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Harold Danko: 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.

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