Listening to Eric Dolphy’s Outward Bound is like seeing a familiar movie dubbed in a different language: it disorients and ultimately delights.
It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Booker Little and Lee Morgan -- all trumpeters incidentally -- also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned -- all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays -- died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable. Outward Bound, then, holds a special place as his debut recording as a leader.
Dolphy often draws comparisons to Ornette Coleman, another avatar of the free jazz movement. Not surprisingly, the two were friendly and obviously saw, in one another, a reflection of the intensely sensitive and eccentric misfit. But where Coleman sought to recreate the temple by first razing its very foundation, Dolphy constructed his singular edifice in accordance with a vision rooted on firm and familiar ground: the bebop innovations of Charlie Parker (who, fittingly, was initially ostracized by many of the mere mortals who still believed the jazz world was flat). Suffice it to say, like any artist who helps redefine the rules by recreating them, Dolphy had to first master the idiom before daring to transcend it. Although already intelligent and advanced beyond his years, he was 31 at the time of this recording, making him somewhat of a late bloomer by typical jazz icon standards (young hotshot Freddie Hubbard, for instance, was only 21 on this session). Point being, Dolphy served his apprenticeship wisely, and his incalculable hours in the woodshed left the sawdust offstage and off record, so that when his time finally came, it was on.
One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible -- particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia -- that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since.
Outward Bound, aside from its import as Dolphy's inaugural session as a leader, assembles what could accurately -- if unfairly -- be described as one of jazz music's all-time second tier collectives. Whenever discussions of the unrivaled masters occur (whatever those types of discussions are worth), none of these players make the first cut: you hear about Monk and Ellington and Tatum and maybe Hancock (for starters) before you ever hear about Jaki Byard; you hear about Armstrong, Miles, and Clifford Brown before you hear about Freddie Hubbard; you hear about Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams before you eventually get around to Roy Haynes; you don’t hear much of anything about George Tucker (and this is unfortunate); and you hear about Parker, Coltrane, Rollins, and maybe a half-dozen legitimate heavyweight contenders before most folks might happen to mention Eric Dolphy. All of which is to say that this session brings together a handful of the finest musicians who ever played their respective instruments, and it's more than a little coincidental that, when put in the same environment with a common purpose, there was an affinity and extra edge they conjured up, seemingly out of nowhere.
The tone is set with a Dolphy original, "G.W." -- a tribute to trumpeter, bandleader, and early mentor Gerald Wilson -- which is a calling card and statement of purpose: not only does each musician get ample time and space to have their say, but the composition can be heard as the first major indication of where Dolphy was heading: up and away from convention and into a freer, flowing space -- outward bound. After a throat-clearing flourish from Haynes, Dolphy and Hubbard enter in electrifying unison, a sound that still sounds brazen and irreverent today; one can easily imagine the ears of jazz "purists" turning sideways in 1961. Dolphy's extended solo evinces his facility with the alto saxophone: he packs notes into undulating clusters that, of course, call to mind Charlie Parker, but this voice, which at once cries and laughs, is intense without being off-putting, ferocious yet still friendly. Jaki Byard takes a typical romp down memory lane, rolling and tumbling from stride to bebop and beyond. Repeated listens reveal how active his fingers -- and mind -- always are; he is never busy or noisy, yet he constantly colors the corners of the canvass, urging the vibe in and out of focus while offering running commentary, a playful and authoritative raconteur. The group then tackles the familiar standard "On Green Dolphin Street", which is a showcase for Hubbard's muted trumpet and Dolphy's bass clarinet. While "G.W." introduces the early foundation of a new type of language, here Dolphy uses that language to translate a classic text, encapsulating his greatest gift: making the old sound new and vice versa. Haynes, as always, is too cool to call unnecessary attention to himself. Content to provide supple, solid support for the soloists, he works subtle wonders while George Tucker's bass is the calming and utterly professional presence throughout. It is, in fact, Haynes and Tucker whose contributions are most amplified by the excellent remastering of this release -- there is a clarity and immediacy absent in earlier editions. "Les", another tribute from Dolphy (this time for trombonist Lester Robinson), presents another scorching alto sax workout and, like "G.W.", allows Hubbard and Byard to share the spotlight. Hubbard and Dolphy duel throughout the piece, trading solos that invariably recall Coltrane and Davis from that quintet's celebrated tenure. Dolphy remains with the alto sax on "245", but Hubbard takes center stage bursting with ideas and energy, offering his own introduction of sorts to the imminent run of classic albums he would make, leading his own bands, over the next decade and change.
Finally, the flute makes its first appearance on the winsome cover of the Rodgers-Hart standard “Glad To Be Unhappy”, an especially inspired and affecting choice. Dolphy speaks, sings and cries, conveying beautiful feelings trying to break out from under some inexpressible sadness. Everyone rises to the occasion for “Miss Toni” -- another remake and the song that concluded the original release -- a rollicking, exultant showcase for the entire group: Haynes and Tucker lock in while Dolphy, once more on the bass clarinet, sprints out of the gate, again engineering a solo that swings with the best any hard bop has to offer, yet is uniquely off-kilter with that slightly disorienting, distinctive sound. Hubbard blows sparks out of his horn while Byard prances and prods, adding commas, parentheses and exclamation points as he so pleases. It seems quite fortuitous that this particular session was recorded on April 1, making the first bonus track, very appropriately entitled “April Fool”, extra special, particularly as it provides another opportunity to hear Dolphy on flute. Along with an alternate take of “245”, the real treat is the other version of “G.W.”, which stretches out over ten minutes and affords the soloists -- especially Dolphy -- to cut loose with greater urgency and abandon.
Admittedly, some of these remastered classics are less than essential: if you already own the original, there’s no real need to cough up the extra cash. This is most definitely an exception: the significantly improved sound quality (typical of all the Rudy Van Gelder reissues) along with three bonus cuts makes this an imperative purchase. If you’ve never experienced the joy that is Eric Dolphy, there is no better place to begin since this is where it all officially began. If, in the final analysis, it is not the unqualified masterpiece that Out To Lunch would be, and does not possess the truly strange and unfathomable wonder of Out There, it can contentedly settle for merely being a great album. Outward Bound, in sum, is a top tier effort from a tremendous quintet, and it signals the start of an abbreviated but incendiary burst of creative genius. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.