Music Reviews
12:02 pm
Tue February 25, 2014

Still 'Out To Lunch' 50 Years Later

Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 5:15 pm

1964 was a great year for cutting-edge jazz records like Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Andrew Hill's Point of Departure. But none sounds as far ahead of its time as Eric Dolphy's masterpiece Out to Lunch, recorded for Blue Note on Feb. 25, 1964. Half a century later it still sounds crazy in a good way. The organized mayhem starts with Dolphy's tunes, often featuring wide, wide leaps in the melody and ratchet-gear rhythms. His composition "Straight Up and Down" was inspired by the careful walk of a drunk striving to stay upright. He improvised with that same kind of angular energy, and an excitable tone like a goosed goose.

The heart of Out to Lunch is its singular vibes-bass-and-drums rhythm trio, starting with Miles Davis' 18-year-old drum wonder Tony Williams. The following year, Williams would propose to Davis' band that they play "anti-music" — the opposite of what anyone would expect. Williams is already testing that idea on Out to Lunch, rethinking the drum set's components; his hi-hat alone makes this one of his classics. On "Hat and Beard," the title a nod to Thelonious Monk, Williams finds myriad ways to provoke Dolphy's yawping bass clarinet, an instrument Dolphy had pretty much to himself as a soloist.

Williams isn't the only one avoiding the obvious. Bobby Hutcherson made Out to Lunch about the weirdest vibraphone showcase ever. More than anyone he gives the album its futuristic quality. All vibists lean on the sustain pedal, to let notes ring like doorbells. But here Hutcherson also takes his foot off the pedal and strikes the metal bars hard, for a rude clanky sound akin to Monk's piano. Like Monk he leaves in a lot of open space, refers back to the melody often, and uses oblique strategies to prod horn soloists: Dolphy on alto, bass clarinet and flute, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

The equally resourceful bassist is sure-footed Richard Davis. His playing here is a compendium of modern bass strategies: He'll walk fast, sing with a bow, play counterpoint, toy with the melody, or stubbornly stand his ground. Their interaction anticipates some of what Williams would soon get up to in Miles Davis' rhythm section.

Dolphy's creativity was exploding early in 1964, and he was finding more players who could keep up. He was looking forward to spending a year in Europe. But even before the album came out, he was dead of diabetic complications at age 36.

Out to Lunch was too odd to be an immediate trendsetter, but in time you could hear its influence in Anthony Braxton's or Roscoe Mitchell's zigzag solos and odd timbres, in David Murray's yawping bass clarinet and Jason Adasiewicz's clanking vibes. You can also hear it in ambitious music by all sorts of modern composers who grapple with the same kind of contradictions Dolphy did. Out to Lunch is free and focused, dissonant and catchy, wide open and swinging all at once. Fifty years on, there's plenty there to be inspired by.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says February 1964 wasn't just a good month for The Beatles. On February 25th, 50 years ago Eric Dolphy recorded his masterpiece "Out to Lunch!" for Blue Note. Kevin says it still sounds improbably modern. He has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Eric Dolphy on alto sax with Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. 1964 was a great year for cutting edge jazz records like Albert Ayler's "Spiritual Unity," Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and Andrew Hill's "Point of Departure." But none sounds as far ahead of its time as Eric Dolphy's quintet album "Out to Lunch!" Half a century later it still sounds crazy in a good way.

The organized mayhem starts with Dolphy's tunes, often featuring wide, wide leaps in the melody and ratchet gear rhythms. He improvised with that same kind of angular energy and an excitable tone like a goosed goose. His composition "Straight Up and Down" was inspired by the careful walk of a drunk striving to stay upright.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "UP AND DOWN")

WHITEHEAD: The heart of "Out to Lunch!" is the quintet's singular vibes, bass, and drums rhythm trio. Its foundation was Miles Davis' 18 year old drum wonder Tony Williams. The year after recording it, Williams would propose to Miles' band that they play anti-music, the opposite of what anyone would expect. He's already testing that idea on "Out to Lunch," rethinking the drum set's components. His high hat alone makes this one of his classics.

Listen to Tony Williams provoke Dolphy's yawping bass clarinet, an instrument he had pretty much to himself as a soloist. The tune is "Hat and Beer," a nod to Thelonius Monk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HAT AND BEER")

WHITEHEAD: Tony Williams isn't the only one who avoids the obvious here. Bobby Hutcherson made "Out to Lunch!" about the weirdest vibraphone showcase ever. More than anyone, he gives the album its futuristic quality. All vibists lean on the sustain pedal to let notes ring like doorbells but here Hutcherson also takes his foot off the pedal and strikes the metal bars hard for a rude, clanky sound akin to Monk's piano.

Like, Monk, he leaves in a lot of open space, refers back to the melody often, and uses a bleak strategy to prod a soloist. Here he is with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: The rhythm trio's equally resourceful bassist is surefooted Richard Davis. His playing here is a compendium of modern bass strategies. He'll walk fast, sing with a bow, play counterpoint, toy with the melody, or stubbornly stand his ground. You can hear aspects of what Miles' quintet would soon get into, already coming in this band. Here's Freddie Hubbard again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy's creativity was exploding early in 1964 and he was finding more players who can keep up. He was looking forward to spending a year in Europe, but even before "Out to Lunch!" came out, he was dead of diabetic complications at age 36.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: "Out to Lunch" was too odd to be an immediate trendsetter but in time you could hear its influence in Anthony Braxton's or Roscoe Mitchell's zigzag solos and odd timbres in David Murray's yawping bass clarinet and Jason Adasiewicz's clanking vibes. You can also hear an ambitious music by all sorts of modern composers who grapple with the same kinds of contradictions that Dolphy did.

"Out to Lunch" is free and focused, dissonant and catchy, wide open and swinging all at the same time. Fifty years on, there's plenty there to be inspired by.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes of Point of Departure, Downbeat, and Emusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program