Sunday, January 21, 2018

Eric Dolphy - 1961 - Out There

Eric Dolphy 
Out There

01. Out There
02. Serene
03. The Baron
04. Eclipse
05. 17 West
06. Sketch Of Melba
07. Feathers

Alto Saxophone, Flute, Clarinet [Bb], Bass Clarinet – Eric Dolphy
Bass – George Duvivier
Cello – Ron Carter
Drums – Roy Haynes

Recorded in New York City; August 15, 1960.

Eric Dolphy's first two albums as a leader could not be better named: while his debut, Outward Bound,  feels like a transitional album in the way it juxtaposes the hard bop styles he played under the tutelage of Chico Hamilton and Charles Mingus with his more avant-garde leanings in the solos, by Out There he’s completely gone to those latter conceits, delivering a record that’s as odd and unsettling as anything jazz ever produced. Even the lineup is weird – he’s maintained the great Roy Haynes on drums, but upgraded to George Duvivier on bass and brought in Ron Carter on cello on top of that. That isn't the lineup for one or two tracks – no, that's the configuration he builds a whole album around, penning four originals (one co-written with Mingus) and re-working compositions from Mingus, Hale Smith, and Randy Weston for this very strange band.

The opening, title track, the co-composition with Mingus, is a really exciting piece because in it you can so clearly hear the styles of Dolphy and his mentor coexisting beautifully, the rhythm section’s manic energy and forward momentum pure Charlie and the winding, intricate solos that Dolphy, Carter and Duvivier trade off undeniably Eric. It’s an exciting start, but the tonal experiments don’t really come in hard until “Serene,” a dark and sultry number that features a number of flights of fancy but mostly swoons in appreciation of its own deep sound: this is the song where Dolphy's bass clarinet makes its first appearance on the record, and suddenly all the action’s on the low end except when Eric wants Haynes to take the lead. That bass clarinet actually opens “The Baron” harmonizing with Carter's cello before giving way to a solo for the string instrument that’s all nervous energy, then taking the reins once again for its own showcase in which Dolphy pushes the instrument near its highest registers.

Opening the second side is the Mingus composition, “Eclipse,” here a pure tonal experiment that eases the listener back into the surreal atmosphere cultivated by the A’s final two tracks. It bleeds seamlessly into “17 West,” which plays for much of its running time like a trio piece featuring Dolphy on flute that’s only intermittently accented by Carter's cello. Then, without warning, the flute drops out completely and gives both Carter and Duvivier a chance to show off over Haynes’s muted skin-tickling; then, we get a brief drum solo and the whole band kicks back in for a reprise of the theme that bears only a passing similarity to anything we've heard before. It’s probably the most daring thing on the album, even if it’s not the most in-your-face track, and as if sensing that we slip immediately into something more low key, the slow and sensual “Sketches of Melba.” Dolphy's on clarinet for this one, and the track features some of the warmest playing of his career on top of some really brooding work from Carter. The closer, “Feathers” finds Dolphy back on alto delivering a mournful performance, Haynes riding his cymbals and Duvivier moaning to enhance the atmosphere while Carter hits the listener with staccato stabs that feel like a nightmare just barely encroaching onto reality. After just a minute or two of this, though, the band tightens up and Carter disappears to give Dolphy room to really soar, and what really strikes you about his solo is not only (again) his warmth, but the way his blowing is just filling out the sound in the studio (props to Rudy Van Gelder for that). Before you know it, though, it’s over, and whatever melancholy dream had arrested you has suddenly disappeared – and if you’re like me, the only thing you can think to do is flip the record again and start from the beginning.

Y'know those times when you're so tired that you drift in and out of dreams without even being aware that you're asleep? That's called microsleep, apparently. Out There is the soundtrack for a night of recurring microsleep. Especially if it's one of those nights when you have to walk a long way home and you're far past being merely 'sleepy' — it's the point in the night when you start to get jumpy and things are getting trippier by the second. White mod dining room, spindly-limbed chairs under spindly-limbed people. Black tutus in bird formations. Namsayin?

