Far Cry – The Music of Eric Dolphy

Foundry 616, October 26


smiling with soprano sax
Paul Cutlan. Photo supplied.

He could write melodies as exultant as a leap in the air, and first lit up the world 60 years ago, his radical conception already fully formed. This was a complete reimagining of what an alto saxophone, a bass clarinet or a flute could be; of what a solo could be; of what jazz could be. Eric Dolphy polarised people: to those with the ears to hear he was a revolutionary genius, while to others he was a charlatan with an excessive fondness for dissonance.

Those dissonant harmonies (dovetailing with his love of 20th-century classical music) never spiked his music with ugliness, however, but with ebullience and ecstasy – the latter a state few artists even aspire to realise, let alone succeed in reaching. Besides, Dolphy’s music did not fly out of a vacuum: it was an extension of the work of the likes of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and, most importantly, Ornette Coleman. Yet so original was his conception that it is still being assimilated 53 years after he died, aged 36.

Eric Dolphy. Photo: Blue Note Records/Mosaic Images.

Paul Cutlan assembled musicians to play Dolphy’s compositions who would not denude them of their mystery or reduce their magic to pedestrianism. On the fantastical Hat and Beard his own his bass clarinet could toy playfully with the rhythm or become almost Gothic in its web of ghostly cries and wanton growls. On the ballad 245 his alto saxophone meshed with that of Peter Farrar, their timbres and intonation arched, edgy and untamed.

The consistently astounding Farrar has a throw-back sound to a pre-bop era of broad vibrato, and on Far Cry his alto solo suggested that jubilation had been compressed in a pressure-cooker and was now straining to escape from every aperture in the music’s fabric.

Bassist Steve Elphick and drummer James Waples kept that edge of jolting surprise, the former’s arco work deepening the music’s mysteries, while pianist Luke Sweeting often cast himself as the foil, tempering the elation with understatement or knotting the music and letting it unravel.