On Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!

The avant-garde reedist’s iconic outing for Blue Note Records was recorded on this day in 1964
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964)

On this day in 1964, Eric Dolphy entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record one of Blue Note Records’ most distinctive and iconic records. Joined by Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Bobby Hutchinson (vibraphone), Richard Davis (bass) and an eighteen-year-old Anthony Williams (drums), Dolphy brought along his alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute for the date.

Out to Lunch! is the culmination of a sequence of recordings that explored the possibilities of avant-garde jazz in the early 1960s, from Dolphy’s first album as leader, Outward Bound (New Jazz, 1960), to Out There (New Jazz, 1960), to his 1961 recordings at the Five Spot and 1962’s Far Cry (New Jazz). Across these works we can hear the artistic development of Dolphy as a restless and inventive talent. Out to Lunch! nods a debt to bebop in its tribute to pianist Thelonious Monk (‘Hat and Beard’), and acknowledges the classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni (‘Gazzelloni’), but while the album negotiates the legacy of bebop and post-bop music it simultaneously reaches towards freer musical forms.

When I think of Eric Dolphy’s greatest achievements, I often think of him as a bold and adventurous sideman playing solos in the bands of John Coltrane or, most strikingly, Charles Mingus. I’m thinking in particular of his contributions to Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic, 1960), Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Impulse!, 1963), or to his recordings on Coltrane’s Africa/Brass (Impulse!, 1961), Live! at the Village Vanguard (Impulse!, 1961). Not to mention his fantastic contributions to Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure (Blue Note, 1964), Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse! 1961) and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960). Some of his finest and most energetic work can be found among these records.

Eric Dolphy during the recording session for Out to Lunch!, 25 February 1964.
Eric Dolphy during the recording session for Out to Lunch!, 25 February 1964.

While critics can be tetchy about Eric Dolphy’s strengths as a leader, there is a consensus that Out to Lunch! is a powerful, innovative record which remains an important document in the history of avant-garde jazz. Tragically, Dolphy would not see Out to Lunch! reach the shelves. He died after falling into a diabetic coma in Berlin on 29 June 1964. Paying tribute to his friend, John Coltrane said of Dolphy: ‘Whatever I’d say would be an understatement. I can only say my life was made much better by knowing him. He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician.’

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