Counterbalance: Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch!

The most accessible avant-garde album ever, or the most avant-garde mainstream jazz album ever? From 1964, something sweet, something tender is this week’s Counterbalance -- straight up and down.
Eric Dolphy
Out to Lunch!
Blue Note

Klinger: Every so often, I feel the need to force you to listen to jazz. Actually not just you, Mendelsohn; I have a need to occasionally force people to listen to jazz — coworkers, party guests, spouses. Because I am by nature a polite man, of course, I try to find the kind of jazz that I think the other person will actually enjoy (spoiler alert: that often involves Brubeck). This time around, though, I’ve taken the gloves off. It’s Dolphy time, buddy. Out to Lunch!. It’s time to get weird. And from the first chilling notes of Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard”, you know you’re headed into some unusual territory. That mix of bass clarinet, double bass, and vibraphone seem to be settling you in for something altogether unsettling. The song comes off as a a haunted film noir fever dream, making it a good example of why people find jazz so “difficult”.

Or is it? Personally, I’ve always thought that Out to Lunch! was a good example of a straight-ahead avant-garde record (unless you decide to think of it as an unusually avant-garde straight-ahead jazz record, which is OK too). It’s true that the album has its share of dissonance, and seems to be reveling in it, whether it’s Dolphy squawking away on his bass clarinet or Bobby Hutcherson puts the hammer down on the vibes. At the same time, though, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Tony Williams seem to maintain an even keel throughout the proceedings, giving the songs a steady, solid feel that’s a far cry from the nuttiness that was to emerge from the avant-garde. Either way, Out to Lunch! has made enough of an impression within the critical industrial complex to earn it a ranking of No. 405 (the third highest-placing album of 1964, as it happens, the first being A Hard Day’s Night). Anyway, I admit, I was trying to freak you out. Mission accomplished?

Mendelsohn: Would you be disappointed if I said no? Jazz, even the most avant-garde, does not freak me out. Mostly, it makes me want to take a nap or listen to something else — something that isn’t jazz. It has been awhile since we’ve talked about jazz and I had the sneaking suspicion you would be dropping a jazz album in my lap. I was hoping for something a little more conventional. Maybe something on the fusion spectrum with nods to prog rock or latent pop influences? But if we have to talk about Dolphy’s ramblings, so be it. After a couple of spins through Out to Lunch!, my limited jazz knowledge kicks in and I notice this record is indeed free form stemming from the hard bop tradition. Further research tells me that the first track, “Hat and Beard,” is inspired by bop contributor Thelonious Monk. Elements of hard bop appear throughout the record and if I have to listen to jazz, the bop family is at the top of the list for its close relations to soul, R&B and the blues.

But then, somewhere in the middle of “Something Sweet, Something Tender”, a song that starts off so promisingly, I sort of space out while Dolphy is squawking away. That seems to be the story for me. I get pulled in by a snippet, a repeating stanza, a flash of harmony and then I lose it in the ether. Why is listening to jazz so much work?

Klinger: I’m not going to say anything sarcastic about how I see you lose it in the ether on a regular basis (usually after your sixth beer) because that wouldn’t be very nice of me. And besides I get where you’re coming from. I always say that I listened to jazz for years before I heard it. Even now, I drift off from time to time, but then I realize that I do that when I listen to a lot of rock music as well — especially if long guitar solos are involved. But then again, I’ve long since stopped worrying about what aspects of musical history I’m supposed to be gleaning from listening to jazz. Once jazz became a scholarly exercise, it stopped being fun. Listen in your own way, and it can be fun again.

Maybe it feels like work because our brains are more engaged when we encounter patterns, and the improvisational nature of jazz tends to obscure those patterns. Snare drum beats don’t land on the three. A run on a horn that could have been a hook is never repeated. And the main thing that’s holding your interest is the excitement that comes from the virtuosity of the musicians (on Out to Lunch!, listen for Freddie Hubbard’s lightning fast trumpet in particular). On the other hand, when I hear the squawking that pulls you out of it, that’s the very stuff that pulls me back in. Dolphy’s unpredictability is a constant source of amazement to me. Listen to the main riff on “Straight Up and Down” — Dolphy never quite fulfills your expectations during his solo.

Mendelsohn: It is a little disappointing that Dolphy never brings the solo full circle. But at the same time, that unfulfilled expectation is part of the allure of this record. The band does its best to hint at harmony, nod toward a melody, tiptoe around the beat. As the listeners, we are forced to fill in the spaces, or more to the point, take notice of the space within the music. It can be liberating — or frustrating. I have a sneaking suspicion that most people would find it frustrating. I did. I don’t know how many times I had to force myself through the record before it started to stick. Now I find the wobbly bit in the beginning of “Straight Up and Down”, to be delightful (it reminds me of you after your sixth beer) and I eagerly wait for it to return at the end. Between those two points, however, I’m still a little lost — unfulfilled expectations and all.

It makes me wonder if the obtuse nature of jazz has sealed the genre’s fate. The Great List holds these classic jazz albums up as standard bearers for the genre but after a certain point, jazz seems to be a complete non factor within the critical industrial complex. Is the end of jazz, as anything other than musical oddity, close at hand? Has it already passed the point of no return?

Klinger: It’s been a long time since jazz has had any particular currency in our culture. I hate that. I hate the idea that it’s become the sort of music that you either listen to reverently or treat as ambient dinner-party background noise. I hate the notion that jazz is like classical music now, to be treated like a museum piece that mustn’t ever get itself dirty. Because when you listen to Dolphy and his band make their way through Out to Lunch, you realize that it is dirty and funky and messy and beautiful. And that we should treat it like any other music — music that makes us move. Music that trips all the little triggers in our brain. Music that makes us lean forward sometimes and makes us lean back at others, sometimes within the same song.

A lot of times, making your decision for an artist or an album or a genre is about letting go. Turning off the part of your brain that makes you self-conscious about whether you’re doing the right thing or whether you’re doing it right. How often have we listened to something and not picked it up right at first, only to have it sink into our heads when we least expect it? The problem with jazz — and to answer your question, the reason why it will continue to decline in our public estimation — is that somewhere along the line someone convinced people that they were doing it wrong. That they weren’t appreciating it the right way. That these artists were first and foremost compositional geniuses (which they are, no question) and somehow not entertainers (which just doesn’t make sense). And the people who did the most damage, the people who made jazz so very not fun, were the people who loved it the most.

But yes, damage is done. As long as young people (and in this case, I guess I mean people under 75) view jazz as a schoolmarmish lesson to be heeded, then yes, it’s going to wither away. I’m not expecting droves of millennials to start digging out 50-year-old Blue Note albums or starting up some Mumfordesque avant-garde hard-bop revival. Let this be a lesson, I suppose, to the people who try to make rock and roll an academic pursuit. In the meantime, I hold out hope that maybe a few people here and there will make the decision to let go and hear Out to Lunch! for the deeply groovy fun that it actually is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to have this soapbox back to the rental place by six.