Eric Dolphy was a true original with his own distinctive styles on alto, flute, and bass clarinet. His music fell into the "avant-garde" category yet he did not discard chordal improvisation altogether (although the relationship of his notes to the chords was often pretty abstract). While most of the other "free jazz" players sounded very serious in their playing, Dolphy's solos often came across as ecstatic and exuberant. His improvisations utilized very wide intervals, a variety of nonmusical speechlike sounds, and its own logic. Although the alto was his main axe, Dolphy was the first flutist to move beyond bop (influencing James Newton) and he largely introduced the bass clarinet to jazz as a solo instrument. He was also one of the first (after Coleman Hawkins) to record unaccompanied horn solos, preceding Anthony Braxton by five years. Eric Dolphy first recorded while with Roy Porter & His Orchestra (1948-1950) in Los Angeles, he was in the Army for two years, and he then played in obscurity in L.A. until he joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1958. In 1959 he settled in New York and was soon a member of the Charles Mingus Quartet. By 1960 Dolphy was recording regularly as a leader for Prestige and gaining attention for his work with Mingus, but throughout his short career he had difficulty gaining steady work due to his very advanced style. Dolphy recorded quite a bit during 1960-1961, including three albums cut at the Five Spot while with trumpeter Booker Little, Free Jazz with Ornette Coleman, sessions with Max Roach, and some European dates. Late in 1961 Dolphy was part of the John Coltrane Quintet; their engagement at the Village Vanguard caused conservative critics to try to smear them as playing "anti-jazz" due to the lengthy and very free solos. During 1962-1963 Dolphy played third stream music with Gunther Schuller and Orchestra U.S.A., and gigged all too rarely with his own group. In 1964 he recorded his classic Out to Lunch for Blue Note and traveled to Europe with the Charles Mingus Sextet (which was arguably the bassist's most exciting band, as shown on The Great Concert of Charles Mingus). After he chose to stay in Europe, Dolphy had a few gigs but then died suddenly from a diabetic coma at the age of 36, a major loss. Virtually all of Eric Dolphy's recordings are in print, including a nine-CD box set of all of his Prestige sessions. In addition, Dolphy can be seen on film with John Coltrane (included on The Coltrane Legacy) and with Mingus from 1964 on a video released by Shanachie.
© Scott Yanow /TiVo
© Scott Yanow /TiVo
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Jazz - Released January 1, 1999 | Blue Note Records
Out to Lunch stands as Eric Dolphy's magnum opus, an absolute pinnacle of avant-garde jazz in any form or era. Its rhythmic complexity was perhaps unrivaled since Dave Brubeck's Time Out, and its five Dolphy originals -- the jarring Monk tribute "Hat and Beard," the aptly titled "Something Sweet, Something Tender," the weirdly jaunty flute showcase "Gazzelloni," the militaristic title track, the drunken lurch of "Straight Up and Down" -- were a perfect balance of structured frameworks, carefully calibrated timbres, and generous individual freedom. Much has been written about Dolphy's odd time signatures, wide-interval leaps, and flirtations with atonality. And those preoccupations reach their peak on Out to Lunch, which is less rooted in bop tradition than anything Dolphy had ever done. But that sort of analytical description simply doesn't do justice to the utterly alien effect of the album's jagged soundscapes. Dolphy uses those pet devices for their evocative power and unnerving hints of dementia, not some abstract intellectual exercise. His solos and themes aren't just angular and dissonant -- they're hugely so, with a definite playfulness that becomes more apparent with every listen. The whole ensemble -- trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Tony Williams -- takes full advantage of the freedom Dolphy offers, but special mention has to be made of Hutcherson, who has fully perfected his pianoless accompaniment technique. His creepy, floating chords and quick stabs of dissonance anchor the album's texture, and he punctuates the soloists' lines at the least expected times, suggesting completely different pulses. Meanwhile, Dolphy's stuttering vocal-like effects and oddly placed pauses often make his bass clarinet lines sound like they're tripping over themselves. Just as the title Out to Lunch suggests, this is music that sounds like nothing so much as a mad gleam in its creator's eyes. © Steve Huey /TiVo
Jazz - Released February 11, 2020 | Michael Mull