Eric Dolphy, a California native, was born in 1928. Little did anyone know at the time, that little Eric would grow up to be one of the most controversial figures in jazz. Whether a fan of avant-garde and free jazz, or on the side of the naysayers that were so common in the 1960s, it’s pretty much universally accepted that the contribution that Eric Dolphy made to jazz music were and are incredibly important. This multi-instrumentalist, whose main instrument could either be called alto saxophone or bass clarinet, depending on who you ask, was one of the forerunners in the world of avant-garde jazz. His voice on any instrument calls out loud and clear. His joyful, humorous playing style is undeniably Dolphy. Though he did not disregard chordal improvisation as some of his contemporaries (e.g., Ornette Coleman) had, his idea of chordal improvisation is quite distant from that of the beboppers. For example, he may arpeggiate a minor chord to correspond with the rhythm section playing a major. While I could go on and on discussing his playing style and some of his unique ideas, it’s the music that speaks it the best. Whether you’re a jazz theory expert, or a casual listener, his music will speak to you nearly the same.
This is basically the top of the heap as far as Eric Dolphy albums are concerned, and arguably the best example of avant-garde jazz. It basically sounds like it is from another planet. The level of tension created by these musicians is absurd, and the loose, sensitive interaction of the band members is something to admire. All the musicians are top notch, and none provides a lesser contribution. Whether it’s Hubbard’s flurries of slurred notes in the forefront or Hutcherson’s strategically placed splashes of dissonance deep in the mix, it’s all an integral part of what makes this record what it is: a masterwork.
Let’s break it down track by track:
Hat And Beard
(8:24) A loud, short note by Freddie and Eric opens up the album, and in come the rest of the band. It sort of sounds like the whole band is doing a walking line. First Eric and Richard Davis do it, then Bobby Hutcherson takes that little line himself for a few bars. In comes the main melody, which is a jarring line that seems to be slowly rolling off a cliff. After that, it’s Eric’s first solo on the record. His bass clarinet cries and squeals. A disturbing, gutteral blast of beautifully atonal sound, dedicated to Thelonious Monk. Tony’s accompaniment during Eric’s solo is great, and Bobby’s listening real hard and placing his vibe hits in all the right places. After Eric Dolphy’s solo, Freddie starts his. As is throughout the album, Hubbard plays decidedly more traditionally. It’s still out there, and nowhere near hard bop, but it isn’t the squeaks and squawks of our friend Eric Dolphy, either. He gets some great little licks in this solo. All throughout these solos Richard Davis is playing with some of the most beautiful bass tone you can imagine. This continues, and sort of comes closer to the forefront during Bobby Hutcherson’s solo, since Tony has to play quieter to accompany the quieter instrument. Richard Davis switches between arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked) playing, and is adept in both techniques. In fact, I think I like his arco playing better, which is rare for a jazz musician. During Hutcherson’s solo he seems to be beating the hell out of his vibes, making loud, ringing sounds at times. After his solo, Eric and Freddie come back on the melody from the beginning. Eric takes the lead on his own briefly, then Richard, and it sort of fades out. An interesting way to end such a piece. 5/5
Something Sweet, Something Tender
(6:03) This one wastes no time. Eric’s bass clarinet melody comes in right away, with only Richard Davis’ bowed bass playing along with him. This is a ballad of sorts. The interplay between Eric and Davis brings back memories of the sessions of 1963 that are released as the albums “Iron Man" and “Conversations," where these two minds met for duet playing frequently. Soon, the trumpet and the vibes come in, but Tony’s nowhere to be found. The tune is still very pretty, but there’s a certain tension about it. It isn’t a comfortable ballad by any means. Eric takes an incredibly expressive solo, managing to get the point across perfectly in a very indirect way. It’s about as far from clichéd ballad playing as you can get. There’s another written melody after Eric’s solo, where Eric and Freddie play together, and Richard and Bobby punctuate interesting accents behind them. It almost sounds like they’re playing two different songs, but it’s obvious too that the musicians are all incredibly in touch with each other. After this middle section, Eric and Richard play a duet part again. I think this last duet is the prettiest part of the whole tune. 5/5
