Any musician, in celebrating an artist like Eric Dolphy, is stepping onto a minefield. Exploratory and ever-forward-looking, the music of the free-jazz pioneer seems almost designed to resist the sometimes bloodless tribute-recording format. Fortunately, with So Long, Eric!-Homage to Eric Dolphy, the man’s compositions are in the hands of pianists Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach, two musicians who have spent their careers carrying the bold experimental flag Dolphy helped to raise. The result, nine fresh arrangements of Dolphy compositions recorded live in Berlin last June, is thrilling listening.
Takase and Schlippenbach’s arrangements are given stirring life by a cadre of musicians who fully grasp the demands of these pieces, delivering performances balanced between aesthetic sensitivity and near-hysterical abandon. The unison horn statements on “Les” are staggering in their graceful precision, while the cacophony of “Hat and Beard” would splinter into mere chaos in the hands of less-skilled performers. Trombonist Nils Wogram entwines like a lover with his fellow horns on the aptly titled “Serene,” and “Out There” soars on the rush of a blazing Henrik Walsdorff alto solo.
The pianists’ choice of repertoire showcases Dolphy’s breadth, from the elegance of “17 West,” bolstered by the high-flying clarinet of Rudi Mahall, to the furious squall of “Out to Lunch,” with its explosive introductory drum solo by past Dolphy collaborator Han Bennink and Axel Dörner’s trumpet channeling a screaming kamikaze fighter. Schlippenbach’s pointed block chords on “The Prophet” evoke compelling tension, while Takase’s atonal classicism and unerring sense of drama electrify “Miss Ann,” which finds her working the left hand like a sledgehammer.