The Illinois Concert
"When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." The vitality of Eric Dolphy's own music disproves his most famous quote. Little-known and never-before-released sessions by Dolphy have continued to emerge since his death in 1964, further building up his titanic legacy as a jazz pioneer. Indeed this new addition to Dolphy's discography, recorded during a single 1963 performance at the University of Illinois, provides a unique opportunity to hear him in a variety of musical configurations: solo; quartet with Herbie Hancock, Eddie Kahn and J.C. Moses; quartet plus brass ensemble; and big band.
The Illinois Concert contains some of the most astounding and rewarding Dolphy recordings ever released. "G.W.," a tune written by Dolphy for his friend, the trumpeter and arranger Gerald Wilson, is one of only a handful of extant recordings of Dolphy's big band arrangements. On this song Dolphy is in exemplary form as both a composer and improviser. The big band flows down the third stream, seamlessly combining jazz and classical arrangements, while Dolphy's alto sax solo soars above the masterful percussion work of J. C. Moses.
Although Dolphy had played with Hancock, Kahn, and Moses before, these are the only recordings of this particular group that are available; their rarity, thankfully, is matched by their quality. The twenty-minute version of "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" included here never fails to inspire, with Dolphy on bass clarinet beginning his solo in a relaxed manner, then gradually increasing the tempo to an intense burn. Hancock also takes a very free solo at his piano that at times approaches the rhythmic complexity and intensity of Cecil Taylor.
Elsewhere the twisting theme of "Iron Man" demonstrates a fusion of Charlie Parker's graceful twirls and Ornette Coleman's warm cacophony while retaining Dolphy's distinctive imprint. During his perfectly balanced solo, Dolphy quickly moves from the lowest possible register to the highest possible one he can muster from his sax. To make such extremely fast intervallic leaps roar out of his instrument, Dolphy must push his sax to the breaking point, a moment that is thrilling to hear.
The Illinois Concert also offers a rare glimpse of Moses, a drummer whose achievements in pushing the boundaries of jazz percussion often go unacknowledged. Moses creates floating rhythms by dropping quick bass and snare drum patterns over a static ride cymbal, forging an approach that lies somewhere between the progressive hard-bop of Elvin Jones and the complete freedom of Milford Graves.
Despite being hidden for the past 36 years, the music Dolphy created on that evening in 1963 still sounds fresh and exciting when compared with many of today's avant-garde jazz acolytes. While it may lack the complete rhythmic abandon that marked much of the interesting jazz of the late '60s, Dolphy's solos stand as some of the most creative improvisations ushered forth from any instrument. -- David Mittleman
On his debut recording, master musician Kaouding Cissoko showcases the versatility of the kora, a 21-to-25-stringed instrument made from a gourd, hardwood, and cowhide, that closely resembles the midway evolution between a harp and a lute. The impressive skill of Cissoko's playing is not surprising; he was born to be a musician -- literally. As part of Senegal's caste system, only certain families are allowed to become artists, musicians, and storytellers. Cissoko was fortunate enough to be born into one of these griot families, whose responsibilities also include the keeping of the tribal history. Although his parents discouraged him from becoming a musician, preferring instead that their son pursue the more conventional path of a white-collar professional, Cissoko practiced his kora with fervor and sought out his uncle, Cheikh Diabate, for lessons.
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Ironically, despite that early parental disapproval, Cissoko's father appears on this album, as do many of his siblings and cousins. This familial reconciliation is best expressed on "Bannaya," a tribute to Cissoko's father, Banna, that demonstrates both remarkable skill and soul. With fourteen of the seventeen musicians and vocalists coming from Banna's family, and Banna himself sharing lead vocals with the legendary Afro-soul figure Baaba Maal, the song soars with the interplay between singers and strings, with drums and devotion twirling around one another, raising the song of praise to vertigo-inducing heights.
Unfortunately that inspirational mood is in short supply elsewhere on the album. Take the title track, which mixes a tinge of Latin jazz with the manding's more traditional interweaving of folkloric melodies. While the song has a brilliant sonic quality, the heart of the music seems to have been sacrificed to the showcasing of kora magic. Likewise, "Nigini Bagne Na," a new arrangement of a traditional tune, opens with a melody in which an evocation of open veldts and crimson suns recalls the sweep of Ennio Morricone's film scores. Yet the song never moves on from that initial cinematic rush, ultimately failing to elicit any lasting emotional resonance.
The liner notes to Kora Revolution state that "[the] intention on this recording was to show the full spectrum of the majestic kora." To a large degree Cissoko succeeds, but to what end? His technical mastery of the instrument is only occasionally complemented by music as inspired as it is proficient. What's left behind is a beautiful sounding, well-produced album that ultimately does less for the listener than it does for the instrument. -- Brian E. Rochlin