Eric Dolphy’s quintet masterpiece Out to Lunch, was recorded 50 years ago, on February 25, 1964, but it sounds like it might’ve been recorded last week. It’s the Dorian Gray of jazz records, eternally fresh and a little shocking. It pointed the way for much of jazz to come, and the weirdness of its compositions is still striking: “Hat and Beard” is built on a prowling nine-beat bass line; “Straight Up and Down” is inspired by the stagger of a drunk trying his mightiest to stay upright; the melody of “Gazzelloni” begins with a ridiculous leap of over two octaves. On that one — a tribute to classical virtuoso Severino Gazzelloni — Dolphy plays flute in a peculiar halting, excitable rhythm, like a sentence studded with exclamation points all the way through.
The band’s concept began forming in 1963, when Dolphy went to hear fellow excitable altoist Jackie McLean’s new band in New York and was reunited with McLean’s vibist, Bobby Hutcherson; Dolphy had known him over a decade earlier, back in L.A., as a girlfriend’s kid brother. McLean’s other new discovery was Boston drummer Tony Williams, soon to be stolen away by Miles Davis.
Dolphy drafted Hutcherson onto his sessions for the Douglas label that spring, which ended up being a sort of extended appetizer for Lunch, alongside bassist Richard Davis. Dolphy had already been working with the Davis, on jazz gigs and in hybrid jazz-classical settings. To share the front line, Dolphy initially picked Berklee-educated trumpeter Ed Armour, who’d worked in a couple of his live groups, and had recorded with him in Charles Mingus and Freddie Hubbard big bands. Armour’s leaping-interval melodicism and pleading tone made him a good fit. But while they were rehearsing at Eric’s apartment, Armour abruptly packed up and stormed out, telling them, as Hutcherson recalled years later, “I don’t like you, I don’t like your music, and I’m not going to play this gig.” Dolphy’s ex-roommate and sometime sideman Freddie Hubbard, now Art Blakey’s trumpet star, stepped in to make the date.
Listening to Out to Lunch, you can guess what spooked Armour. Dolphy’s improvisations have a hectic, can’t-hold-me-back quality that makes Ornette Coleman sound sedate by comparison. Dolphy’s lines make acrobatic leaps over intervals too wide to sound singable, but there was always a voicelike yawp to his tone. On bass clarinet — an instrument he had all to himself as a soloist — his sound is as raw and woody as a broken branch. It bursts with abrasive and changeable overtones. Much the same is true of his alto saxophone playing. And it wasn’t just the music — it was how the rhythm section manhandled it. The following year, Williams would propose to his mates in Miles Davis’s rhythm section they play “anti-music” — the opposite of what anyone would expect — and he was already putting that idea into practice on Out to Lunch. At 18, the drummer was bursting with youthful energy, rethinking what the drumset’s individual components could do.
This close attention to timbre that Dolphy and Williams display is evident everywhere on Out to Lunch. You can hear it most of all in Bobby Hutcherson’s unorthodox and clanky vibraphone work. “Hat and Beard” nods to Thelonious Monk, and throughout the album Hutcherson references Monk’s flinty piano style. His playing is spare and hesitant-seeming, gleefully emphasizing adjacent-note dissonances. Like Monk, he takes a disruptive, near-antagonistic approach to backing an improvising soloist.
This is as far from typical vibes playing as you can get. The instrument lends itself to bell-like prettiness: Lean on the sustain pedal, and those chimes will ring on and on. But by staying off the pedal and striking the metal bars hard, Hutcherson gets a drily percussive and surprisingly rude sound. He used this approach elsewhere occasionally but never so single-mindedly as here.
This rhythm section keeps the propulsion going even when no one officially keeps time. A little later Miles’s rhythm trio was known for playing three meters at once, but this crew beat them to it on “Gazzelloni,” where they blow free without quite losing sight of the leaping tune. The title track’s ratcheting melody turns the trio into a noisy music box, Hutcherson’s regular chimes giving it an air of musique mécanique, countered by Williams knocking loudly on the door. Freddie Hubbard gets into the spirit of it all, bouncing his phrases off Tony’s snare drum beat. The trumpeter will bite off a piece of the melody, chew it around and then spit it back out with a knot tied in it. That’s the miracle of Out to Lunch: No matter how crazy the exposition gets, the themes are almost always audible some kind of way, focusing the improvisations.
The album’s aftermath was bitter. Dolphy died of diabetic complications that June, at 36, before it even came out, and ultimately the album was too craggy and radically angular to inspire much frank imitation on New York’s anarchic free jazz scene. But a few years later, echoes of its zigzags, arcane structures and odd tone colors began cropping up in the music of Chicago avant-gardists Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. In the mid ’70s, David Murray resurrected the bass clarinet, playing it with a big woody sound and dramatic leaps from bottom to top that made his inspiration plain. Admiring altoist Oliver Lake revived two tunes from Out to Lunch for 1980′s Prophet and again for Dedicated to Dolphy in 1996, same year the Vienna Art Orchestra performed all the album’s compositions in a Dolphy suite. Yet in most cases, the covers sound like the product of an earlier time than the ageless original.
Still, every once in a while, though, someone grabs a bit of its elusive spirit. On 2009′s Out ‘n’ In, the English alto/vibes/bass/drums quartet Empirical — aided by bass clarinetist Julien Siegel — showed how carefully they’ve studied the original, covering “Hat and Beard.” We also had to wait till the ’00s for the rise of a vibraphonist dedicated to a hard-edged sound similar to Hutcherson’s, Jason Adasiewicz. Still, Out to Lunch remains a stubbornly inimitable, eternally fascinating album, one where all of Dolphy’s ideas crystallized in their purest, most enduring form. Fifty years later, nobody’s quite caught all the way up.