ERIC DOLPHY Out To Lunch (Blue Note)


Is “Out To Lunch” jazz’s “Trout Mask Replica”? Even after five months of prominence in my playlists, I don’t feel any closer to untangling it. It’s certainly aptly titled – no default Blue Note label hard bop in evidence here!


With its stalking bassline, exotic vibes and clock chime cymbals, “Hat And Beard” sounds, initially at least, like some kind of deranged spy theme, before Dolphy skronks  things up with his Coltrane-battering, braying bass clarinet. “Something Sweet, Something Tender” might perhaps constitute a tender ballad in Dolphy-world, bending and twisting expected genre norms ever so slightly out of shape. “Gazzeloni” struts like a swinging thing, albeit one whose repeated riff is all over the shop, until everyone cuts loose, generating an uncontrolled chaos best summarised by Dolphy’s observation that “Everyone’s a leader in this session”. “Straight Up And Down”’s crabwalking swagger gives way to a lot of squealing and honking from Dolphy’s alto sax, and, logically speaking, Bobby Hutcherson’s waterfalling vibraphone work shouldn’t be legally permitted in the same piece of music, but there it is nevertheless.


The personnel includes bassist Richard Davis – famous in non-jazz circles for playing on Van Morrison’s somewhat easier-on-the-ear “Astral Weeks” – and precocious percussion sensation Tony Williams, who was only eighteen at the time of this recording. I don’t think I could’ve even listened to this album when I was that age. As A. B. Spellman’s sleeve notes - unusually hip and groovy for a Blue Note back cover - helpfully point out, “This is not music to roller skate by”.


This reissue emanates from the mysterious but discredited Scorpio organisation. There’s something of a gauzy veil between audience and music, but generally it doesn’t sound too bad, with none of the nasty distortion that plagued their pressing of Kenny Dorham’s fabulous “Una Mas”. In this world of 50+ Blue Note reissue programmes (a Music Matters “Out To Lunch” is imminent, following the rediscovery of master tapes previously thought obliterated) it’s bargainatious, at least.

ERIC DOLPHY Out There (Prestige) 

Not quite what the title suggests, this relatively approachable 1960 album might come as a surprise to those (like me) who only know Dolphy from his convention-shattering swansong “Out To Lunch”. Somewhat ironically, the sleevenotes open with the admission “It would be best to acknowledge, right at the outset, that this is nor the most easily grasped jazz album you are ever likely to hear”; some of Dolphy’s later work would make “Out There” sound like easy listening.

The title track’s almost Ornette-like melody gives way to a length cello solo (cello in a jazz quartet? Yes, really) before Dolphy matches it on alto sax. “Serene” lives up to its title, if only in a relative rather than absolute sense, with an almost sitar-like timbre to Carter’s plucked cello solo. “The Baron” is Dolphy’s musical portrait of his mentor Charles Mingus, complex, contrary and brief. “17 West” is all perky flute and insistent bowed cello riff, and the languid “Sketch Of Melba”, is almost laid back. “Feathers” would almost qualify as well, if not for the unsettling keening wail of Dolphy’s alto work.

ERIC DOLPHY Iron Man (Celluloid)

Sadly not an album of free jazz Black Sabbath covers, but what is “Iron Man” really? Unusually for a jazz album, the sleeve gives nothing away but the personnel (Dolphy leading a nonet that includes luminaries such as Richard Davis and Bobby Hutcherson) and a eulogy from John Sinclair in the form of a poem, “Blues For Eric Dolphy”, that suggests a posthumous release.

 Musically, there are two distinct strands here. The title track, “Mandrake” and “Burning Spear”, all Dolphy compositions, tear up a delirious kind of garage jazz, clubbing the listener about the ears from the first. It’s melodic, but played with a kind of joyous abandon that leaves the melody chopped up, inside out and turned into vulgar fractions of itself, with sharp edges poking out all over. More than a bit Ornette Coleman-esque, it’s a big, bold, bear hug of sound. These long, sprawling pieces are messy and chaotic, but jubilant, not dry academic exercises. In stark relief are the two covers. Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” is startlingly arranged as a duet for fluttering sax and keening, cello-like bowed bass, and Jaki Byard’s “Ode To C.P.” becomes a tangling conversation between double bass and flute.

A challenge but not hard going (certainly not when compared with Dolphy’s own “Out To Lunch”), “Iron Man” is complex but rewarding listening. It also happens to sound gloriously alive in Howie Weinberg-mastered form on this Celluloid vinyl reissue, prolonged dropouts on two tracks notwithstanding.