Eric Dolphy – Nightmare Fuel

This should be a TV Tropes entry, but the keepers of the TV Tropes website have stubbornly and abusively refused to provide me with an account – I don’t whether they’re discriminating against me or just my e-mail company.

I know from decades of trying to infect people with Dolphyism that, even for people well-travelled enough to know where he’s coming from harmonically, his exclamatory solo style can be annoying and even alarming to certain people.  And this after more than half a century, and the more abrasive screechy-atonal saxophones of the Ayler/Sanders/Brotzmann generation. Yes it’s 54 years at the time of writing. since he left this vale of tears in mysterious circumstances (diabetes, or brain haemorrhage – or medical neglect, or murder…?).

BTW – He was in fact buried, not cremated – so there aren’t any jokes to be made about a certain Zappa tune title!


The account of his last days in the film “Last Date”- which overturned the established consensus that it was simply an “undetected riot of sugar in the blood” that finished him off – could be Nightmare Fuel for some.

But musically, is there a genuinely scary moment in the extended Dolphy catalogue?

If so, then I would venture to argue that it’s not any of those shouting/howling climactic high notes in his solos. And it’s not “Jim Crow”

and it’s not any of those “musical argument” routines with Mingus [note 1].


The nightmare-moment is actually the classic Out To Lunch version of the ballad “Something Sweet Something Tender”.

There are obvious precedents for both the title and the actual tune, as we initially hear it on the album (first a fluid, rubato statement over arco bass, and then the trumpet-led slow-tempo statement, with Eric adding an embellishment or two while Richard Davis fills in the gaps with busy soloistic bass).  It could have been called “something Duke, something Strayhorn”.

And the title suggests romance, closeness…oh, no more nonsense, it suggests sex.

But don’t be fooled by the “sexy” title.  Or Eric’s one-chorus solo in which he can’t help getting a little lowdown ‘n dirty. I would argue that the real “meaning” of the tune becomes apparent with that potentially shocking musical twist-ending, after the third theme-statement, the one which ends with Eric’s little cadenza.

Maybe one doesn’t realise the “meaning” of the tune the first dozen times one hears the album track, but one may realise – with horror – when it suddenly springs to mind, when one is waking from sleep, in the early hours of the morning.

It’s a “song” about death. Not “petit mort”. The real thing.

Focus on that last section starting at approx 4.38 – when the arco bass and bass-clarinet restate the theme, so close in unison as to be one voice. Unaccompanied, save for the faint suggestion of two or three tones struck on gongs, or bells, very low in the mix [note 2].

That whole section of music is suggestive of the dying/dead person’s very last moments of consciousness, when the whole body has shut down.

In which that last shred of life, of personhood, within the brain (that which religious people think is “the soul”), perceives, sensory input already receded to near-nothing, utterly hopeless isolation and powerlessness. perceives being at an unimaginably vast distance from the world of the living.

And the final musical flourish – Eric’s little run up the scale over the final chord, over distant drum/cymbal beats and twittering high-register arco bass?

That’s the moment of annihilation. The electricity within the brain actually sputtering out.

Et puis l’eternite. Silencio.

If only it were the last track on the album, or the last track on side one, we could be sure of the veracity of this interpretation.

(1 = the studio version of “What Love” is just the most famous of several examples of the “musical-argument routine” in the Mingus catalogue.

Any idiot can spot Mingus’s string-bending “moth-er-fucker” phrases in these routines, but no-one ever draws attention to Dolphy, in the “What Love” iteration,  almost literally making his bass-clarinet say “what? what!” and “fuck you! fuck you!” (the latter in both angry-snarling and, at the very end of the track, arrogant-staccato tones)

(2 = this may be just vibrating bass strings deceiving the ear, but what if there really are bells or gongs buried in the mix? Not played by Williams or Hutcherson, but an echo of whatever was on the source tape before it was [improperly] erased and re-used? It’s not impossible – as soon as tape recording was introduced, and with it the concept of overdubbing, that gimmick followed.  The notion that jazz recording should only be about documenting spontaneous creativity was overturned first by £llington, then by Mingus, and (more famously) Miles Davis/Teo Macero. Van Gelder would be aware of all this).


Epilogue – This post should be filed under “anything Chris Knowles can do, I can do…differently!”


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