Friday, July 14, 2017

Soaring with the Don Ellis Orchestra

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Don Ellis gave the concept of big band jazz. a completely new meaning.”

“‘I believe in making use of as wide a range of expressive techniques as possible,’ said Ellis, who never lost sight of his own artistic credo, and made some of the most challenging music of modern times.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Ellis helpfully pops up with a breakdown of the 19-beat figure at the start of his big band's legendary 1966 Monterey appearance: '33 222 1 222 ... of course, that's just the area code!' Everything about Ellis's band was distinctive.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Thanks to a professional relationship and a friendship with Fred Selden, I had a front row seat from which to view the early development of the Don Ellis Orchestra.

Fred, who studied alto sax with Bud Shank and composing and arranging with Shorty Rogers, was the lead alto sax player with Don’s big band and also composed and arranged some charts for the band.

Because of his organizational and administrative skills, Fred also served as a quasi musical director for the band, especially during its formative years.

While the Ellis band was coming into existence, I played drums in a quintet that Fred formed which also included Bulgarian-born pianist Milcho Leviev. Milcho was featured on keyboards in the Ellis Big Band and would go on to perform in small groups headed up by Chet Baker and Art Pepper.

I often attended the rehearsals of the Ellis orchestra and they were - in the parlance of the time - “a real trip.”

Coming into existence when it did in the second half of the decade of the 1960’s, Don populated the band with young musicians who infused it with energy and a willingness to try new things.

These guys grew up with Rock ‘n Roll, unusual time signatures, electronic instruments and devices [remember ring modulators?] and technique to spare on their respectives instruments and they brought it all home in the Ellis band. Put another way, the Don Ellis Orchestra “was not your Father’s big band.”

Leading this headlong charge into the world of new and different big band Jazz was Don Ellis who played trumpet, electric trumpet, quarter-tone trumpet, four-valved flugelhorn and … wait for it … drums!

And speaking of drums, the band was blessed with the amazingly talented Ralph Humphrey who held the whole thing together from the drum chair. Ralph was the only drummer I ever heard who could play an “in-the-pocket” 17/8 drum beat!

The Ellis band’s amalgamation of styles, influences and unique combinations of instruments can be heard to full advantage on Soaring one of its later recordings [1973] done for the MPS label and recently released on CD as Soaring - The Don Ellis Orchestra [0211977 MSW].

This version of the orchestra even incorporates a string quartet!

The following excerpts from the insert notes included with the CD provide succinct explanations about the music and the musicians on this recording after which you’ll find a video montage set to Whiplash, the opening track.

In retrospect, one of the amazing things about Don’s band was that despite the complexity of its music, it enjoyed tremendous crossover popularity.

Don suffered a heart attack in 1975 and died three years later at the age of 44.

Foreword to the New Edition

“Classical, Avant-garde, East Indian and Balkan metric concepts, big hand jazz - Don Ellis brought it all together with his own orchestra; as early as the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, Ellis and band were putting the public's expectations to the test.

Over the years Ellis expanded and refined the band's fantastic expressive abilities by, for instance, the integration of a string quartet into the group, or inviting the Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev as special guest.

In 1973, trumpeter Ellis and orchestra recorded two albums for MPS. This first album is titled "Soaring"; the scintillating music created by 22 musicians, including a 12-piece horn section, three percussionists, and a string quartet provides a shimmering, translucent texture captured in a Hollywood studio at the zenith of the band's abilities.

On the first composition, "Whiplash", Ellis demonstrates how his band could accommodate funk to 7-beat time signature. "Sladka Pitka" is a showcase for insanely complex time signatures, and when it comes to "The Devil Made Me Write This Piece" with its layering of samba, legato strings, and chromatic lines, the devil is indeed in the details.

With "Go Back Home", tenor saxophonist Sam Falzone gifted the band with an instrumental bit. and "Invincible" is characterized by dramatic, lyrical paintings in sound. Ellis allows for some tender moments on "Images Of Maria" and "Nicole", whereas Czech composer Aleksej Fried's "Sidonie" celebrates an exuberant festival of uneven rhythms. No question - on "Soaring", Don Ellis gave the concept of big band jazz. a completely new meaning.”

  • STEFAN FRANZEN Translation: Martin Cook

Original Liner Notes

“At last! The Don Ellis Band soars on in its own direction - free and invincible. The tunes on this album are the most popular and most requested numbers the band has played on recent tours of the United States.
In addition to Ellis' first feature number of himself on drums (THE DEVIL) of special interest are the contributions of two Eastern Europeans. Milcho Leviev, who was know in his native Bulgaria as the leading jazz composer, pianist and film scorer, has based SLADKA PITKA on Bulgarian folk rhythms and themes.

Alexej Fried, in SIDONIE, combines jazz, rock, ragtime, and Czechoslovakian music.

INVINCIBLE marks the soloing debut of the incredible Vince Denham, who from his very first night has astounded the band and audience. This album also includes the hit single GO BACK HOME by Sam Falzone. It is by far the most requested encore number, and when the band performs it in concerts, the audience is invariably on its feet - dancing, yelling and screaming for more as the band continues to soar.”

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