Monday, June 3, 2019

The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 2

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


“I was a pimply teenager in 1967 when one afternoon my high school music appreciation teacher smiled slyly, put an index finger to his lips and placed the turntable stylus down on ar unidentified disc.


Glenn Stuart had turned my class on to Dvorak and even Stockhausen with a similar sense of drama but when the brassy introduction of Indian Lady pumped out of the speakers sounding like a wall of electric bagpipes, I was shocked. Eight minutes later, after being knocked out by two astounding Don Ellis trumpet solos- the relentless pounding of a behemoth rhythm section lead by Steve Bohannon. and over-the-top solos by tenor sax virtuoso Ron Starr and trombonist. Ron Myers, was stricken for life!
It was the beginning of an obsession that music teacher Stuart, moonlighting as Ellis' first trumpet, was only too happy to indulge. In the coming months I became a roadie for Don Ellis and his entourage of crack, young. LA musicians. At the tender age of 15, I walked in the back stage door of local LA. night clubs and witnessed the most thrilling musical experiences of my impressionable, young life.


A year before. Don and his 20-piece orchestra had :pretty much "blown away" attendees at the establishment Monterey Jazz Festival, prompting jazz critic Leonard Feather to comment: "I almost wrote that he 'stopped the show cold,' but by the time Ellis and his men were through, the stage was an inferno."


Electric Bath was the first of a string of recordings where Don Ellis experimented with every traditional concept of orchestration. Over the next 8 years, from album to album, Don reasoned: Why not integrate two drummers, percussion, electric guitar, and keyboards in the big band format? How about three bass players? Or an electric string and woodwind quartet? What would a vocal instrumental quartet sound like? Don knew no
boundaries Together with composers like Hank Levy, … , Ellis propagated the notion of utilizing radical time signatures, quarter-tones, electronic effects, and even a sitar (...) to stir and excite even the most jaded ear.


Ellis wasn't purposely trying to break tradition or shake the staid big band establishment In fact, he embraced the tradition of harmony, voicing, counterpoint etc in orchestral composition. Yet, he was a wildly imaginative, hyper-kinetic trumpet player and ambitious arranger/composer with a diverse and prestigious musical background. Sadly, though driven at times like a mad scientist to realize his ideas and visions, Don didn't have much time on earth. When he died at 44 years old on December 17, 1978 of cardiomyopathy (a heart disease he learned six years earlier would kill him), Ellis had already impacted the musical landscape more than any of his big band contemporaries.”
- Ben Brooks, March, 1998, Notes to the CD reissue of Electric Bath


As Jazz columnist Charles Waring has noted “Forty years on from his death, Don Ellis is almost a forgotten figure, known only to the jazz cognoscenti and a small group of passionate aficionados endeavouring to keep his name alive.


Consequently, many of his recordings are out of print but given Ellis significance as a musician, BGO, a redoubtable UK reissue label, aimed to rectify what is a profoundly disappointing situation by offering twofers combining six of Don’s most significant albums” [paraphrase]:


[1] Don Ellis at The Fillmore/Don Ellis Goes Underground
[BGO CD 1143]


[2] Tears of Joy/Connection
[BGO CD 1317]


[3] Shock Treatment/Autumn
[BGO CD 1333]


Each of these two-fers contains a wealth of information in the booklets that accompany them made up from remarks by Don himself and Jazz critics which formed the liner notes to the original LPs, as well as, by noted authorities on the historical significance of Don, his band and his music.


Combining it all into one feature would be overwhelming for the reader.


So the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has decided to take each of these two-fers and make then into separate features - Parts 2,3 and 4 - of “The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra.”


Let’s start with [1] Don Ellis at The Fillmore/Don Ellis Goes Underground  [BGO CD 1143]


As far as I have been able to determine, the original liner notes to Don Ellis Goes Underground are made up solely of a listing of the band’s personnel and a delineation of the solos on the various tracks.


Here are Don Ellis comments which were written in 1970 and form the original liner notes to Don Ellis at The Fillmore.




