Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch

The first time I heard Eric Dolphy was on John Coltrane's Impressions, and he stopped me dead in my tracks. When Dolphy's bass clarinet solo in "India" came through the speakers, I felt as if I'd just been wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold night. Of course, Dolphy was just as much of a musical freak as Coltrane, so the moment of calmness quickly evolves into a beautifully crazy solo. (Impressions doesn't seem to be available from the EPFL, but if you have any stomach for experimental music that pushes limits, I highly recommend it.)

I tried to listen to Dolphy's solo stuff over the years, but everything I heard sounded like the kind of post-bop swill that makes me despise jazz. Ever since I found some used Sun Ra CDs over at Sound Garden a few months ago, though, I've been open to jazz for the first time in over a decade. It didn't take me long to find my way back to Dolphy, in hopes that there was a gem or three in his catalog that I'd overlooked.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The opening notes of "Hat and Beard" are the kind of mid-'60s jazz that became the touchstone for the clichéd image of the goatee-wearing hipster. This isn't some joke jazz record, though. The music walks between Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Coltrane. Dolphy's first solo is angular and abstract in all the right ways, and he pushes pretty much every sonic boundary he can find. The entire disc continues in this vein, and despite the fact that I don't normally like most of these musicians, they are phenomenal here. "Something Sweet, Something Tender" might be the greatest moment on the album, because it demonstrates how music can still be soft and beautiful without compromising its experimental edge.

I'll warn you, though, that Dolphy's music is not for the faint of heart. This is tough music that can take a lot of effort to appreciate, but the rewards are huge if you're willing to put in the work.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This might not be the best cover that Blue Note put out, but it's a contender. The design is superb. The photo is simple on the surface, but the image of the clock speaks volumes about the music contained within. I'm sure the four-page essay in the liner notes is fascinating, but honestly, the music is too demanding for me to both read and listen. (I do miss the days when albums came with essays. For those of us who love words as much as we love music, there's nothing better than getting a hefty dose of both in one package.)

Listen if you like: Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane. Fans of groups like The Mars Volta or Mr. Bungle have a good chance of liking what's going on here.

If it were food, it'd be: Black coffee.


The Mad Hatter said...

I take personal exception from your grouping of Mingus and Coltrane. There is no way in hell I would like Dolphy under the presupposition that I also liked both of them. As always, I'm an ass; and perhaps I'm really saying I hate Coltrane and simply don't like seeing him anywhere near Mingus in terms of any kind of relativity. There.

taotechuck said...

But if you imagine a triangle with Coltrane, Coleman, and Mingus at each of the three points, Dolphy is like the guy in the middle. When you think of it that way, it doesn't matter how long you make the side of the triangle that separates Coltrane and Mingus.

I hated Coltrane for a long time, but then something clicked and I suddenly "got" him. I think he's amazing, but I understand why many people don't like him. But Mingus... I can't understand why anyone wouldn't like Mingus. It's the same way I feel when someone tells me they don't like dogs. I just don't get it.

The Mad Hatter said...

I suppose I'm a bit sensitive to Mingus. While he certainly isn't underrated, I still feel like he got the shaft when everyone was flocking to Coltrane's "genius." For me, Coltrane is one of those musicians whose music physically makes me ill and agitated. Mingus does quite the opposite. So for me, they may be at the other end of a line on a triangle, but that line is endless. (And I'm not disputing Dolphy's placement within the middle.) Bob actually recommended Coleman to me way back and I only recently got to dig into him. Interesting stuff, for sure. Some good, some bad, and some I just need to allow my ears the proper adjustment.