Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 6: Eric Dolphy, "Out To Lunch!"

Artist: Eric Dolphy
Album: Out To Lunch!
Year: 1964
Label: Blue Note

If Willy Wonka played jazz, chances are, he'd have been Eric Dolphy. Whimsical, amazingly imaginative, and yet never losing sight of the form and style, Dolphy's music is truly like that of no other jazz musician. Using wild time signatures and creating stunning musical landscapes, Dolphy explored musical territory that his contemporaries barely knew existed. Yet, it is very much due to his "ahead of his time" playing style that kept him somewhat under the radar during his brief career. One of the two artists to be labeled by ignorant critics as "anti-jazz" (the other being John Coltrane), Dolphy played countless shows alongside Charles Mingus, as well as many other jazz greats. Releasing more than thirty albums of his own in just under five years, his life ended tragically in June of 1964 when German doctors mistook a diabetic coma for a drug overdose. Just three months before his passing, Dolphy released his greatest album, and by far one of the finest and most important jazz records ever, 1964's Out To Lunch!

One of the giants of "free jazz," Dolphy is very well known as a "sideman," particularly his playing on John Coltrane's legendary "Village Vanguard" recordings as well as Andrew Hill's, Point Of Departure. Playing not only alto saxophone, but flute and bass clarinet as well, Eric Dolphy is truly a one-of-a-kind musical talent. If one looks at the larger picture of jazz history, one can also credit Dolphy with being the first to utilize the bass clarinet as a solo-worthy instrument as well as one of the earliest jazz flutists of note. Mixing in non-musical sounds with his compositions, often attempting to imitate speech through non-vocal instruments, Dolphy's music is truly like nothing else before his time. However, the genius behind Out To Lunch! lies within the interplay of the band members. From the extraordinary bass and bass clarinet duet of "Something Sweet, Something Tender" to the phenomenal percussive soloing on "Hat And Beard" to the hard-bop of "Gazzelloni," there is not a moment on the album that is anything short of superb. While part of this incredible sound is due to the brilliant compositions of Dolphy, much of it is also due to the fact that the four other musicians in the studio with Dolphy are amongst the greatest players that have ever lived.

The backing band that Dolphy assembled for Out To Lunch! is clearly more than happy to engage in his playful, open arrangements, as each band member works brilliantly within the solo-friendly environment. One of the most distinctive aspects of Out To Lunch! is the fantastic tone of the vibraphone playing of Bobby Hutcherson. Having also played with Andrew Hill, as well as Dexter Gordon and Archie Shepp among others, it is Hutcherson's sound that gives many of the songs on Out To Lunch! their amazing, almost quirky mood. Bop-based trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard, developed his style whilst playing with musicians like Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins, and remains widely regarded as one of the greatest trumpet players in history. His work on Out To Lunch! shows him further exploring the distinctive tone and style of jumping between tonal and atonal sounds that made him the influence that he remains to this day. Perhaps the most unique member of the group is bassist Richard Davis. Unlike nearly any other jazz musician, Davis was also well rooted in classical styles, having worked with the likes of Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. Davis also played alongside Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra, along with many of the finest jazz musicians. Easily one of the most often recorded bassists ever, his impact and influence on the jazz world is immeasurable. The five original pieces featured on Out To Lunch! are easily some of the most rhythmically complex pieces in the history of jazz music, and rounding out the quintet is jazz fusion pioneer, drummer Tony Williams. Williams found himself as part of what is know called Miles Davis' "Second Great Quintet" when Williams was only seventeen years old. Experimenting heavily with polyrhythm and metric modulation, there are truly few drummers who have had as much influence as Tony Williams. Considering the staggering level of talent in the backing band on Out To Lunch!, it is not as surprising that the album is so stunning and influential.

As a composer, Eric Dolphy is nearly as amazing as a musician. While most of the "free jazz" players were avant, but simultaneously very serious, Dolphy's music is a bit more eccentric. From his wide-ranging, multi-temoped solos to the odd squeaks and sounds that fill parts of the compositions, Dolphy's music influenced everyone from his contemporaries, to later jazz greats, and even musicians like Frank Zappa. Dolphy's playing on Out To Lunch! is nothing short of awe-inspiring, as his solos seem to jump all over the place, yet it is clear that he is never lost or "off." Though a majority of his playing is not in formal musical harmony with the rest of the band, the five musicians are undoubtedly moving as a single unit, and the variation in octaves makes the music all the more amazing. The entire record seems to jump and jab, with the compositions ranging from the lulling, moody "Something Sweet, Something Tender" to "Straight Up and Down," which the original liner notes claim was written to evoke the mood of a drunken stagger. Each track on Out To Lunch! is absolutely perfect, and by the end of the record, one can clearly envision a wide grin on Dolphy's face, as it is clear that the band has flawlessly executed every note of his genius compositions.

Like so many musicians, Eric Dolphy was gone far too soon. Only formally recording for a few short years, Dolphy left behind a great deal of amazing music, yet one can only wonder what would have come had he not been so tragically taken away. If one follows his musical progression, it is clear that Out To Lunch! was both the culmination of his work towards developing his own, unique sound as well as the beginning of an entirely new genre of jazz. Sadly, his passing also largely marked the end of the exploration, though the fundamentals of the style have been fused into countless other genres, from jazz to rock and everything in between. Surrounding himself with some of the most talented and influential musicians of the era, Dolphy pushes the players to their musical limits and beyond, resulting in one of the most outstanding recordings that the world has ever heard. Though each of these musicians would become a jazz icon in their own right, it is very much their work on Out To Lunch that stands as their crowning musical achievement. Pushing the boundaries on the ideas of rhythm, tone, mood, and melody, Eric Dolphy re-wrote the books on jazz and created one of the most monumental records in the history of music with his 1964 album, Out To Lunch!

Standout tracks: "Hat And Beard," "Something Sweet, Something Tender," and "Straight Up And Down."

No comments: