If you’re a jazz fan, surely there’s been a moment when you cried out loud: “I wish I was Rudy Van Gelder!”
Mr. Van Gelder is probably the most famous and important recording engineer in jazz, a man who made so many brilliant sessions for Prestige and Blue Note sound so perfectly wonderful. In a living room in Hackensack, New Jersey (and then in a “real” studio in Englewood Cliffs) Van Gelder got Coltrane and Cannonball, Blakey and Monk on tape. The guy was so good at his craft that he was, effectively, part of the music he recorded. He was present at - and vital to -hundreds of legendary sessions.
Lately, he has been working with Blue Note and Prestige to remaster many of his great dates, bringing them to life with even more generous clarity and warmth. But I’ve never heard a remastering that so dramatically improved on the original as Eric Dolphy’s second date as a leader, 1960’s Out There.
Eric Dolphy is a mutant figure in jazz. One of the music’s few true multi-instrumentalists, he is equally esteemed on alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet. Moreover, in 1960 Dolphy sat squarely between jazz orthodoxy (bebop) and the avant-garde. His music swung with bop rhythms, but his harmonic imagination felt off-the-charts nutty. He played with wide intervallic leaps and lumpy phrasing that made all his work pulse with quirkiness. The leaders who wanted to hire him - particularly Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane - were pushing the jazz envelope and loved how Dolphy could blend into their ideas yet also ripple with his own edge.
For Out There, Dolphy put together three originals, two Mingus tunes, one by Randy Weston and one by Hale Smith, then gathered a wonderfully odd band: cello, bass, and drums. Dolphy had played with cello in drummer Chico Hamilton’s band, but here Carter’s cello serves both as a front line partner and a chording instrument in place of piano or guitar. The result is an album with a decidedly “out” and open sound - with each soloist free to explore harmony above the minimal barriers of George Duvivier’s bass lines and Roy Haynes snap-crackle-pop stick work.
The disc has always been considered a minor classic - where Dolphy’s “promise begins to pay dividends” in the words of the Penguin Guide - but the remastering is a significant revelation. Now Carter’s cello is a more equal partner in the melodies, joining Dolphy more forcefully in the band’s overall sound. The effect is akin to hearing Ornette’s classic quartet for the first time, with Dolphy and Carter phrasing the tunes together with uncanny unity (like Coleman and Don Cherry) but in a much darker, stranger vein. On “The Baron,” bass clarinet and cello wind together like a long boa constrictor. When Carter begins to improvise, the notes are tangled and pleasantly “stringy” - with the scrape of bow on string buzzing just enough to feel dirty and real. The bass clarinet has a similar effect on its feature: raspy with wood-reed grumble.
“Eclipse”, a Mingus tune, is just as piquantly strange. Dolphy is caught (for nearly the first and last time) on the regular B-flat clarinet, and there is a wonderful classical vibe as the strings play as an ensemble behind the leader. Then, as Dolphy plays a stately melody, Carter plays a wide-ranging improvisation around him. It’s a rare example of a jazz musician finding a new way to package a tune other than the usual melody-solos-melody format that was tired even in 1960.
Best, perhaps, are the tunes where the leader’s effortless flute is teamed with the mahogany cello sound. “17 West” is irresistible, with the boys playing playful unison, then the flute grooving while the cello plays a hip double-stop figure in counterpoint. Randy Weston’s “Sketch of Melba” is a ballad feature that again lets Carter wind around the melody, glissing and jumping like a kid on the loose. Again, it’s the clarity of Mr. Van Gelder’s remastering that can’t be denied: for the first time, this record sounds like an equal partnership between wind and string.
The last track, “Feathers”, greatly benefits from the remastering as well. Here, Carter strums his cello like a guitar, and the newly audible plink and stroke of the instrument is like cayenne pepper in a good recipe. Dolphy’s alto is ripe (and slightly sharp?) with feeling, while the rhythm section plays it rubber-band loose. Carter’s plinky accompaniment is the secret ingredient. When Dolphy cuts his alto loose, it’s the loss of the strumming that seems to set it all free - until it all comes back to close the disc.
While Dolphy and Van Gelder would go on to make at least one greater record (the solid-gold Out to Lunch on Blue Note), Out There has now ascended to a special place in my Dolphy collection. Demonstrating elements of the leader’s most important associations (with Mingus, Hamilton, and Coleman), it also suggests a distinctive imagination and heady collaboration with Ron Carter. Today I can hear it all with more separation and clarity, like I was there with Rudy in the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
It’s a dream come true.