cecil Bridgewater, then an Illinois student, plays French horn). The arrangement employs some of the same devices Dolphy used in his charts for Coltrane’s Africa/Brass: chords swell regally, then fade into the background; staccato jabs are feathered by the luster of the French horns; and harmonic density is leavened by the brass, generally subordinate relationship to the soloists. A more conventionally configured big band is heard on “G.W.,” which contemporary press reports cite as Dolphy’s first big band chart. A fleet, boppish homage to composer Gerald Wilson (a quintet version appeared on Dolphy’s Prestige/New Jazz debut, Outward Bound), “G.W.” reveals Dolphy to have a firm grasp of how to milk big band fireworks from his unusually structured compositions. Additionally, both “Red Planet” and “G.W.” feature exemplary Dolphy alto solos.

Originally Published