Jazz purists might argue that staging a tribute to the late jazz giant Eric Dolphy sans flute is akin to feting Jimi Hendrix with a guitar-free lineup. Despite that quibble, this well-meaning aggregation — admittedly not the first to use the Dolphy Project moniker — did a credible job of channeling the spirit and urgency of the multi-instrumentalist’s work on the cusp of bop and free improv.
Pianist Eric Reed took the reins on a set-opening “G.W.,” which meandered on occasion but ultimately soared when Gary Bartz and Jeremy Pelt kicked into a unified run midway through the tune’s fractious midsection. While not overly imitative, Reed’s loping playing was clearly rooted in the Jaki Byard tradition, at turns elegant, quizzical and icy.
Stefon Harris took a lyrical approach to vibes, particularly on “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” a relatively straightforward reading of one of Dolphy’s most lyrical numbers. Vividly arranged and dewy in tone, the tune captured the prodding playfulness of the original, albeit without the composer’s unexpected interval leaps.
While Bartz acquitted himself well on alto sax, the set could’ve used more of Dolphy’s nerve-frazzling dissonance. Some pieces — a teasing “245,” for instance –zigged when they might’ve been expected to zag, particularly when drummer Rodney Green ventured out of the pocket. Too often, however, particularly at its end, perf had the musty air of a museum rather than the electrical charge of the loft scene that spawned Dolphy.