Eric Dolphy’s Out There was one of the first albums I bought when I began collecting vinyl. It was in October of 2008 and my wife and I spent a Saturday evening in Chicago. We were there originally to see My Morning Jacket at the Auditorium Theater but singer Jim James had taken a stumble off a 10 foot stage just a few nights before at a different show and had to cancel to heal from his wounds. We’d already made hotel reservations right on the main drag on Michigan Avenue so we figured we’d just go anyways and spend the evening meandering around. One of the places we stopped was the Jazz Record Mart on Illinois Street. It’s a wonderful record shop full of great jazz, world, and avante garde music. They’ve also got a pretty great selection of psych and a massive collection of vintage 78s that I once saw Ben Folds perusing back in 2011. But that’s another story.
So anyways, I’d decided in the fall of 2008 that I was going to buy a turntable and start collecting some of my favorite albums on vinyl. Of course I ended up abandoning all means of music listening and only buy vinyl now(with a few exceptions), but the original plan was my way of getting my wife to agree to this purchase. I figured what a great way to get a heads up on the vinyl purchasing by hitting up a Chicago record shop. So, before I’d even purchased a turntable I ended up buying Wes Montgomery’s Live At The Half Note, Jimmy Smith’s Root Down(on CD), and Eric Dolphy’s Out There. I bought Wes Montgomery because my friend at work had recently bought the CD reissue and I was pretty enamored with it. Jimmy Smith’s Root Down was because I loved the Beastie Boys’ “Root Down” and I wanted to go straight to the source. Besides, there’s lots a great funk on that album. And finally, Eric Dolphy’s Out There. How did I come to this album? Well, that’s an interesting story(I think so, anyways.)
Around ten years ago I met a guy named Ron. He started working as a purchasing agent at my company. Ron was a 60-ish African American gentleman that was originally from the south side of Chicago. I’m not sure what he did before he came to work in the orthopedic industry, and I’m not sure he would’ve been completely honest had we asked him. All I know is that one day he came back to our area and I had Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream playing and from that point on we were friends. He told myself and the guy I worked with about how back in the early 1960s he’d go to Grant Park in Chicago and watch Monk, Coltrane, Booker Little, and Eric Dolphy play these amazing shows. He was especially fond of Little and Dolphy. When I told him I’d never heard either he was eager to share their musical worlds with me. The next day at work he came back to our area with a little pouch. Inside was three or four Dolphy CDs and a Booker Little CD. He said I could take them home if I wanted, just not to lose them as those are all he had. I listened to them the rest of the day and then that night when I got home. Booker Little was somewhat easier to wrap my brain around, but Eric Dolphy was a different beast altogether. Out There sounded like math equations put to a swing beat. His sound was part Bernard Hermann score and part mental breakdown. It was strange, awkward, and even alien at times. Monk wasn’t the most easy listening cat you could find, but for some reason his music resonated with me from the first time I heard it. Dolphy was from another planet. I gave the CDs back to Ron the next day and thanked him, thinking I’d never cross paths with Mr. Dolphy again.
Ron eventually left the company under strange circumstances, to my dismay. I really liked Ron. He was connected to a world I’d only been able to read about in biographies and watch in documentaries. He was there. He lived in the jazz world back when it was at its most vibrant and influential. He was also a funny, jovial, and just plain interesting cat. So on that fateful trip to Chicago, before I’d even looked at turntables, Ron was in my head and I bought Eric Dolphy’s Out There in his honor. Plus, I wanted to try and wrap my head around this Dolphy character. Out There was the album I remembered from the group of ones I borrowed from Ron, and it had this really trippy album cover so it was the one I went with.
After having lived with this record for over seven years now I can say it’s grown on me and I think I may have even cracked the Dolphy code, if you will. There’s an elegance in his playing that I couldn’t hear through the dissonance and avante strange before. I think for me my favorite tracks are the more subtle, somber ones as opposed to the swingier tunes. “Sketches Of Melba” and “Feathers” remind me of old noir-ish scores from the 50s. His playing of the alto sax, flute, Bb and bass clarinets add a variety of noise and depth you don’t get with every virtuoso blower. One of the secret weapons here is cellist Ron Carter. Mostly known as the bassist for Miles Davis’ second great quintet, Carter here with Dolphy lets his avante garde virtuosity fly. Playing cello here he adds an almost chamber music quality to the pieces. He’s really quite extraordinary. Opening track “Out There” has a fast paced swing rhythm that allows Eric Dolphy to properly blow his alto sax here, there, and everywhere. It’s cacophonic in delivery and quite dizzying. It’s not my favorite way to enjoy Eric Dolphy, but it’s still an impressive display. “Serene” and “The Baron” are more my speed. The former a great whirl of neon-lit, rainy Los Angeles nighttime blues and the latter a tip of the hat to Mr. Charles Mingus. Quite lovely.
Out To Lunch! has become my go-to Eric Dolphy record over the years, but I like to pull Out There out once in a while, usually on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee. Hopefully Mr. Ron is out there, too. Still listening to Eric Dolphy, and still telling those great stories. This one’s for you Ron.