The American poet Robert Frost once likened free verse to playing tennis with the net down. Jazz probably has more purists to the square mile even than literature and ‘freedom’, actual or so called, has always had a rough ride from jazz critics. Just as abandoning rhyme and metre took away the very qualities that made poetry poetic, so, they believed, abandoning a fixed rhythm and a recurrent chord structure seemed to mean an end to the very qualities that made jazz jazz.
Out To Lunch is certainly Eric Dolphy’s most adventurous album and his most self consistent attempt at freedom within some, at least of the confines established by bop writing.
Dolphy was never at his best in a context like the Coltrane Quartet where the bulk of the solo work was extended harmonic development over a relatively stable rhythmic line. Elvin Jones’s use of polyrhythms never got far away from time-keeping. Doubling and augmenting times was something Dolphy had learned in the fraught days with Mingus and it is Mingus who really marks the end of the conventional rhythm section and introduces a degree of ‘democracy’ among all the separate voices of the jazz group.
On Out To Lunch Tony Williams (still Anthony in those days) rarely lays down a regular line. Occasionally, as on “Hat And Beard” or “Gazzelloni”, he will produce a countable figure on the hi-hat – a bebop staple – while improvising on the rest of the kit. Neither, though, do Davis or Hutcherson take on any strict rhythmic responsibilities. The bassist has the unnerving habit of varying both line and style for each new soloist. Hutcherson uses both space and silence, avoidance of a beat and, in any case, plays in a sharply percussive, chiming way that is a million miles from Milt Jackson or from the piano chording which he replaces on the set.
In a quite literal sense, the quintet are following the Weather Report dictum: “Everyone solos, all of the time”. Hutcherson, to underline the shift away from the piano’s traditional role, has the freest brief of the five; admirably he makes no attempt either to keep up with the horns or to settle for an accompanist’s role. His aural range is extraordinary, from a soft wooden xylophone sound on the weaving “Straight Up And Down” to staccato fills followed by strummed rolls on “Hat And Beard” .
Hubbard, who had sounded uneasy as Don Cherry’s alter ego on the Free Jazzsessions, seems least at home. It is usually he who tries to bring things back within bounds. Unable to take cover in pedal notes or (all that often) in extended ensemble passages, he relies on fanfare effects and slower counterpoints to Dolphy’s impassioned solos. Davis plucks, slaps, bows and strums as the mood and melody take him; Hutcherson uses the fullest range of his unwieldy instrument; Williams switches from brushes to heavy stick-work to slapped cymbals; Dolphy, with three horns, uses every available tonal range. It is Hubbard’s trumpet, perhaps inevitably given that his pedigree and subsequent development suggest more mainstream modal tastes, which is the least flexible of the five voices.
Dolphy revels in what Hubbard clearly finds disturbing. While uneasy listeners will find a centre of gravity in the trumpet, the real excitement is elsewhere. Dolphy is an ‘episodic’ player, like an obsessive tale-spinner who shifts from ‘reminds me of’ to ‘and then there was the time when’, not quite non sequiturs but not quite obviously connected either. He was an instant composer rather than a strict improviser; bebop had established the pattern of transforming songs in this way; Dolphy merely extended the habit, doing it four or five times in a single cut. By contrast, a Coltrane solo is one long story, filled out with circumstantial detail, insistently hammered home, almost without digression. Where Coltrane sounded relentless, Dolphy whips from idea to idea at great speed.
Nowhere is that more noticeable than on “Gazzelloni” where the lightness of the flute underlines the speed of response. There he is ably supported by Davis who of the group seems best able to keep up with the pace and depth of Dolphy’s ideas. Their duet intro to “Something Sweet, Something Tender” is the most immediately accessible section on the album (reminiscent of their famous bass/bass clarinet duet reading of “Alone Together”) and prompts the thought that Out To Lunch might have been more effective with a measure of reticence, a few holdings back rather than the all-in (both senses) approach Dolphy favoured at that time. Perhaps charts detailing a few duet and trio passages would have paid dividends.
The critical tendency has been to praise the lyricism of “Something Sweet, Something Tender” but to conclude that the whole is still rather less than the sum of the parts. That is understandable but rather like attacking Shakespeare for not producing a rigorous psychoanalysis of Hamlet’s Oedipus complex and Ophelia’s schizophrenia. The apparatus simply didn’t exist. Dolphy was still forced to work with a formulation (and, critically, with players) which depended on a head plus solos, verse and chorus approach. His commitment to freedom was consistent; the approach and results weren’t yet coherent.
Reid Miles’ famous jacket illustration showed a “Will be back at” shop sign with seven clock hands pointing in as many directions. That, along with the argot title, suggested that this was just wacky stuff, even perhaps a joke, certainly directionless. Whatever else, the cover made a neat emblem for Dolphy’s lack of concern with issues of time and ‘correct’ musical behaviour. He wasn’t yet able to harness the energies of his sidemen to his musical conception but set alongside its exact contemporaries, sets like A Love Supreme and Ayler’s Ghosts, it is Dolphy who sounds at once more ‘contemporary’ and more deeply rooted in the jazz and bebop traditions.
Straight after Out To Lunch, Eric Dolphy headed east; not to jazz-conscious Scandinavia, where Ayler had found a niche of tolerance and respect, nor as far east as Coltrane’s musical wanderings, but to Berlin. It seemed a significant choice, a divided city, still redolent of defeat and crisis, on one side constrained and dogmatic, on the other, westernised and apparently given over to pleasure and play. The contradictions of the place were already in Dolphy’s bloodstream.
Four months after Out To Lunch he died of uraemia, only days past his thirty-sixth birthday.