Free-flying Eric Dolphy veered into the contrarian zone in his musical approach on his one and only Blue Note album, Out to Lunch. Breaking away from the clichés of postbop jazz and speaking boldly on his array of instruments (flute and alto sax as well as bass clarinet, seldom heard at the time but sounding profoundly visceral in his hands), Dolphy displayed the avant-garde modus operandi to expect the unexpected. The sometimes abstract and off-kilter yet often whimsical album turned heads and opened ears immediately, and it has gone down in jazz history as one of the genre’s masterpieces. A must-hear. A best bet. A revelation.
The recording took place on February 25, 1964 at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, N.J., studio—the home base where most of the Blue Note catalog was being documented. While Dolphy returned to Van Gelder Studio less than a month later as a sideman on Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure on Blue Note, Out to Lunch, comprising five Dolphy compositions, proved to be his finale as a leader.
At the age of 36, the Los Angeles native and New York emigrant tragically died on June 29, 1964 in Berlin after setting off on tour to Europe with longtime friend/collective collaborator Charles Mingus as a member of the bassist’s sextet. Much to Mingus’s chagrin, Dolphy told him while on tour that he was staying put on the continent. He had already made that plan while recording Out to Lunch, sharing with the album’s original liner note writer A.B. Spellman that he was going to live in Europe for a spell “because I can get more work there playing my own music, and because if you try to do anything different in this country, people put you down for it.”
The angular nature of Out to Lunch may have short-fused some listeners at the time of its release (Miles Davis famously said that he’d like to stomp on the saxophonist’s head). But today, nearly a half-century later, what the mercurial Dolphy concocted with his youthful quintet—two relatively new-on-the-scene cats, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson; wunderkind drummer Tony Williams, who was 18 at the time; and bassist Richard Davis, who the leader had enlisted for his 1961 Booker Little date, At the Five Spot, in 1961 and later for Iron Man in 1963—sounds so cutting-edge and vital, serving as an important link to what would take place in jazz during the rest of the decade (including in Davis’s own classic ‘60s quintet, with the free improvisation spurred on in part by rhythm maestro Williams).
Out to Lunch captivates from the get-go with the out-leaning “Hat and Beard,” inspired by Thelonious Monk, who in the original liners, Dolphy described as “so musical no matter what he’s doing, even if he’s just walking around.” The playfully creeping 5/4 bass line served up by the leader’s loopy bass clarinet and Davis’s steady acoustic bass creates the perfect 9/4 vehicle for the solos. Of particular note is Hutcherson’s plunks, splashes and shimmers that have a prankster vibe. He contributes unpredictable floating accents and wink-in-the-eye drop-ins throughout the session.
Hubbard and Dolphy connect brilliantly on the slow-paced “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” while the leader flits and twitters on the flute through his “Gazzelloni” tribute to classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni. The capricious title tune, originally the opening track on the second side of the LP, is an irregular epic piece that has extended explorations by each band member, including Dolphy’s twisted alto lines, Hubbard’s soaring trumpet support and the exhilarant rhythm driven by Williams and Davis. The end song, “Straight Up and Down,” is in Dolphy’s words, a tune about a drunkard walking, with the appropriate wobble and weave. After a break of inebriated free playing, the group returns to the theme, walking the straight line without a misstep.
Out to Lunch is a thoroughly engaging 42 minutes of the most profound and far-reaching jazz recorded in 1964. While there’s a flair for the esoteric, it all makes sense upon close listen. After finishing “Straight Up and Down,” don’t be surprised if you stream right back to the “Hat and Beard” beginning. It’s worth the second ride.