Eric Dolphy is one of the most unique and therefore divisive voices in jazz history. A ridiculously accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Dolphy’s avant garde style — further out on the edge than Thelonious Monk, not quite as far out there as Ornette Coleman — is instantly recognizable and influenced the sound and style of every group he ever played with. Dolphy was a true prodigy who started playing clarinet at age 6, then picked up the oboe, saxophone, and flute along the way to his professional jazz career, during which he almost singlehandedly turned the bass clarinet into a legitimate jazz horn. He played in big bands, small bands, and was so well-versed in contemporary classical music that he became one of the key figures in what became known as “third stream” jazz, a fusion of hard bop and classical music that emphasized the former’s reliance on improvisation and the latter’s experiments in atonality, meter, and modality.
In the liner notes of Dolphy’s 1964 live album, Last Date, Charles Mingus (who gave Dolphy his first big major gig after he moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1960) is quoted as saying that Dolphy “was a complete musician. He could fit anywhere. He was a fine lead alto in a big band. He could make it in a classical group. And, of course, he was entirely his own man when he soloed…. He had mastered jazz. And he had mastered all the instruments he played. In fact, he knew more than was supposed to be possible to do on them.” His music is complex and practically demands multiple listenings, but it is brilliant stuff.
Out to Lunch!, recorded and released in 1964, is often regarded as Dolphy’s best album, or at least his best studio album. After recording it, he went on a European tour with Mingus and, dissatisfied with the U.S. jazz scene, decided to stay. He died in Berlin, in June of that year, after going into an undiagnosed diabetic coma. The doctors treating him assumed (because he was a black jazz musician) misdiagnosed his condition as a drug overdose, but Dolphy wasn’t a drug user.
Apart from Dolphy, who limits himself to bass clarinet (tracks 1 and 2), flute (track 3) and alto saxophone (tracks 4 and 5), the album features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Richard Davis on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Of the decision to go with vibes instead of piano, Dolphy said “Bobby’s vibes have a freer, more open sound than a piano. Pianos seem to control you, Bobby’s vibes seem to open you up.” All the tunes are written by Dolphy.
“Hat and Beard” is a tribute to Monk, which I suppose is a little odd for an album without a pianist, but it has a “walking” feel because, as Dolphy said, “[Monk]‘s so musical, even if he’s just walking around.” The meter changes from 5/4 to 9/4, which I confess is pretty much imperceptible to me:
“Something Sweet, Something Tender” is a balled, Dolphy-style:
“Gazzelloni” was named for famous Italian flautist Severino Gazzelloni and, as you might guess, features Dolphy’s flute:
The title track really busts out of any defined structure in the solos, where the rhythm section is just kind of improvising right behind the soloist. It’s remarkable how well this works, producing great music where there could easily be total chaos:
Dolphy wrote “Straight Up and Down” to be reminiscent of, in his words, “a drunk walking.” You can tell he’s having fun here, producing pretty much any sound he wants out of his alto: