It says much for Dolphy's vision that such combinations are still the stuff of surprise
Peter Marsh 2002
Eric Dolphy's second album as a leader was recorded in 1960, while he was still playing with Charlie Mingus, and just before his association with Ornette Coleman on the legendary Free Jazz sessions. Much was made at the time of Dolphy's similarity to Ornette, but whereas Coleman's interest was in throwing out the rulebook and dispensing with chordal progressions, Dolphy's playing was still very much derived from bebop, though his distinctive approach pushed that envelope pretty hard.
On this session, he teamed up with drummer Roy Haynes, bassist George Duvivier and cellist Ron Carter. Carter's cello lends the proceedings an intimate chamber jazz feel, and his arco double stops bridge the gap between chordal and melody instrument. The leader shows his prowess on clarinets and flute as well as alto and his choice of weapon unsurprisingly determines the character of each piece, though not in predictable ways; his flute solos (particularly on Randy Weston's ballad "Sketch of Melba") are every bit as muscular and colourful as those played on the other horns. The opening title track features tight ensemble work from Carter and Dolphy, leading into a typically pyrotechnic alto excursion from the leader. Here he settles on a series of phrases that are all slight variations on each other, like a Philip Glass arrangement of a Charlie Parker solo.
The other alto feature is "Feathers", a mournful ballad which comes on like a cross between one of Mingus's ballads and a Coleman dirge. Carter's pizzicato chording shadows Dolphys' statement of the melody before the leader lets rip with a solo crammed with trills, soulful cries and mercurial bop runs. Mingus's "Eclipse" is in similar mode; Carter's mournfully sour cello meshes with the leaders clarinet and Duvivier's bowed bass, ending up with a wonderfully atmospheric coda. Haynes manages to propel without overpowering; on "17 West" he manages to power proceedings with just brushes and snare, erupting into a brief solo before the unexpected long fadeout.
Throughout, the instrumental combinations throw up beautiful clashes and consonances; much like Henry Threadgill's work with cellos, tubas and so on. Theres a sense of a proper Third Stream being mined here, and it says much for Dolphy's vision that such combinations are still the stuff of surprise 40 odd years later. While Out There is neither the compositional masterwork of Out to Lunch or the improvisational firestorm of the Five Spot sessions with Booker Little of the following year, its nevertheless a worthy record of one of the most innovative jazz musicians ever to have walked the planet.