(7:23) Here’s Dolphy’s one statement on flute on this particular album. This is a bright, raucous tune. It’s sort of playful, but also feels a bit dangerous. I really like the way Freddie Hubbard accompanies Eric as the band falls out going into his flute solo. Of course, the second horn doesn’t play for long, and soon it’s a true flute solo. Even though Eric’s picked up a different instrument, it’s incredibly obvious that we’re listening to the same person. Eric Dolphy is no one else, no matter what horn he happens to be blowing. One thing I like about this tune is Tony Williams’ totally over-the-top accompaniment. So often, when a reed player picks up a flute, it’s nap time for the rhythm section. This is totally not the case, and Tony takes advantage, pounding very expressively through the time changes. After Eric’s solo comes one of Freddie’s best on the album. This tune seems to fit the entire band really well. Where Freddie seemed a bit apprehensive on “Hat And Beard", he comes out swinging on his solo here. The bass is much lower in the mix here than it has been so far, which is alright. Richard really showed off quite a bit on the last tune anyhow. The vibe solo could be Hutcherson’s best on the album as well. It’s got such a direction to the phrases, and an overall slope that really feels right. Then Richard Davis comes in with a bouncy pizzicato solo. Somehow, Richard manages to play really LOUD on this record. On so many recordings you have to dial the volume way up to hear the bass solo, but this one doesn’t demand that, even over Tony Williams’ heavy handed beating. I love this tune, even if it’s missing the bass clarinet sound that I’ve come to appreciate so much. 5/5
Out To Lunch
(12:09) This one starts with Tony playing a military drum part. It’s very strange. Then Dolphy comes in on alto sax along with Freddie Hubbard to play the melody, and the rest of the band comes in here as well. The melody is wild and brief, and Dolphy quickly starts his solo, with the kind of accompaniment we’ve grown accustomed to from this rhythm section. Dolphy’s alto playing is as marvelous and distinctive as his bass clarinet playing, and he utilizes the full range of the instrument like no one I’ve ever heard. In fact, it’s incredible how large his range on bass clarinet is, for that matter. Freddie and Eric are both soloing at the same time briefly, but Eric drops out soon after. Freddie’s solo swoops above the music with these disjointed, but somehow sloping lines. He sort of gets a momentum going, but knows exactly where to land and when. It’s nice, and I really dig the vibe accompaniment going on here. The interaction on this tune is high all the way through, as it has been through the entire album. Here especially they all seem to be really communicating, though. After Freddie’s solo the rhythm section just sort of plays. No one seems to take the lead for a little while, but then it starts to be something of a vibes solo. The few bars of collective improvisation are interesting, though. Richard Davis’ incredibly expressive, rich tone goes a long way to improve the solo of Bobby Hutcherson, and soon it becomes more of a duet. This sort of passing around of the solo section is what makes this album so unique, and what rewards repeated listenings. Everyone is doing something all the time (except when Tony had no part on the second tune). It all goes together (or against each other) in a very interesting way. Richard Davis plays an unaccompanied solo. He sounds like he’s searching for something. After his solo, Dolphy and Tony return with a ruckus. Eric, Tony, and Freddie trade for a while, but Tony never really sounds like he’s taking a solo until his last section, where he goes on for awhile. Then it’s back to his little military band part, and the main melody comes back. Perfect. 5/5
Straight Up And Down
(8:21) This song starts with some vibe hits, and then Dolphy (on alto saxophone) and Freddie play an interesting melody. It’s sort of like the musical equivalent of a jogger with a limp. Eric once again takes the first solo. Actually, this solo section seems to be the rhythmically most straightforward on the entire album. That is to say, you can actually find the beat without having to try. Eric’s solo is long, and it once again overlaps Freddie’s. Freddie quotes the original melody real quick at the beginning of his solo, which is an interesting choice. Mostly there’s little vibraphone throughout his solo, but Bobby starts to inch his way in near the end, showing that he’s ready for his turn to solo. And solo he does. Bobby plays sort of a flowy, watery solo. The individual notes are less important than the overall direction and slope of the lines. I really like it. I also really like that whenever Bobby takes a solo you get to hear a lot of Richard Davis’ amazing bass tone and creative walking lines. After this solo, the two horns come back in squawking like drunkards, and it’s back to the head. 5/5
To me, this is a perfect album. There was nothing like it in 1964, and there has been nothing since. I really meant it when I said that it sounds like it’s from another planet. There is not one misplaced note here. Not one bad judgment call by any improvising musician. All that can be found are 5 marvelously weird compositions and 5 musicians interacting like only brilliant ones can. The net effect is a deeply effecting listen that will seep into your consciousness like an album rarely can. It is a masterpiece of American music.