Out to Dinner Jazz Ensemble Pays Tribute to Eric Dolphy’s Classic ‘Out to Lunch’ Via ‘Play On’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This is the second release from the jazz ensemble Out to Dinner with just two of the five members returning from the debut. While that effort focused more on the music of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, Play On (Posi-Tone Records) directly honors the vintage Blue Note era of the late ‘50s and ‘60s and especially Eric Dolphy’s iconic Out to Lunch with the same instrumental configuration. As jazz listeners and Posi-Tone producer Marc Free certainly know, Blue Note’s Alfred Lion essentially shunned commercialism but somehow found the right balance between listener accessibility and artist creativity. Out to Lunch is a shining example in that Dolphy, mostly considered an avant-garde musician, made an edgy but accessible recording, his only for the label that still stands as one of the label’s best and most historic. This version of the Out to Dinner band emulates the spirit of the variations of tones, textures, and angular rhythms that characterized that release with 11 of the 13 tracks composed by band members with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” and Lee Morgan’s “Short Count.” 

Vibraphonist and composer Behn Gillece (Downbeat Rising star – Vibraphonist Award) returns as the de-facto leader along with bassist Boris Kozlov (director of the Mingus Big Band). The two front line horns, which becomes three on three of the selections, also boast impressive resumes. Self-taught trumpeter Giveton Gelin originally hails from the Bahamas, was a protégé of the late Roy Hargrove and later studied at Oberlin and Juilliard with Eddie Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, and Nicholas Payton. One of this writer’s favorite young artists, Immanuel Wilkins, is a longtime member of Gelin’s working quintet. Tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover first emerged in the Portland OR area but has worked in New York in recent years. She established her name by performing with Grammy-award winning artist Esperanza Spaulding, acclaimed multi-instrumentalist George Colligan, and renowned drummer/educator Alan Jones. Since moving to New York, she has since worked with many of the leading artists based in the city. Longtime Posi-Tone artist alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius joins for three selections. Drummer Donald Edwards not only shows his command of different rhythms and creative improvisations but contributes three compositions.

Gillece’s vibraphone-led title track sets the Dolphy-like mood for the piano-less quintet. It’s a bit brighter than his other two melodic compositions considering the languid “Something from Nothing” and the haunting qualities of “Into the Shadows” the latter of which is the first where Cornelius also contributes. Kozlov first weighs in with “Random,” taken in a 7/8 groove with a start-stop motif that makes for interesting dialogue among the vibes and both horns. His upbeat “Abe Duct” begins with Edwards skittering over his kit before the three horn (including Cornelius) join in ensemble playing, yielding first to a thoughtful Gillece solo, followed by Gelin, Cornelius, Glover, and Edwards before some tight two-way exchanges that close the piece. The bassist’s “Lew’s Loose” has the three primary soloists quickly morphing from the theme into freestyling solos.

Edwards first offers the moody, colorful “Asami’s Playground” with a brooding solo from Gelin followed by a low-end fervent spot from Glover, a bright take from Gillece, before the soloists each return with a slightly different conversation. The drummer’s “The Essential Passion” begins in rather stately form before Glover and Gelin take their inspired journeys, punctuated with just the right series of notes and chords from Gillece, sturdy support from Koslov and Edwards serving up his ever-playful beats along with his own solo to drive them. “The Dream” carries the requisite deliberate tempo and sustained notes, especially from Gillece, and features perhaps Gelin’s most lyrical playing.

Gelin and Glover state the theme on Glover’s “Rebecca’s Dance” before the saxophonist engages in aggressive soloing, backed by a most energetic Edwards before yielding to a more restrained take from her frontline horn partner, who plays with robust tone and precise articulation. The two have very contrasting styles, his the more deliberate while hers is often at blistering tempos and explosive flurries of notes. You’ll hear this contrast to a lesser extent on the trumpeter’s composition “Armageddon” as Glover follows the composer’s pointed solo with her solo that begins rather restrained in comparison but eventually builds to her customary rapid-fire approach.

The vibes and bass tandem take an ethereal turn on Wonder’s “Visions” while the closer Lee Morgan’s “Short Count,” which originally appeared on his 1967 The Sixth Sense, is classic bop which feels leaner and more straight-forward than most of the other angular, oblique originals, a fitting end to that intersection we alluded to earlier, accessible but enabling plenty of space for creative expression within.

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