Eric Dolphy – The Illinois Concert

The Illinois ConcertThe Illinois Concert
Eric Dolphy
(Blue Note)
by John Barrett

The successful jazz musician is always moving. For Eric Dolphy, 1963 brought many intriguing settings: a quintet at Carnegie Hall, a Cincinnati date with Coltrane (it might be their last date together.) And there was Champaign, Illinois: the University held its Festival of Contemporary Arts, focusing on improvised music. Among the classical composers, one figure from jazz; Ornette couldn’t make it, and he suggested Dolphy. After a busy day (including a discussion panel where he got agitated), Eric gave a concert, joined by the Illinois big band. (Two names you might recognize: Kim Richmond and Cecil Bridgewater.) He reaches out strong in a powerful quartet, plays early versions of famous tunes, and shows his skill as an arranger. (An overlooked aspect, these charts compare well to his work on Africa/Brass.) And, as always, the leader astounds with his unfettered imagination. No doubt: Dolphy’s mind was as active as he was!

The sound is good, if soft at times; the band is a pleasant surprise. Herbie Hancock is right at home, pulsing hard with occasional Cecil figures. He starts a strong “Morning Sunrise”; Dolphy hints theme for a moment and starts to wander. It’s a world of extremes: the clarinet’s smooth, up in alto range, then comes a guttural bellow. The higher notes turn strident, in a Coltrane tone (hear Hancock, with a Tyner vamp) – he riffs himself on a subterranean hum. All the while it gets tougher; Herbie builds tension, and J.C. Moses is thick on the beats. Now Eric goes faster, another one-man call-and-response, next a new phrase (almost a composition in itself) and he’s gone. Herbie is, if anything, more tense, spinning chords and little riffs with massive coiled strength. There’s a good riffy bass (Eddie Khan, a last-minute substitute for Richard Davis), and Eric returns, closing with the theme (the only time we hear it.) The crowd is subdued; perhaps it was a classical audience who didn’t expect this. That doesn’t matter; this is classical music.

Sticking to clarinet, Eric muses a minute on what might be the first recording of “Something Sweet, Something Tender”. It ends on a high note, which segues into the solo “God Bless the Child”, a staple of his live shows. This one is silk, and a bit deeper than earlier versions. The creamy notes drip despair – then he gets some baritone chug on those five-note flutters. He shouts in places, pops fiercely (here the crowd murmurs) but always it’s solemn, and rather spiritual. The crowd’s a little warmer, and it only gets better from here.

Moses cracks off four bars, and we sail on a flute, sweet but aggressive. Called “Blues in A-Flat” in a concert review, it was “South Street Exit” when it appeared on Last Date. There appears to be mike trouble; Eric’s hard to hear under Hancock’s bold slams. What you hear is lovely: easy patterns in the middle register, bird songs with a touch of grit. Herbie’s solo has a gentle tinge; an easy feel, even as he races. Dolphy joins at the end, an almost imperceptible trill. It’s the sound of a kiss.

Next up is “Bombs”, as it was called at the time; it was recorded later that year, and titled “Iron Man”. That alto takes off, a nervy blast that veers at odd angles. The tone is rusty, shuffling forward and capped by shrill squeaks. Hancock is simpler on the comping, chords so broad they seem like tone clusters. The solo comes angular, a mystery fogged by the cymbals of Moses. Khan has his best solo, sweetened by Herbie’s light touch. (One bit sounds like “Morning Sunrise”!) Eric introduces the band, and the crowd begins to show appreciation. It did not take you so long.

Now the students join in, first a brass ensemble. (Bridgewater is one of the French horns!) They launch an imperious fanfare, then pulse as Eric themes “Red Planet”. (this was also done by Coltrane as “Miles’ Mode”; the true authorship may never be known.) The brass subsides; Eric floats a high clarinet note, then spins some alto fury, grainy and sour. The horns add a simple riff, in the block voicings used for Africa/Brass. The notes get faster, the phrases longer – just him and Moses it seems like, then the horns reply. Herbie lays back, the drums go large, and all come back for the GRAND finale. The full band is here for “G.W.”, a line from the Outward Bound album named for Gerald Wilson.

Reeds take a slow trill; the trumpets shout above it. Then a sly bit by unison reeds; trombones answer it, and then Dolphy. At the top of his range he pleads in gnarled phrases; the band shouts a static response. Less effective than “Red Planet,” this seems like a quartet with ensembles pasted on. No reflection on Eric: his solo rambles with the best of them, ending in a delirious tumble. Hancock is stately (sound problems obscure his opening) and the band returns unexpected with a full-cry ending. This gets ’em going, and amid the applause are the only whistles of the evening. A fascinating outing: we get several works in progress, Herbie in an unexpected context, and some weighty turns by the heaviest cat on the planet. It’s a necessary part of your jazz education, and I bet the kids learned something.

Rating: ****. Every track is worth hearing; the gold is “God Bless the Child” and everything past it. Some heavy interplay on the band here; hard to believe it’s a pickup group. The arrangements are nice, and Dolphy is rarely short of magnificent. If you’ve any interest in the man at all, you will want to hear this.

Songs: Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise; Something Sweet, Something Tender; God Bless the Child; South Street Exit; Iron Man; Red Planet; G.W.

Musicians: Eric Dolphy (alto sax, flute, bass clarinet); Herbie Hancock (piano); Eddie Khan (bass); J.C. Moses (drums), plus: University of Illinois Brass Ensemble on “Red Planet”, University of Illinois Big Band on “G.W.”

For more info, contact: Blue Note Records