“Listen. I don’t want to play it safe. I don’t believe in playing it safe.”
- Don Ellis


“I BELIEVE this album marks a milestone in the development of the band. Not only is it the freest within the concepts with which we are working, but I also believe it is the best band I have ever had, with basically the same guys blowing and rehearsing together for several years. We take pride in being able to play the shit out of things that no other bands have even attempted.


Final Analysis (composed and arranged by Don Ellis)
This was our opening number, and is basically in 4/4 plus 5/4 with an occasional 5/4 and/or 1 1/2 plus 1 1/2 (or 3). Glenn Ferris is the amazing trombonist who has made quite a reputation for his hair as well as lor his playing. (However just before the weekend he shaved off all his hair - the only way we recognize him now is by his playing.) Jay Graydon plays a solo on guitar with all of the sound coming out of a plastic tube inserted in his mouth, I follow him on electrophonic trumpet using a Ring Modulator and some octave doublings. The drum exchanges feature our percussionist section with Ralph Humphrey leading, then Lee Pastora on conga, Ron Dunn on drums and me playing the third drum set. (I started getting into drums seriously about a year ago, and decided to write myself into the drum routines so I'd have something to make me practice.) The ending explains itself and is a sort of musical reductio ad absurdum stolen from some of the best-known classical composers (who should have known better),


Excursion II (Composed by John Klemmer, arranged by Les Hooper)
John Klemmer is one of the most astounding tenor players I have ever heard. He never ceases to astonish all of us by what he does in the solo cadenza in this piece - and each time he does it differently.


The Magic Bus Ate My Doughnut (Composed and arranged by Fred Selden) Fred Selden has been an important member of the band for several years now. He first started playing in one of my student rehearsal bands, and as our lead sax player has been contributing some of our most intriguing and exciting scores. The first section of the Bus is m a pattern of 3/4,4/4,3/4,5/4 and goes to 4/4,5/4 for a contrapuntal segment between the trumpets, trombones and saxes. Fred plays the alto solo against this pattern.


The Blues (Composed and arranged by Don Ellis) It always feels good to play the blues. The opening trumpet solo is supposed to be only two bars long, but I got into a thing with the audience this night and it got rather involved. The trio playing the theme is comprised of Sam Falzone, clarinet; Jack Coan, trumpet; and Ernie Carlson, trombone.


Salvatore Sam (Composed and arranged by Don Ellis)
This is the first of a series of musical portraits I am doing of various guys in the band. Sam and I have been associated ever since I lived in Buffalo, New York, where he played in a combo I had. He moved out to California to be with the band and has been with it since the very beginning (except for about a year when he moved back to Buffalo). The piece moves from a funky 4/4, 3/4 to a fast 7/8 which has a 6/8 bar for every fourth measure. Sam does his thing.


Flock Odyssey (Composed and arranged by Hank Levy}
Hank Levy was one of the first outside writers to contribute scores to our library. He caught on to the unusual meters amazingly fast, and now conducts college stage bands in Baltimore, Maryland, concentrating on the new rhythms. All the band agrees that this is one of his most beautiful charts. The first part is in a slow 7/4 and the middle section is in 12/8 divided 2-2-3, 2-3. Listen especially to the exciting cross-rhythms our drummer, Ralph Humphrey, gets going. Glenn Ferris plays the trombone solo.


Hey Jude (Composed by Lennon & McCartney, arranged by Don Ellis)
I don't know if The Beatles will recognize their tune, but I wanted to do something different with a melody that everyone could recognize, in my hope that this would also give an insight into how we work with original material. The opening cadenza is all done live (no overdubbing or editing) and is just how the Fillmore audience heard it. The effects are all done on solo trumpet using a Ring Modulator and various echo and amplifying devices. When we first started doing this arrangement it was fairly straightforward, but as you can hear, it has been getting further out every time we play it. Jay Graydon (on guitar) gives some tasty and incredible answers to my statements on the second chorus.


Antea (Composed and arranged by Hank Levy)
We've had this chart by Hank Levy in me book for some time, but it wasn't until recently that it really started to gel. It's in 7/4 and the rhythm section really burns. We find it curious that occasionally when we get a new arrangement it will "happen" immediately, but other tunes will take awhile. Sometimes we'll play them only sporadically with perhaps less than perfect results, but then there will come a night when we pull it out again and this time it will pull together and cook. That is exactly what happened here.


Old Man's Tear (Composed and arranged by John Klemmer)
This is John Klemmer's first arrangement for the band. It is a musical portrait of an old man's life - his joys and sorrows - a very sensitive and warm thing. It is also quite a challenge to play on the trumpet.


Great Divide (Composed and arranged by Don Ellis)
The title comes from the fact that this is a piece in 13/4 divided 3-3-2, 3-2. It was originally commissioned for the stage band at San Jose State College under the direction of Dwight Cannon. It was also originally supposed to be played much slower, but one night sometime ago we played it at a faster tempo and found it made a great closer. Sam Falzone is on tenor; the fantastic alto solo is by Lonnie Shetter, one of the truly overwhelming technicians on his instrument. The band was set up flat on the floor of the Fillmore in front of the stage, and at the end you can hear the musicians walking out into the audience ad-libbing on the theme. This take was from Saturday night and as the musicians walked out playing, the audience started clapping and cheering and stood up. Since we were on the floor already, this meant that the musicians couldn't see me to get the cues for the last ensemble section which is done from out in the audience. We were really worried, but at the last minute I ran up on the stage in back of the band and somehow the rhythm section sort of half turned around, looked over their shoulders and we got it together.


Pussy Wiggle Stomp (Composed and arranged by Don Ellis)
We normally don't do encores, but the audience was so groovy, we couldn't resist. I hadn't planned to put this on the album either (since it was already recorded on our "Autumn" album), but we got such an inspired, different take we felt it had to go on. This was the absolute fastest we ever tried to play this tune, but the guys all hung on we were really excited by this time! Sam Falzone is on tenor, and the drum exchanges are Ralph, Ron and me. The drum routine is a thing that has been developing over the last couple of years, and I really find it exciting when all three drums are kicking the band in unison. During the trumpet solo you can hear the Fillmore audience doing the syncopated clapping in 7. This really gassed us, because we figured this was probably the first time they had ever heard something in a fast 7 - and it showed how hip they were to be able to pick right up on it and keep it going in time! Toward the end of my solo I tried to bring the band in, but they missed the cue and as I descend back into the low register wondering what I am going to do now, you can hear our tuba player, Doug Bixby, cry out: "Try again!"


The whole weekend was a real high spot in our lives, and I am pleased that it has been captured so beautifully on record by Phil Macey and Brent Dangerfield, making it possible for you to share it with us.”
- Don Ellis, 1970


Jazz columnist for the Record Collector, contributor to MOJO and co-founder of www.soulandjazzandfunk.com, Charles Waring wrote the following booklet notes to [1] Don Ellis at The Fillmore/Don Ellis Goes Underground
[BGO CD 1143] in 2014.


“IT'S FAIR TO SAY that these days Don Eliss's name means absolutely nothing to the majority of the general public. In some ways, then, he's the forgotten man of jazz and yet, ironically, it's quite probable that many people around the world have encountered his music at some point in their lives; especially given the fact that Ellis scored film director William Friedkin's 1971 box office blockbuster movie. The French Connection (and its 1975 sequel, French Connection II), which memorably starred Gene Hackman as the uncompromising hard-nosed cop, 'Popeye’ Doyle. But though his music reached the masses via the distinctive and arresting soundscapes he created for film soundtracks, Ellis was much more than a movie composer. He was, in fact, a remarkable musician - a trumpeter by trade - who broke down the boundaries that separated jazz from other genres such as classical, rock and world music with a series of pathfinding albums that he recorded during a fertile five-year tenure with Columbia Records in the late '60s and early '70s.


An accomplished composer as well as a virtuoso trumpet player, Donald Johnson Ellis was also a published musical theorist and authored two books (The New Rhythms Book and Quarter Tones and wrote poetry too. He was. then, something of a polymath or a renaissance man but he wasn't a fusty, dry academic - the serious intent of much of his music is often leavened with humour and Ellis, deemed eccentric by some, often took to donning a cape on stage. Also, in concert he would usually explain the complexities of his music in engaging terms to a rapt audience. Evidently, he wanted his music to entertain as well as educate and enthral. But his period in the sun was spectacularly and tragically brief due to a heart condition that killed him at the age of forty-four in 1978. After that, Ellis's music largely fell into obscurity though his memory and music was kept alive by a small coterie of fanatics among the jazz cognoscenti. Up until recently, much of his music had been out of print though slowly but surely, some of his albums are finally seeing daylight again. This new BGO twofer revives one of Ellis's most collectable albums, 1969's 'The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground', alongside 1970's 'At Fillmore', a combustible double live album that captures the trumpeter's legendary big band at the zenith of their powers.


It's a tad ironic, perhaps, that Don Ellis - a trumpeter and composer renowned for his wild experimentalism and being at the forefront of cutting-edge jazz in the 1960s and 70s - should have begun his professional career playing in the ranks of the Glenn Miller band. But in 1956 that's exactly what Ellis did. Just 21-years-old, the Los Angeles-born son of a Methodist minister was fresh out of Boston University with a degree in music composition. The Miller band - still running long after its founder had perished in 1944 - might have been an orthodox dance music ensemble whose changeless repertoire fed on wartime nostalgia but the experience provided some valuable lessons in writing and arranging for brass that Ellis took with him to his next job. That was playing in an army band (Ellis was conscripted in 1956) alongside fellow musicians-cum-draftees Cedar Walton and Eddie Harris (pianist Walton later became a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers while saxophonist Harris carved out his own unique niche with a soul and funk-infused brand of jazz in the '60s and 70s).


But it was after he finished his two-year mandatory stint with the US military that Ellis's career quickly accelerated. He relocated to New York - deemed the jazz capital of the world back then - and got spotted by another trumpeter, the mighty Maynard Ferguson, who plucked Ellis from obscurity and gave him a seat in the horn section of his trailblazing big band. The year was 1959 and Ellis - then 25 - soaked up the experience of playing with a large ensemble that was redefining big band jazz. But after nine months with Ferguson, Ellis quit to further his experience elsewhere and landed a gig playing with another jazz heavy - Charles Mingus - and appeared on the bassist's 1959 Columbia album, 'Mingus Dynasty'. Possessing an inquiring musical mind, Ellis was drawn to the newest developments in modern jazz and fell under the spell of the otherworldly sounds that were emanating from the Big Apple's avant-garde scene. He recorded sessions with two of its leading lights - reedman Eric Dolphy and the jazz theorist George Russell - and in 1960 cut his debut session as a leader, the LP ‘Time Passes' for the Candid label.


This BGO twofer reissue catches up with the trumpeter/composer nine years later in 1969 when he was signed to the moneyed major label, Columbia Records, whose jazz roster at that time included such luminaries as Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Maynard Ferguson. By then, Ellis had ten albums under his belt (including three each for Pacific Jazz and Columbia) and was leading one of the most forward-thinking big bands in contemporary jazz. He had also established himself as one of the most original musicians and composers working within the jazz idiom - not only was he writing complex pieces in unorthodox and asymmetrical time signatures and employing unique, customised instruments (for example, his specially-made quarter tone trumpet) but he was also experimenting with electronics by using sound processors such as ring modulators, wah-wah pedals and echoplex effects.


Ellis was undoubtedly pushing the creative envelope but ironically the medium with which he was mainly expressing himself was regarded as old hat by many - the big band. Big bands had mostly gone the way of the dinosaur by the 1960s but a few remained that had fought off extinction such as those led by jazz aristocrats, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. But they were the exception to the rule and continued to maintain their legendary large groups (which they had been doing since the 1930s) even when it was unfashionable and tantamount to economic suicide to do so. But they weren't alone. There were a few other, mainly younger musicians, who desired to explore the big band format as well; among them Maynard Ferguson and duo. Mel Lewis & Thad Jones, who took the large ensemble framework, modernised it and fashioned it after their own image into something new, vital, exciting and relevant.


Don Ellis, too, sought to express the inner urges of his musical psyche with a large canvas approach in the late 1960s. He had signed a deal with Columbia in 1967 after a four-year stint at Dick Bock's iconic west coast label, Pacific Jazz, where he had begun to make a name for himself with albums such as 'Essence' and 'Live At Monterey'. In fact, Columbia's interest in Ellis was initially prompted by a scintillating performance from the trumpeter's big band at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1966, which evidently blew the minds of many people that witnessed it. Ironically, Ellis's band preceded Duke Ellington's on the same bill and according to legend received one of the longest standing ovations ever experienced at the festival.


Signed to Columbia by the legendary A&R man, John Hammond - who was responsible for 'discovering' the likes of Count Basie. Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan - Ellis debuted for the label with an extraordinary meld of jazz, classical and Indian styles called 'Electric Bath' in 1967, which with its liberal use of electronics (especially the echoplex) demonstrated the trumpeter/bandleader embracing rock aesthetics. The album was nominated for a Grammy and was a commercial success, peaking at #8 on the US jazz charts.


Two more noteworthy Columbia albums -'68's 'Shock Treatment' and '69's 'Autumn' - essayed the Ellis band's continuing evolution as a 1960s extension of Stan Kenton's innovative '40s orchestra and demonstrated that the trumpeter was a leading architect of what eventually came to be known as fusion.


In 1969, Ellis made what was perhaps his most overtly commercial studio album, though ironically, it was titled ‘The New Don Ellis Orchestra Goes Underground'. In essence it was Ellis putting his own spin on a handful of rock, soul and pop hits of the day in addition to presenting a clutch of relatively short original tunes. He also produced the entire album except for one track, which was helmed by Blood, Sweat & Tears keyboard player, Al Kooper (at the time signed to Columbia).


In terms of personnel, the Ellis band included in its ranks at that time flutist and reed man, Fred Selden. alongside saxophonists Sam Falzone (who doubled on clarinet) and John Klemmer; there was also keyboardist Pete Robinson (whose musical armoury consisted of Fender Rhodes, acoustic piano, clavinet, harpsichord and ring modulator) and guitarist Jay Graydon. The trumpet section included noted man with a horn, Stu Blumberg, while legendary '60s session player, Carol Kaye (a member of the famous LA session mafia, 'The Wrecking Crew', and who played on myriad pop and rock sessions including the Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' album) shared bass duties with Gary Todd and John Julian. Drums duties were also divided between Ralph Humphrey and Rick Quintinal. The session included the presence of the girl group, The Blossoms, on background vocals (they cut a clutch of 45s for different labels in the '50s. '60s and 70s and their members at one time included Darlene Love and Gloria Jones).


The album opens with a far-out deconstruction of the Al Kooper-penned Blood, Sweat & Tears' track, 'House In The Country' (taken from the group's 1968 debut LP, 'Child Is Father To The Man') - but you wouldn't recognise it from the intro, which consists of eerie keyboard tintinnabulations created by a ring-modulator effect (which was specially designed for Ellis's band by inventor, Tom Oberheim, who would find fame in the 70s as the creator of the Oberheim polyphonic synthesiser). The intro crescendos to a cacophonous climax before heavily-accented big band chords blare out and Rick Quintinal's propulsive drum groove kicks in. At this point the song is recognizable as the infectious Blood, Sweat & Tears' number but it proceeds at breakneck speed and features rapidly-articulated horn passages, which alternate with ring modulator keyboard effects and wordless backing voices from The Blossoms. It's short but punchy and to the point.


The tension of the opener is dispelled by the relaxed sonorities of the easy listening style number, 'Don't Leave Me'- a cover of a Harry Nilsson song from the singer/songwriter's 1968 LP, 'Aerial Ballet' - featuring some terrific lead trumpet playing by Don Ellis.


'Higher' - which undoubtedly takes its inspiration from Sly & The Family Stone's lysergic anthem, 'I Want To Take You Higher' - is a brassy slice of big band uptempo soul-funk fronted by lead vocalist, Patti Allen, which works up to a stomping gospel-fuelled climax.

Then comes one of the album's most complex pieces, 'Bulgarian Bulge', a traditional Eastern European folk dance transfigured into a jaunty big band showcase piece (a live version of the track appeared on Ellis's 1971 Columbia LP, ‘Tears Of Joy'). The provenance of the tune stems from a recording of Bulgarian folk musicians that Ellis was sent by Plovdiv-born jazz musician, Milcho Leviev. who ended up defecting from his then communist mother country in 1970 to move to Los Angeles where he was promptly given a job in the trumpeter's band. Interestingly, Ellis - who often verbally introduced each song on stage prior to performing it - described it at one of his late-'60s US gigs thus: "it's a Bulgarian folk song which was sort of smuggled out of the country by a friend of mine who's a Bulgarian jazz composer and pianist. This is like an ethnic record that you can't buy anywhere outside of the Iron Curtain. He sent it to me and it just completely blew my mind."



