As something of a dilettante to the world of jazz, I hope it still holds some weight that the first time I heard Out To Lunch I didn't know what to make of it. I had a pretty good idea of what avant-garde and free-jazz were about but foreknowledge often can't quite prepare you for what's to come. Even now when I listen to Out To Lunch it sounds like such a refreshingly bizarre album, operating under its own internal logic. The bass on 'Hat and Beard' drones and groans in a way I would call non-jazzy, and the use of bass clarinet and vibraphones on the album seems more in the wheelhouse of a finicky, eccentric singer-songwriter than a jazz band. What I'm getting at is, this record clearly originates from jazz yet sounds very little like what most people think of when you say the word “jazz.”
It's impossible to calculate the influence of Eric Dolphy on future generations of musicians, but I think it's most telling that some of those musicians weren't jazz players. Frank Zappa titled a track on his Weasels Ripped My Flesh album after Dolphy, and I have to speculate that Zappa pal Captain Beefheart was also a fan. Take the most avant-garde, 'out' moments from Trout Mask Replica and they have the sound of free jazz as played by a 60s rock band. Out To Lunch, like that underground masterpiece, is the kind of music that sounds simultaneously freely improvised and out of control while also being structured and tightly played. I can't explain how, but eventually one learns to tell the difference between random nonsense and expressive/freeform music; Out To Lunch is inarguably the latter.
'Gazzelloni' is a kind of Rosetta's Stone to understanding what is going on in this album. Ostensibly the record's most structured and traditional track, the solos on flute, trumpet, and vibes are undercut, accented, challenged, and cheered on by the other instruments. I almost hesitate to call them solos in the strict sense because of the full group improvisatory feel of this music. An impossibly young Tony Williams on drums is the keystone to it all, snapping off militaristic snare lines on many of the songs and dueling, via cymbals, with bassist Richard Davis near the end of 'Gazzelloni.' Still, it's the final two tracks where Dolphy returns to the more traditionally jazz oriented alto sax that things really get cooking. The towering title track has always ironically sounded more to me like the frantic rush of a person doing physical labor rather than the relaxed afternoon eating of someone on a lunch break. Regardless, Freddie Hubbard plays a patient, burning solo while the rhythm section goes absolutely insane around the 4:27 mark, at once atonal and arrhythmic yet melodic and swinging in its own way, like a machine stamping metal parts in a factory.
I find it a little sad and a little prescient that Miles Davis didn't like Eric Dolphy's music. Sad, because I think if Dolphy had lived longer, he and Davis could have learned a lot from each other's music. Prescient, because I think Davis was one of the few musicians who saw that avant-garde and free-jazz weren't so much a portal to getting some place else as they were an end in and of themselves; there was nowhere to really go 'from' this kind of music. Davis ended up fusing rock, funk, blues, and, arguably, electronic music into his form of jazz, which proved to be of more lasting influence and popularity. Yet I think there is still much to learn from the other direction jazz took in the 60s, and Out To Lunch is one of the essential texts to not merely study, but also to enjoy.