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Music Review: Outward Bound The Eric Dolphy Quintet

Of all the musical genres of the twentieth century Jazz seems to be the one that has had the most labels affixed to it in an attempt to define what the musicians who played it were doing. Sometimes, as in the case of Swing the label described how the music moved, on other occasions, like Big Band, it simply offered a description of the numbers involved in its production.

It wasn't until the mid parts of the twentieth century and beyond that the labels became more nebulous and less descriptive. Bebop may have been in reference to the staccato beats of the soloists, but when the players started to move beyond even the confines of Bebop into free improvisation those obsessed with giving everything a specific name were at such a loss they gave in and called it "New Jazz" for lack of another term.

One of the early innovators in the "New Jazz" era was flautist, alto saxophone, and bass clarinet player Eric Dolphy. Dolphy flew under the radar of most of the Jazz establishment at the beginning of his career as it started on the West Coast of the United States in Los Angeles. It wasn't until a 1958 tour brought him to New York City did he establish himself on the East Coast.

He quickly became a major player by landing a place in Charlie Mingus' band. Dolphy would continue to record with Mingus for the rest of his life and Mingus considered him one of the most talented interpreters of his compositions.

The other major player whom Dolphy made contact with was John Coltrane, while the two men only recorded together for less than a year, they managed to produce some of the most challenging Jazz music recorded to date (Down Beat magazine referred to it as anti-Jazz). Their label could never really figure out what to do with the tracks they recorded and it took until 1997, thirty –two years later, for Vanguard to release the tracks in a box set called The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings.
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But it wasn't as a sideman or interpreting other people's music that Dolphy made his name. It was working his own magic with his own bands that has ensured his legacy as one of the great improvisers and innovators of Jazz. In 1960 that he began to create that legacy with the recording Outward Bound, although still primarily a Bebop album he made enough of a step away from it for his label to give the recording the name we now know it by.

It was obvious to them even then that he was heading in a new direction and they were welcome to come along for the ride if they so chose. They may not have understood completely what he was doing, but their choice of title singled their acquiescence to his decisions. Over the next four years he would release some twenty plus discs on which he was principle player/ bandleader.

The new reissue of Outward Bound has not only been re-mastered by the man who originally recorded the album, Rudy Van Gelder, it also includes three bonus features that were recorded during the original sessions and not used, "April Fool", and the master versions of "G.W." and "245". The latter two tracks give each of the soloists, Eric, and a twenty-one year old trumpet player named Freddie Hubbard, an extra chorus or two to show off their chops.

Multi-instrumentalists are not common in Jazz, but Dolphy, although he did focus on the alto saxophone primarily, seems equally comfortable with all the instruments in his arsenal. On Outward Bound he starts with the alto saxophone on the original version of "G.W.", switches to bass clarinet for on "Green Dolphin Street", and completes the introduction of his three instruments in"245" (a reference to his street address so don't be looking for any complicated messages) by picking up his flute.

While the music on this disc may be considered more accessible to those with experience in listening to Jazz; it will still represent something of a challenge to the novice. Although there are familiar touchstones, like the Bluesy feel to the song "245", in other places, "Les" for example where the blues is messed around with, there are obvious signs of the outward movement.

Something to keep in mind when listening to this, or any pieces of "New Jazz", is that melodies are merely something to build on, not be slavishly adhered to. Unlike Orchestral music, or Blues and Rock, Jazz seems to be ideally suited to improvisation. Sure there are guitar and other instrumental leads in both Rock and Blues, but they still must stay within a specific framework.

In Jazz people like Dolphy took the frame, broke it into pieces, rebuilt it as something new, and by the end of the piece had brought it back to where it started from, somehow. I think a prime example of this was the simply amazing version of "Few Of My Favourite Things" that Coltrane recorded; a twenty minute improvisation around a piece of treacle that brought in new life and made an eminently forgettable song memorable.

When you're listening to the Eric Dolphy Quintet playing try and not listen for a tune, instead listen to the interplay of the instruments, and the pulse of the base and the drum carrying it all forward like a raft on a stream or a river. Listen to the sounds Eric coaxes out of his instruments as he attempts to communicate some emotion or idea to you.

Four years after Eric Dolphy recorded this album he died in hospital in Germany. He had collapsed on the street and been rushed to hospital. When the doctors heard he was a Jazz musician they just figured he was stoned and needed to sleep it off. He died in a Diabetic coma the next day.

The what if game is pretty pointless when it comes to musicians because no one can anticipate what they might have done if they were given more time. Considering his prolific output in the four years that he was able to record it is probably fair to say that he would have kept on pushing away at the envelope until his fingers gave up the ghost.

Outward Bound is a great disc in that it not only provides a clear picture of what Dolphy was doing when he was on the verge of breaking with the past and moving into the future. It also serves as a nice bridge for the new listeners between the recognizable motifs of Bebop and the freer situation of New Jazz. It should also help make you feel a little more comfortable in taking the plunge into the deep end of improvisational Jazz.

Eric Dolphy has long been regarded as one of the leading innovators in contemporary Jazz music. Listening to Outward Bound will give you plenty of reasons to justify that assessment and lots of fine music to enjoy.


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