What blew Ellis's mind wasn't just the fact that piece was taken at an impossibly fast tempo but also because it was characterised by an unusual rhythmic pulse. Said Ellis: "This band is famous for playing a lot of things in unusual time sequences, different meters and such... I thought I knew quite a lot about what was happening metre-wise until I came across this record: this is a whole new concept to me. It's a very fast 16 and it's in 33/16. But that's not the only thing: it alternates between 33 and 36 when you least expect it. So I just put this record on thinking these are not professional musicians or anything; they're just Bulgarian folk musicians and they're sitting down playing this wild stuff. I couldn't believe it so I said well if they can do it, there’s no reason we can't."


Evidently, though, it took a while for Ellis's band (despite their advanced technical prowess) to grasp the polyrhythmic intricacies of 'Bulgarian Bulge' and render it as it was played on the original Bulgarian vinyl record. Explained Ellis: "I wrote it out for the band and after much cursing and saying it was impossible - in fact I brought in a tape and played it to the guys -the next week they had it down cold."


Ellis's arrangement also spotlights what he called 'a band within a band', and focuses attention on different, smaller, sections of his ensemble that provide contrasts of tone, texture and colour as well as dynamics. The trumpeter's spoken in-concert preambles often elicited amusement from his audience. On one such occasion prior to a performance of 'Bulgarian Bulge' he told his listeners: "To get you in the mood for this thing so that you feel like a Bulgarian peasant, sort of settle back, lie down on the grass - if that's where you are - and imagine that these lights are the sun and you're out in the Bulgarian fields watching whatever they watch, doing a little Bulgarian stew grooving to 33/16."


After the hypnotic rhythmic swirl that 'Bulgarian Bulge' generates, on the next track Ellis reconfigures singer/songwriter Laura Nyro's 'Eli's Coming' (a key track on her 1968 Columbia LP, 'Eli & The Thirteenth Confession') into a thrilling big band number. The track is more commercially slanted than the rest of the album, which may be due to the presence of Al Kooper in the producer's chair. At 2:40 and continuing to the fade a reflective, bluesy coda ensues that features backing vocals. The track was released as a single by Columbia to garner radio play but didn't witness any chart action.


'Acoustical Lass' closed side one of the original vinyl LP; a bluesy tableau that is an Ellis original and features his mournful flugelhorn over a ruminative, Hispanic-tinged, backcloth where Jay Graydon's strummed acoustic guitar chords offer sparse accompaniment.


Heavy brass and bass notes with punctuating percussion kick off the slow-churning funk groove that is 'Good Feelin.’ Ellis plays an effects treated trumpet and is counterpoised by backing vocalists. A fiery rock guitar solo from Jay Graydon (who went on to play on Steely Dan sessions and produced Al Jarreau records) leads to a baroque-flavoured passage with harpsichords and bucolic flutes before a rising brass fanfare leads to a pastiche of old time jazz. After this a tightly-interlocked contrapuntal horn passage leads to the restatement of the main funk groove. In terms of its composition and mesh of styles, 'Good Feelin’’ has much in common with the kind of jazz-meets-rock bag that Maynard Ferguson's big band were recording for CBS during the same timeframe.

By contrast 'Send My Baby Back' is an orthodox mid-paced soul ballad with a shuffle groove that spotlights soulful vocalist Patti Allen, whose stirring, throat-shredding lead is cushioned by slick supporting harmonies from The Blossoms.


‘Love For Rent' is a funk jam that was written and arranged by Fred Selden. The piece has a breakdown section where Ellis's echoplex-laden trumpet expels shards of fractured sound before the funk groove resumes. At 2:59 there's a brief respite from the relentless beat before it resumes with a blaring Jay Graydon solo.


The Isley Brothers' 1969 funk-soul smash, 'It's Your Thing', gets reworked with Patti Allen - who howls and screams like a distaff James Brown - on lead vocals in a fairly orthodox fashion while 'Ferris Wheel' - a Don Ellis composition written to illustrate the trombone work of Glenn Ferris - is a lazy blues with rock undertones.


The album's final track is 'Black Baby', which again features Patti Allen. This time she doesn't sing but softly speaks a short poem, beginning with the line "Oh black baby, you were born to bear a heavy load." Behind Allen's sombre words is Ellis's desolate, lonesome trumpet intoning a mournful blues melody. Allen's voiceover ceases around the two-minute mark and allows Ellis's horn to shine in the spotlight. Though renowned as a trumpet technician, Ellis demonstrates here that he could also play simply and with a deep sense of feeling.


Released in 1969, 'The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground' rose to #20 in America's jazz charts and on that basis was deemed a commercial success. Given its rock, funk and soul inflections plus the short duration of its tracks and inherent lack of extended solos, it couldn't really be described as a jazz record - and looking back, it's not clear whether the idea to chase a younger, newer audience by covering pop material was Ellis's or Columbia's. One thing was for sure though - the band was certainly getting some media attention.


In fact, Ellis and his cohorts had played a plethora of well-attended concerts (including support slots with big name acts) to get the band noticed as well as doing occasional TV appearances. His band had a big fan base among college students in particular during a time that represented the apex of the counterculture age. It was an era when musical barriers (as well as social, political and racial ones) were becoming challenged, blurred, eroded and in some cases, torn down completely. Experimentation and cross-pollination were almost de rigueur and during the late-'60s some cutting-edge jazz acts (with Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Charles Lloyd leading the way) were crossing over to the rock world and playing in venues that were normally not the natural preserve of horn players. Bill Graham's Fillmore West in San Francisco was one such venue where jazz bands could play on the same bill as rock and soul acts - and in June 1970, Ellis's band supported Quicksilver Messenger Service and singer/songwriter, Leon Russell, for three consecutive nights (Ellis had played the Fillmore just once before in 1966 with his Hindustani Jazz Sextet, which supported The Grateful Dead). All three June 1970 performances by the Ellis band were captured on tape by Columbia and became the source for the double LP, 'At Fillmore'.


The LP opens with 'Final Analysis', a lengthy, barnstorming big band number that showcases some top-notch solo work (especially from trombonist Glenn Ferris, whose turns in the spotlight elicit wild whoops of approval from the audience) as well adroitly-executed ensemble passages. Listen out, too, tor Don Ellis playing a wild trumpet solo using a wah-wah pedal (something that Miles Davis was also doing in 1970) and an outre spell ot ring-modulator playing from keyboardist Pete Robinson. Ellis also plays drums, doubling on snare and creating some propulsive polyrhythms in tandem with the band's sticks man Ralph Humphrey and percussionists Ron Dunn and Lee Pastora during an extended drum solo that eventually builds to a raucous climax. The piece is also notable for several false endings - a trick that Ellis often used to generate both excitement and humour in a live setting.


'Excursion II' begins as an introspective mood piece penned by John Klemmer but quickly explodes into a pulsating showcase for the tenor saxophonist's unfettered melodic forays, which grow increasingly febrile and free jazz-like with each solo salvo (it's worth noting that after Klemmer left Ellis's band he began to make his mark as a solo artist and helped lay the groundwork for what became smooth jazz in the 70s and '80s).


The humorously-titled 'The Magic Bus Ate My Doughnut' - a wry dig at rock and pop psychedelia, perhaps, and penned by Fred Selden - clocks in at under three minutes and can almost be described as a short interlude. It begins as an off-kilter big band groove in an unusual time signature - though it still manages to swing - and then, via an eerie bridge passage of blaring horn stabs, morphs into a smoother kind of track over which a serpentine saxophone solo unravels.


'The Blues' opens with Ellis on solo wah-wah trumpet. From it he produces an array of strange sounds, much to the audible delight of the audience, which seems to marvel at Ellis's ingenuity. A slow, syncopated blues pulse on ride cymbals offers a discernible groove while Ellis's solo horn is accompanied by a brass section that stylistically resembles an antique, early twentieth century New Orleans jazz band. For all his modernism and electronic gadgets, Ellis knew the value of tradition - and musical simplicity. In fact, in purely practical terms, The Blues' (an original Ellis number) with its relaxed tempo and sparser instrumentation must have given some of the band members a bit of a breather after the dazzling and challenging complexity of the preceding pieces on the album.


