Eric Dolphy – Iron Man


“Eric Dolphy was a saint, in every way, not just his playing.”

-Charles Mingus


Nearly 40 years after his untimely sudden death due to previously undetected diabetes, Eric Dolphy is still slowly earning the respect his body of work deserves.  Especially considering that Dolphy created the bulk of that body of work in six years of creative ferment.


Largely unappreciated by rank and file jazz fans during his 36 years on earth, Dolphy looms large among current horn players and jazz fans as the bridge.  He bridges the gap between bebop and free jazz. This begins with the lyricism he added to Chico Hamilton’s early 60s band. It continued with Dolphy’s incorporation of his avant garde into Charles Mingus’ blues and gospel inspired jazz, adding to some of Mingus’ most important work of the early 60s, like The Town Hall Concert and The Great Concert. 


Dolphy brought a sense of continuity to the free jazz frontier, keeping up as Ornette Coleman’s counterpart in the groundbreaking double quartet recording, Free Jazz.  He also helped John Coltrane reach new heights as part of Coltrane’s band for the seminal Live At The Village Vanguard and Impressions. Then there was Dolphy’s work as a leader on essential modern jazz records like Out To Lunch, Conversations and the album you now hold in your hand.


Iron Man says a lot about Dolphy.  It shows a great deal of his range as a musicians and musical theoretician.  While known mostly as a sax player, Dolphy studied classical flute and then brought it to bear on jazz like no one before him. On Iron Man, his take on Jaki Bayard’s  “Ode To Charlie Parker” aptly illustrates just how ear-opening his flute work had become by 1962, how it touches bases from Bach to Bop while never losing the essence of Dolphy’s inventive improvisational skills. He also single-handedly turned the bass clarinet into not only a jazz instrument, but also a viable solo voice, as he illustrates amply on Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” These points are driven home even more sharply in the simplicity of both arrangements as duets with bassist Richard Davis.


Rather than use a piano, Dolphy used vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson on this session, creating a more percussive, more exuberant sound on “Burning Spear.” Hutcherson may well be the “Iron Man” in the title track, as his metallic vibes keep both the massed horns and the energetic solos from spinning out where the busses don’t run. Partially, this is because Dolphy (unlike Coleman) never out-rightly discarded the idea of harmony for the parallel lines of Coleman’s free jazz or the dissonant density of Cecil Taylor.


The harmonies on these pieces, while “out,” rarely become dissonant, though the opening flourish of the title track could have been an outtake from Free Jazz. This is both despite and because of the instrumentation, particularly the unusual horn lineup -- with Woody Shaw on trumpet (another player who died way too young), Clifford Jordan on soprano sax, Prince Lasha on flute and Sonny Simmons on second alto.  Dolphy shows a particularly deft hand at arranging for this grouping of midrange instruments (as he had previously demonstrated on Coltrane’s Africa/Brass). The solo’s revel in the player’s diversity, with Hutcherson’s linear phrases and Shaw playing free modalities with post-bop chops juxtaposed with Dolphy’s own meteoric showers of extended free phrasing and improbable intervals. 


More than this, Iron Man exhibits traits that informed Dolphy’s work as a player, the elements that made any music he played special, made it his.  More than anyone else before or since, he had the ability to almost produce speech from his winds. Dolphy’s horns talk, an element especially noticeable in certain duets he played with Mingus as on his duets with Davis here. Even beyond the quality of the sung or spoken word, however, Dolphy brought joy to his music. Even when the context is solemn, his music speaks of ecstasy, passion, exuberance, playfulness, virtuosity and musical adventure.


Dolphy himself once noted, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air.  You can never recapture it.”  As a player, this might be true. Indeed for any jazz players it should be the essence of what they do. As such, Dolphy defined what makes jazz special and exciting, especially as a live music.  Fortunately, as a listener, you can marvel at the magic of Eric Dolphy’s music through recordings like this.