Topical because unheard alternates will be available via Resonance Records when they are released in late-November this listening version came out of course not on CD because the format had not been invented but on an LP on Alan Douglas’ Douglas International label. 

Liner notes on the CD reissue give an idea of the circumstances of recording. The year was 1963. But the record took until 1968 to gain a release four years after Dolphy tragically died. This is full on. 

“The recording sessions took place late at night in a very relaxed studio for five successive nights. In this environment the playing of Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis and the other musicians was unbelievably inspired. So much was created, individual compositions went from ‘almost commercial’ to ‘very far out’.”

The title track of Iron Man is shy of 10 minutes, half a concerto if you like. This seems if anything too short. You could arguably stop listening after the title track but you would miss out — a lot. 

Let’s get the personnel out of the way: Eric Dolphy – bass clarinet, flute, alto saxophone; Richard Davis on bass; Clifford Jordan – soprano saxophone; Sonny Simmons – alto saxophone; Prince Lasha – flute; Woody Shaw – trumpet; Bobby Hutcherson – vibraphone; J.C. Moses – drums; Eddie Khan – bass (Iron Man). The tracks on side one of the vinyl are: “Iron Man” by Dolphy – 9:07; “Mandrake” also by Dolphy – 4:50; “Come Sunday” (Duke Ellington) – 6:24; and on t’other “Burning Spear” also by Dolphy – 11:49; and “Ode To Charlie Parker”(Jaki Byard) – 8:05.

How undated the music remains. Like a painting by Picasso it looks and feels even at this distance modern, Dolphy again erasing the gap between 2018 and a half century ago sounds modern not belonging only to his time. 

There is a blistering ferocity and heat, something that is absent completely on a whole swathe of comparatively taciturn chamber jazz produced in 2018. Instead the air is filled, scribbled, painted over, etched, crammed, populated with detailed sound just as on a Charlie Parker record the air is stuffed with notes, dense with harmony, a sprint not a jog. The chord changes are alleys that lead into lanes and back again. No one gets lost: a labyrinth is the lived-in universe. There is a ritualism in the complication.

The tart sinuous interplay of the reeds and the rampaging bass are compelling. And, yet, when Dolphy switches to bass clarinet on ‘Come Sunday’ and Davis on arco bass against him Dolphy lightly trilling as the unexpected serenity of the double bass takes up the melody catches him by surprise, there is much more going on than sheer extravagant gesture or superfluous musical overkill. 

The gospel music of Dolphy’s youth spills out deeply on the Ellingtonia, a small oasis of counterpoint eventually developing as the interplay between Davis and Dolphy ensues occasionally snagging to flounder in Davis’ tonal pools as deeper reservoirs of rich resonance are charted that by the end Dolphy resolves by going to the highest part of the register he can and has to reach. (The quote in the headline is by Amiri Baraka writing in Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music [University of California Press, 2009, page 236]. SG