© New York Times 08/30/03 By BEN RATLIFF
Almost nobody plays the music of Eric Dolphy anymore. But the ambitious pianist Eric Reed is giving it a try through tomorrow night at Iridium with a group called the Eric Dolphy Project, and the results are better than anyone could have predicted: joyous, profound, well organized. At the late show on Thursday, the audience applauded longer and more spontaneously after each piece than at any jazz performance I've been to in months.
Dolphy, the musician and composer, died young (36) at a tumultuous moment for jazz (1964), when a freer idea of the music threatened to eclipse the swing and bop traditions. He was a special case. Even before he moved to New York from Los Angeles and started making records under his own name, he played saxophone with the rhythm of Charlie Parker but with the tonal language of a wood thrush. He leaped through wide intervals, propelled by a handful of wild riffs of his own invention, touching down every so often with a reassuring phrase that was recognizably derived from his bebop heroes. His themes, full of strange chord movement and well-timed, icy dissonances, were beautiful yet not the slightest bit sentimental.
Dolphy's music has been reinterpreted before — in the 1980's by Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard, in the 90's by Oliver Lake. But nothing has really stuck; Dolphy remains a curiosity. He wasn't around long enough to see his roots extend into the soil. Also, his music is hard: hard to play through and with unusual chord changes that make it hard to improvise on. Without Dolphy's own brightly exotic, cutting sound — not only on alto saxophone but also on flute and bass clarinet — there's the risk that playing these pieces could be like pumping air into a punctured tire.
But on Thursday night the players on the bandstand got into that self-perpetuating euphoria in which musicians can't stop yelling at each other: the band sounded so good that it almost hurt. Besides Mr. Reed, there was Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Gary Bartz on saxophones and bass clarinet, Stefon Harris on vibraphone, Robert Hurst on bass and Rodney Green on drums.
This take on Dolphy succeeded in a number of ways. For one, it was initiated by a pianist, not a saxophonist; Mr. Reed is seeing the music as composition. And nobody was trying to sound like the musicians heard on the original records, least of all Mr. Bartz. In fact, each player sounded like just about the best possible version of himself. The pieces were well chosen, and though they must have been about 20 minutes each, time sped. Some were strengthened by simple arrangement ideas — like piano playing behind one solo and vibraphone playing behind the next — that didn't dilute the power of the originals.
Mr. Reed, in particular, wasn't cowed by the material or saving his energy for gigs featuring his own music: he played in full battle mode. He wouldn't seem to be a natural fit for this music. His composing aesthetic comes from a completely different place; it's generally more playful, traditional and sentimental. I know I've never heard him play music that exults in polytonal chaos, like what comes after the theme of Dolphy's "Gazzellioni." Yet it's obvious that he knows Dolphy's work intimately and loves it.
In three out of the five pieces played — "Potsa Lotsa," "Serene" and "Gazzellioni" — his solos were remarkable: he regularly came up with new improvisational devices, from bop and stride licks to scattered, all-over fluttering to attention-getting clarion calls that signaled a new track of logic. He kept referring back to the lovely, zigzagging themes, so you knew where you were; and still he found places to shovel in blues devices, repeating them truculently as if in a preaching daze.
Preaching was also what Jeremy Pelt did in "Serene." After a solo by Mr. Bartz on bass clarinet that matched the slow, melancholic theme, Mr. Pelt changed the scene, asserting himself with a lyrical, long-tone improvisation that became a series of blues-gospel shouts.
The rhythm section, too, played viciously; these are musicians whose sense of rhythmic interplay comes from the tight, accurate swing of the early Wynton Marsalis bands, hard-driving but sensitive to tone color. It gave Dolphy's music a buoyancy, on which it lives or dies.