In the days before I listened to lots of jazz, I listened to lots of Frank Zappa. Like everyone else I had a copy of Kind Of Blue but had no real idea of what I was listening to. Apart from Miles Davis, the musicians names listed on the cover were anonymous to me although I vaguely understood John Coltrane was considered a jazz great. Cannonball Adderley had an interesting name, Bill Evans didn’t. The music was tantalising but nothing earth shattering, and even though that was not the point of the album that’s where my head was at. I enjoyed nuanced music, but an entire album of it was unlikely to make me drop my jaw and go “Wow!” like, for example, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, which is jazz but really isn’t.
Zappa made me go “Wow!” very often. So often that I stopped looking around, I just wanted more of that. If I read somewhere that he was influenced by Edgar Varese or Stravinsky, I would track it down and listen. He name-dropped Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and I went there and loved it. I was a disciple. All my former musical passions (and there were many) were effectively erased. At that point I had around twenty of his albums, and considering he released sixty in his lifetime I figured I would be preoccupied for a long while. I couldn’t imagine a time when I would stop listening to his music. What else could possibly be better than this? As I was to discover, it was jazz , and typically it was Zappa who provided the entry point. His 1969 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh had a song with the lyrics-
You say love is all we need
You say with your love you can change
All of the fools, all of the hate
I think you’re probably out to lunch…
Characteristically cynical but delivered with sincerity and couched within an intoxicatingly wondrous melody full of rhythmic complexity, it is classic Zappa. More interesting however was a song title elsewhere on the album attached to as strange a piece of music as had been conceived by the man (on an album full of very strange music) ‘The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque’. A deranged stew of sci-fi weirdness and statistical density, it was the best thing on the album. But was it homage or scorn? Pre-internet, there was no way I could discover anything about Eric Dolphy. Was he a musician, politician, an author or an artist? I safely assumed he had died prior to 1969 as it was a memorial barbecue. It was too obscure a reference and I had no option but to put it on the back-burner. Imagine the shock of revelation when some months later while thumbing through vinyl at a second-hand record store I chanced upon the words in black bold-type: Out To Lunch! Above it in smaller blue lettering was the name of the artist, Eric Dolphy. In my hands I disbelievingly beheld an unexpected artefact from a distant world. The cover featured a prominent photo of the front door of a ’60s shopfront with a “Will Be Back” sign. Wonderful! Without the merest hesitation I excitedly purchased my very first Blue Note LP.
Again, like Kind Of Blue, the front cover displayed the names of the other musicians who performed on the record, which seemed quaint. Normally session-players are credited in tiny text on the back. Their names meant nothing to me, but in time I would come to understand the significance of Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard and particularly Tony Williams, as I would Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and John Coltrane. For the time being, however, I was clueless. My great hope was that the music would thrill me like Zappa’s did, that the exhilaration of discovery would match or even surpass what I had experienced before. Were the wonders of “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque” a primer for what I was about to hear?
I soon learned there is nothing that can prepare you for Out To Lunch!. If all you knew of jazz was Kind Of Blue or Brubeck’s Take Five then you would probably find it unlistenable. Fortunately my ears were attuned to the abstractions of Varese and Weasels Ripped My Flesh and I drank this album up like ambrosia from the first moment I placed the needle on its groove. The effect was immediate. I had entered a playfully bizarre soundscape filled with illusion and daring. It is jazz, it swings and struts. There is humour and humanity, exultation, desperation. The first tune sounds like a mouse-trap set to a timer; the trumpet often resembles an insect hopelessly trying to escape a web; drunken melodies only just stay upright as though walking on a steeply reeling boat adrift on wide waves. Throughout the album the instruments slide around as if avoiding each other for fear that their unique sorcery may forever vanish, the alchemy never to return. The floating murmur from a vibraphone glides over a rattling voodoo snare; a flute conjures a nest of enchanted songbirds, horns gossip and argue. Always the bass thuds like an anchor unable to snag the ocean floor, bubbles of notes rise and disappear. Cymbals strike unannounced, there is no centre. Within a firmly articulated superstructure each player has been entrusted to manipulate their sound molecules in response to instantaneous revelation. Each piece is as remote from the others as the entire album is from anything else that came before.
But Out To Lunch! exists on its own spacial plane. The gravity is different there. Time is elastic, which is the major theme of the album. Different realities exist concurrently like shadows that behave independently of that which is casting the shadow. Time that is happening over there moves slower and heavier than this piece of phantom time over here, and it all happens at the same time. Multiple events occur, each occupying the same space, each absorbing or reflecting light as a multi-form mass of sound and energy.
The magnum opus of a masterful visionary.
Eric Dolphy, who refined and redefined the possibilities of alto sax, bass clarinet and flute died four months after this recording. He was thirty-six years old.
I didn’t stop listening to Frank Zappa, but I did begin to investigate where else jazz could take me. Soon I discovered Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Ascension, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and then Bill Evans’ Exploration which provided the tipping point. Somehow Zappa seemed slighter than before, and gradually I found myself not listening to his albums very much anymore. He is a genius without peer, I’m still amazed by his personality and his music. But there are so many other intriguing strands to follow and I’m forever hopeful any day may be the day I’ll find another masterpiece like Out To Lunch! There have been many and there are many more to come.