To get a bit more literal for a sec, this is one of those rare 'off the beaten path' jazz albums that's as fun to listen to as it is bizarre and surreal. Which is weird, because it's certainly more unsettling than any jazz quartet album I've heard from the early '60s — even the aggressively avant-garde ones. Even the lead cut, a Dolphy original that begins like one of those movies that surprises you by starting mid-scene, seems to be keeping some very different moods on the same stage; when Ron Carter's cello joins and starts whirring into a bee-like buzzing, it's like the movie's cutting back and forth between a lively party and an upstairs bedroom where a tormented guest is brooding and struggling with themselves. Listen to how Dolphy feels like he's wiggling all over the place when he's actually just staying around the same midrange phrase (excepting the brief and occasional lightbulb-flash leap): he keeps you off-balance from the get-go; it feels like you're rapidly being shown a bunch of things behind a bunch of different curtains, each revealing something more strange than the last but with no time to think back on what you just saw. "Out There", the composition, is indicative of the album's precarious balance between tranquility and brooding unease.

...And of the musicianship, which simply owns, my friends; all four players are going out on personal limbs with this album. As much as Carter's cello playing can be eerie (the title cut; the gorgeous low end of "Eclipse") or more conventionally, classically harmonic ("17 West"; the ghoulish last third of "Sketch of Melba") he consistently sounds like a rather charming eccentric no matter how somber the mood. "The Baron", for instance, is a tribute to (and gibe at) Charles Mingus, and Carter in particular nails the man's scribbly frustration and snappiness as well as his periods of lethargy. Drummer Roy Haynes, who worked with Monk on some of his best late-'50s albums, is a consistent knockout — his lightly brushed gallop on the title cut, if you focus on it, can seem maddening at first but very quickly becomes surprisingly, almost illogically entertaining; it's almost as if he's tricking you with a 'Now you see me, now you don't' routine...except he's in plain view the whole time. How does he do that? As for George Duvivier, a more conventional blues player, he basically just keeps up with the rest of 'em on side one, only to come totally out of left field on the B with some truly fascinating flights of fancy. Listen hard to the last minute of "17 West" and you'll hear him take up what sounds like a series of six-note arpeggios, or luxuriate in his guitar-like strums in "Feathers" that make the ending of the album such a beautiful one. (Seriously, those last 20 seconds are absolutely wonderful.)

Dolphy, meanwhile, is Dolphy. Meaning that you don't know what you're gonna get from moment to moment — even when he's being outwardly melodic. His bass clarinet playing in "Serene", itself a fairly conventional blues number (you can tell — Duvivier sounds more at-ease right away), feels like a young kid talking to himself in the sandbox in breathless, unpredictable blurts and whines and goofy rants. (Soon followed by Carter's solo that acts as the slightly more patient kid on the other side of the sandbox, minding his own business and listening until he gets to say his piece. And listen for 1:21, when they all decide to tease you with a more tonal and rooted melody before stirring around in frigid spurts.) The aforementioned soloing in "Out There" feels like clutching your head and rolling in your seat, knowing you need to stand up but realizing you're not ready for it as you crumple back onto the couch again and again. His chortling high flute notes on "17 West" are quite lyrical indeed - almost like the chorus of a Peggy Lee song or something - which mixes intriguingly with Carter's anxious tritone sway. And "Eclipse", a Mingus tune, is turned into a cinematic brooder — it's like watching clouds pass slowly over the moon, with Dolphy eventually warbling like an old woman singing some long-forgotten folk song as she blows out the lamps; like the part in a classic film noir where things are just starting to feel a bit askew.

Sure, some of Dolphy's more light-handed runs may cross the line into generic Bird imitation. And with the more conventional melodies (especially "Sketch of Melba") it can occasionally feel like the band are being a little too self-consciously slinky for their own good. (It's like they're calling attention to the fact that they're weirding-up a pretty tune, instead of treating it with a more subtle regularity.) But those are about the only quibbles I have for this album, which has no weak cuts and a few outright great ones; this is jazz chamber music at its most lively and visionary. If you don't believe me, listen to the bass chords at 2:02 of "Feathers", whereupon Dolphy turns into a bartender offering up one last round to the regulars...who promptly snap out of their spacey stupors and say 'sure.' Sleep, now? Ah, there's always tomorrow night.

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