Eric Dolphy’s ‘Out To Lunch’: 50 Years Later

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Thanks to the good folks at Blue Note Records for reminding us that today marks the 50th anniversary of Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, one of the all-time great jazz records (Check it out here). In addition to featuring Dolphy’s advanced, outside-any-box compositional prowess and his playing (!!), we get the one-two punch of percussion from baby-faced Tony Williams (having just celebrated his 18th birthday) and the great Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. With Richard Davis’s typically solid support on bass and trumpet wizard Freddie Hubbard at the height of his game, this is a scorching, deep masterpiece that still sounds not only fresh, but vital, five decades later. It’s still ahead of its time.

Check this out. Welcome to what you may have been missing without ever realizing it.

Dolphy’s studio swan song, it tantalizes with its excellence, and how obvious it was that Dolphy would (could, should) have been around, pushing the boundaries and making remarkable art, for many years.

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And so, to revisit what I’ve already written about Dolphy, for anyone late to the party (and I just wrote about him, Booker Little and Rahsaan Roland Kirk earlier this month):

There are several dozen top-tier jazz musicians whose artistic (and personal) lives could be held up as examples any sane person should want to emulate. And while geniuses like Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Henry Threadgill and Sonny Rollins all spring immediately to mind, the one I believe serves as the ultimate example of everything sublime about jazz music is Eric Dolphy. I’ve discussed –and celebrated– the man at length here, as well as here, here and here.

This is an excerpt from my review of Dolphy’s Outward Bound:

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Booker Little and Lee Morgan—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since…Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

So: a sample of some of Dolphy’s finer moments.

1. “Hat And Beard” from Out To Lunch.

This song, the first track from his last proper album, can serve as well as virtually any other composition I can think of to best illustrate what jazz is; what it is capable of conveying. In this song, the primary feeling is ecstasy. The ecstasy of discovery; the ecstasy of shared purpose amongst the musicians (and this is an unbelievable group of masters, including Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams and Bobby Hutcherson) and the ecstasy of expression. This song’s title is a tribute to Thelonious Monk, but the notes are all Dolphy. Here is his slightly surreal, intentionally off-kilter, totally focused and deeply, darkly beautiful vision fully developed and delivered. This is not the easiest music to absorb, at least initially, but once you “get it”, you stay got.

2. “Come Sunday” from Iron Man.

That Dolphy is able to cover the immortal Duke Ellington so convincingly is remarkable; that he is able to do it so indelibly with only one other musician (Richard Davis) is more than a little miraculous. The sheer volume of feeling in this performance is mind boggling, and life changing. Dolphy’s bass clarinet sings, cries and cajoles. It whispers and it pleads, and then it sighs. By the end, it has exhausted itself; it has said everything there is to say.

3. “Eclipse” from Out There.

Another tribute to another great composer: his friend, mentor and bandmate Charles Mingus. Writing recently about Jimi Hendrix, I observed that “The Wind Cries Mary” captures the feeling of melancholy as well as any song ever has. And it does. But to do similar work without words, as Dolphy does here, is a truly staggering achievement. The mournful cadence of Dolphy’s clarinet here gets right inside you, and the feeling expressed is magnified by Ron Carter’s bowed cello, which weaves in and around, at once among the corners and right within the heart of the song. The sounds these two men achieve are so unusual, so unsettling and (the word has to be used again) so surreal, it almost defies explanation. This is music best categorized as other and the album title, Out There, is more than a little appropriate. Dolphy was indeed “out there” in the sense that most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us.

4. “Left Alone” from Far Cry.

So, you might ask, are you really telling me I should want to listen to music that is capable of making me cry?

Yes, I would reply.

And, you might add, why would I want to do such a thing?

It’s simple, I’d say. So that you know you are alive.

5. “Miss Ann” from Last Date.

Eric Dolphy, dead at 36. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize that travesty of justice; that affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never overwhelm all that we received. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

After the final cut of his final recording, Dolphy offers the following observation: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air…you can never capture it again.”

What he said.

