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Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch

Trevor MacLaren By

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Eric Dolphy
Out to Lunch
Blue Note
1964

Being a Charles Mingus fanatic, I often ask the question, "Are you into Eric Dolphy?" To my appalled surprise, more often than not I get the response "Who?" That, my dear fellow jazzites, is totally unacceptable!

For those of the aforementioned group who have not been knocked down at the knees while Dolphy blows from the speakers, I'll testify. Before his untimely demise from diabetes in 1964 at the age of thirty-six, Eric was responsible for some of the finest, most original and eclectic material to be etched into the body of jazz. Starting out in classical flute under the tutelage of Elise Moennig, Dolphy began using the bass clarinet as a tool of improvisation. He then proceeded to work with Chico Hamilton, gaining some popularity that spanned a prolific output for Prestige in 1960-61.

This period may have been his most productive, but many critics and fans considered his tenure at this time with Mingus as his big break. His output with Mingus's Jazz Workshop is legendary. The temperamental Mingus saw Dolphy in the same light as Miles Davis did Coltrane, calling Dolphy a saint. His use of Dolphy's multi-instrumentalist-bass clarinet, alto sax and flute-tact and original style was a big part of the Workshop and was heartbroken when Dolphy headed back out on his own as a bandleader. Much like John Coltrane, Dolphy had a taken a while to build up his spotlight and also was taken under the wing of a genius who allowed his style to reach a large audience. It is easy to parallel the two musicians; once they stepped out the shadows of their mentors they created some the greatest and most original work of the '60s. As with fellow free jazz innovator Ornette Colman-and of course Trane-Dolphy was fundamental in creating the foundation of free jazz and avant-garde.

Out to Lunch is one of the finest records of its kind. This record is easily at the caliber of A Love Supreme and The Shape of Jazz to Come. That may seem a mighty bold statement. Well, dear readers, I mean every word. Out to Lunch flows soft and serene, then edgy and forthright. The magic is the way Dolphy leads his band. A touch of ease drops over the soundscape of the tracks before the trademark blast of jagged rips and chops run to the edge off a cliff and dangle with sounds that shake jazz's boundaries. Dolphy shows himself as solid bandleader and arranger who opens up plenty of room of for his players. Much in the ideology of his fellow avant-garde players, the solos exude experiment. Yet Dolphy's control is masterful and no matter how far out he gets, you can feel his passion and know his path has been well articulated.

A great example of the record's contrast in sound is "Something Sweet, Something Tender," which lays out a smooth layer of vibes by Bobby Hutcherson before Dolphy launches into his atonal attack. His work is not altogether estranged from the music that came before. If nothing else his style builds on the work of bebop masters. But for this time around Dolphy walks away from those conventions and gives the experimental a huge to canvas for his textures. This record is where Dolphy starts blazing into the territory of Cecil Taylor. Unlike Taylor, Eric tried for natural or possibly 'nature' sounds which included imitating bird and others gathered from nature.

Though not for the faint of heart, this is a certain bible for the avant-garde players to come such as Anthony Braxton, Albert Aylers and John Zorn. Although the Prestige recordings spark a point that critics often argue, Dolphy was a freer player than Coltrane but held more to tradition than Coleman. Is this true? Out to Lunch shows Dolphy more apt for sonic annihilation than keeping in tradition, but the playing is in many ways a freer flight than what Coltrane was doing at the same period. None the less Dolphy shows his passion and unique style that would influence future players still to this day.

Suggested Listening:
Eric Dolphy - At the Five Spot ' Prestige, 1961
Eric Dolphy - Outward Bound ' Prestige, 1960
Eric Dolphy - Iron Man ' Verese, 1963
Eric Dolphy - Last Date ' Westwind, 1964

With Mingus and Other Players:
Charles Mingus - Mingus at Antibes - Atlantic, 1960
Charles Mingus - The Complete Candid Recordings - Mosaic, 1961
Ornette Coleman Double Quartet - Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation) - Atlantic, 1961
John Coltrane ' Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings - Impulse!, 1961/ GRP 4-disc box set, 1997
Booker Little - Out Front - Ace ,1961


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