Out To Lunch in the zone

A one-time-only revisitation of the late Eric Dolphy‘s masterpiece at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC fulfilled the promise and hope of jazz repertory concerts, and proved the enduring, enriching quality of jazz-beyond-jazz compositions.

When trumpeter Russ Johnson took on the challenge of performing five works recorded by reeds and winds player Dolphy’s brilliantly cast quintet in 1964, Johnson bit off the major problem of recreators: how to approach indelible music to maintain its integral identity yet fulfill its implicit demands or opportunities of interpretation, improvisation and innovation.

Out To Lunch, which Dolphy realized in collaboration with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Tony Williams only months before his death of undiagnosed diabetes at age 36, is, for we who crave visceral excitement with our intellectual pleasures, among the most prized albums of the Blue Note treasure trove. In program notes for the Merkin Hall concert (produced by music director Greg Evans) I called Out To Lunch “the Kind of Blue of the avant-garde,” meaning its music is eternally strong, fresh, enlightening and rewarding.

Choosing to address the pieces “Hat and Beard,” “Something Sweet, Something Tender,” “Gazzelloni,” “Out To Lunch” and “Straight Up And Down” faithfully to their scores, Johnson convened bandmates with personal abilities as well as (necessarily, along with?) instrumental virtuosities. His choices were saxophonist Roy Nathanson (best known for his recent words ‘n’ music album Sotto Voce and leadership of the Jazz Passengers), pianist Myra Melford (subject of recent Jazz Beyond Jazz posts, with her band Be Bread band and Trio M), bassist Brad Jones (Jazz Passenger who’s worked with Ornette Coleman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Byron, et al) and drummer George Schuller All agreed to solo from their own inspirations rather than imitate the soloistic statements of Dolphy’s original team.

“At least I’m not playing the same instrument,” Melford said of the parts she was responsible for. To launch the album’s opener, a vivid impression of Thelonious Monk, Hutcherson’s metallic clang fuses with the horns’ blasts and Williams’ slashing downbeat, Davis walking out from underneath; elsewhere, Hutcherson’s gestures are swipes and slams at the dissonance between two vibes-keys. Melford’s touch is equally astounding but very different: she can ramp smoothly at seemingly any tempo between elegant finger work, sharp single-note runs, impassioned forearm clusters and slam-bang fistichords, reach into the piano’s well to pluck harp-tones on the wires, bring the energy further up or down or inbetween and still hold to the melodic/harmonic form. As Nathanson said after the show, Dolphy selected vibes over piano in the recording because piano as played then was “too restrictive” (dominating by chords, a concern Ornette Coleman voiced at the time, too) — “Now, like the way Myra plays so openly, contemporary piano is more open than vibes.”

Nathanson himself used the project as an opportunity to tighten up his chops after completing an MFA in interdisciplinary arts at Brooklyn College — and he’d obviously listened a zillion times to Dolphy’s uniquely jagged but luxuriously long phrasings, his register-leaping figures and his unusually surreal yet always soulful tunefulness. He played most alto — Dolphy’s main horn — but no bass clarinet (the odd duck horn Dolphy successfully championed), switching to soprano sax for “Gazzelloni,” on which Dolphy famously played multiphonics and bird-trills on his flute (in tribute to the eponymous Italian classical and avant-garde flutist).

If Johnson’s Out To Lunch accepted changes of instrumentation in exchange for preservation of intent/affect, it also allowed slight but significant modifications of the classic arrangements — most noticably an episode of New Orleans-like collective improvisation in “Gazzelloni,” in the heat of which drummer Schuller laid out entirely. In performance the pieces were played in the same sequence as the album, and by that point I had long since been able to stop comparing specific note choices being made onstage with what I as a teenager had burned into my memory through repeated close listenings. (Asked by my flute teacher Harriet Lejeune for a recording of my favorite flutist, I had taken her Out To Lunch, pointed to “Gazzelloni,” then watched the album gather dust on her mantle where she let it linger without listening, until I demanded it back). I was digging instead how Johnson was able to refrain from quoting Hubbard and find his own ideas, how Nathanson and he had obviously worked together a lot, how Roy was injecting humor into his leaps and bounds, how firm Jones played (pizzicato only; Davis played arco, too), how Schuller was more light and kick-butt than Williams, a precision conceptualist and powerhouse, how the entire ensemble was blending, balancing together — wow, how cool this music sounds!

Dolphy had worked with Gunther Schuller -George’s father– on the aesthetic initiative he called Third Stream,” in the early ’60s performing with and writing original chamber music works for a classically-identified chamber ensemble double-billed on U.S. tours with his own jazz-identified band. In the Merkin concert’s second half, Johnson and George Schuller introduced two obscure Dolphy compositions that he may have conceived for strings, woodwinds and french horns; the rocketing “Far Cry,” from Dolphy’s album of the same title, and to end “So Long, Eric,” which bassist Charles Mingus wrote for his favorite sideman, who’d decided to stay in Europe after the Mingus band’s 1964 tour. Brad Jones played a ruggedly fillagree’d bass solo on that one, at brutish pace, and then Johnson, Nathanson, Melford and Schuller chimed in triumphant, pouring themselves through 44-year-old music in a very rare demonstration of a resurrection that indeed regained life.

Want more? Here’s a curiosity I found: a partial transcript of Eric Dolphy interviewed by jazz journalist Leonard Feather.

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