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Comments

  1. michael evans says:

    This is the first I have heard of your site ,but I really appreciate this tribute to Eric Dolphy. I have most of these albums but it was great to be reminded of the wonderful music they contain. I hope you have seen the documentary on Dolphy that was produced back in the 90’s. Great stuff.

  2. Sean Murphy says:

    Thanks for checking in, and I’m glad you dug the piece. I’m not certain I am familiar with the documentary you speak of: do you have the 411?

    Cheers!
    Murph

  3. Alejandro says:

    Hi Sean,

    The documentary the other commenter referred to is surely “Last Date” (not the album of course); it is only available on VHS as far as I know and has interviews with Richard Davis, Jaki Byard, and Ted Curson, among others. A beautiful documentary and highly recommended.

    This is also the first time I come across your site but as a Dolphy fanatic I appreciate this post very much. The world lost something very special when Dolphy passed, he really was just getting started, but it’s great to have so much music from the time he was here. Nice selections, I’d find it impossible to choose, I’d just end up posting youtube links of entire albums!

    Best,
    Alejandro

  4. Sean Murphy says:

    Alejandro,

    Thanks for the head’s up. I’ve seen bits and pieces of that doc, on YouTube I believe (there is a scene where his parents are interviewed)? Thinking of what we lost makes me so sad every time, but he left us with SO much. I’ve written quite a bit about Dolphy (and Mingus, Miles, Herbie, Coltrane, etc.) on this site; if you do some searches you may find some things you dig.

    Cheers!
    Murph

  5. Sean –

    Love the Dolphy article, and glad I came across your site via NPR. If you don’t already know the bog, check out adale.org. It’s Alan Saul, one of the primary Keepers of the Dolphy Flame online. Great guy, lots of links and minutiae.

    FYI, on May 30-31, in Montclair, NJ (14 miles outside of Manh), Seed Artists is producing FREEDOM OF SOUND: ERIC DOLPHY, a two-day celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his passing. Knockout lineup includes Richard Davis (!), Grachan Moncur III, Henry Threadgill, Andrew Cyrille, Billy Hart, Howard Johnson, Oliver Lake and Tarbaby (Orrin Evans, Nasheet Waits and Eric Revis–other bassist will sit in for Revis), Don Byron, Pheeroan akLaff (Seed’s founder), Out to Lunch (Russ Johnson, Myra Melford, Roy Nathanson, Brad Jones, George Schuller), Diane Moser Quintet playing a birdsong suite she composed for the event; bass-clarinet quartet of Byron, Johnson, Marty Ehrlich and Oscar Noriega; rising tenorman James Brandon Lewis; solo cello from Tomeka Reid…and that’s still not all of the music.

    Also a symposium moderated by James Newton, featuring Davis, Gunther Schuller (!), and John Szwed from Columbia University; original Dolphy photos, dance, poetry from Michael S. Harper…

    Just $20 per night. Best part: proceeds help out the Jazz Foundation of America + tuition for at-risk kids to attend Montclair Academy of Dance and Laboratory of Music (MADLOM), which was founded by Reggie Workman and his wife Maya, its director. Great art for good works.

    Website (seedartists.org) should go live end of the week, as well as Facebook page, Youtube channel, Twitter. Indie GoGo crowdfunding campaign should go up next week to raise part of the funds. Keep your eyes and ears peeled

    And we’d love it if you and your fellow Dolphyites would contribute DOLPHY CELLPHONE VIDEO TESTIMONIALS (or however you prefer to do video) so that we can post them on our YouTube channel. A permanent and ever-growing homage to Dolphy. Your favorite Dolphy tune, favorite group/collaboration, first time you heard him…whatever strikes you. They can be emailed to me at cnapierala@gmail.com of they’re less than 30 seconds, or send via Dropbox if they’re longer.

    This promises to be one of the landmark jazz events of the year.

    Apologies for the shameless promo, but we’re beginning the big push and want to spread the word. Both for the sake of the event and to help the JAzz FOundation and MADLOM as much as possible.

    Thanks again for the Dolphy article. Just rummaged around your site and see there’s much to dig into. Glad I stumbled in.

    Cheers.
    Chris Napierala
    Seed Artists
    Montclair, NJ

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