From the first notes, there's no mistaking it: This is Dolphy. A deep-toned, angular progression, like a crow laughing, unfurls from the lowest reaches of a bass clarinet, an instrument that would still be considered miscellaneous were it not for Dolphy, at whose lips this least likely of woodwinds became as expressive as any voice could be. A great band breaks free around him: J.C. Moses' taut but open drum attack, Eddie Kahn's vigilant bass work and a 22-year-old Herbie Hancock's muscular and shockingly advanced piano. The 20-minute improvisation feels nomadic, an elected wandering of urgent glissandos and rhythmic instinct. The music seems to go nowhere only because it travels everywhere. Dolphy masks the melody until the end: a charming show tune, Oscar Hammerstein's "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise."
The occasion for this March 10, 1963, performance was the 11th annual Festival of Contemporary Arts at the University of Illinois, a month of concerts and seminars devoted to contemporary classical music. Dolphy was the only jazz artist invited.
These weren't easy days for the jazz avant-garde, and Dolphy was frequently singled out for attack. A year-and-a-half earlier, Downbeat critic John Tynan had railed against a Dolphy/Coltrane gig: "I heard a good rhythm section go to waste behind the nihilistic exercises of the two horns ... Coltrane and Dolphy seem intent on deliberately destroying (swing) ... They seem bent on pursuing an anarchistic course in their music that can but be termed anti-jazz." Miles Davis heard Dolphy and declared him a "sad mother."
Now, of course, nothing sounds more anti-jazz than such tight-ass criticism. As the music on The Illinois Concert makes clear, Dolphy wasn't remotely arbitrary or chaotic. When the U of I's big-band ensemble joins him for two final, original compositions, his Ellingtonian sense of dynamics and swing, of sympathetic colorings and harmonics, is as manifest as his ingenious, unpredictable spirit. The evening's masterpiece comes in a near-nine-minute solo performance of "God Bless the Child." Charles Mingus, Dolphy's mentor, once described a certain moment of improvisation as "talking unknown tongue," a recognition of his black gospel inheritance. To speak in tongues is to speak directly from the Spirit, a mode supremely suited to "God Bless the Child." Dolphy presents the three most distinctive notes of the theme, then vaults through a blinding, babbling progression and then reiterates the three notes again and again until they become talismanic, less a melodic allusion and more an inchoate mantra. For nearly nine minutes, Dolphy talks in an unknown tongue and finds, truly finds, the musical place where the sayable and unsayable converge. What separates speaking in tongues from gibberish? The palpable relay of inspiration -- which is what Dolphy's music was saying all along.