On 'Salvatore Sam' the Don Ellis Orchestra seem to return to normal with a rapidly-played and strident opening horn passage - but the riffing quickly subsides to allow a soulful blues to emerge, which is later contrasted with some more manic horn blowing. A plaintive saxophone solo (from the song's inspiration, Sam Falzone) then follows before the band burst into another frantic - and this time quasi-Latin - section. The piece concludes with a descent into free jazz anarchy.


A soft cymbal splash and a lone vibraslap - a Latin percussion instrument that resonates like an angry rattle snake - begin the meditative 'Rock Odyssey', which is distinguished by subtle horn charts framing Ellis's eloquent solo horn. Around the 3:15 mark, though, an addictively funky groove is introduced that allows Ellis's trumpet to range more freely with a series of jabbing lines and motifs that eventually work towards a noisy climax. An interlude of stately, fanfare-like brass appears briefly before the funk groove resumes, with Glenn Ferris providing a slippery trombone solo. There's another false ending on this track, which was written by former Stan Kenton arranger and saxophonist, Hank Levy - the piece seems to end and the audience cheers only for the cymbal and vibraslap to remerge and a reprise of the slower and moodier first part of the song, which dissolves with a soft natural fade.


Next up is an incredible lysergic deconstruction of The Beatles' evergreen sing-along anthem,'Hey Jude'. Paul McCartney probably wouldn't have identified it as one of his songs on hearing Ellis's Intro and it's likely that many fans of the Fab Four would probably have described the trumpeter's interpretation as musical sacrilege. The track starts as a whirling, whinnying maelstrom of electronic sound effects generated by Don Ellis's trumpet. Then at 3:10 there's an abrupt silence. A mock brass band arrangement follows with the Ellis Orchestra enunciating the recognisable melodic contours of 'Hey Jude' - though it's slightly comic in its presentation and at one point even sounds positively vaudevillian. Ellis then has another solo trumpet spot while manipulating his sound through an array of effects, including echo, ring modulator and distortion. In fact his use of the echoplex - where time delay effects mean that he can harmonise with himself - is very prescient and foreshadows music making far beyond the 1970s. A fairly orthodox rendition of 'Hey Jude's' coda - the "na, na, na, na-na-na, na" sing-along bit -with the full big band ends this extraordinary rendition on a euphoric high.


'Hey Jude' is a hard performance to follow but on the 'At Fillmore' LP, it precedes four more tracks. 'Antea' builds from an intro of explosive brass fanfares into a chunk of engaging Lalo Schifrin-esque cinematic big band funk complete with a dazzling solo from Ellis. On the evidence of this track, there's no doubt that Don Ellis was a leading early architect of what came to be known as jazz-fusion.


The John Klemmer-written 'Old Man's Tear' is an exquisitely-wrought ballad which demonstrates unequivocally that Don Ellis was more than a gifted technician and could play with deep feeling. The arrangement, too, unlike some of the uptempo pieces on this album, is far from 'over-the-top' and shows subtlety and restraint - and the indelible influence of the Stan Kenton band - though Ellis does indulge in a wild, effects-laden cadenza towards the end of the song.


It's back to a turbo-charged big band workout on the fiercely contrapuntal The Great Divide,' an Ellis original which contrasts different sections of the band - brass with reeds, for example - in an exchange of antiphonal phrases. It also has a false ending and just when it appears to conclude, the song's quirky rhythmic and melodic motif resurfaces again but is eventually drowned out by the rising cheers of the audience.


"You really want one more?" asks Don Ellis to a Fillmore crowd that seems to be eating out of his hand. No sooner than they answer - a tumultuous, resounding "yeah!" - the trumpeter's orchestra breaks into the brilliant 'Pussy Wiggle Stomp', rightly regarded as one of the ensemble's classic tunes. This scintillating live rendition actually eclipses the studio version - which had appeared on the 1968 Columbia LP 'Autumn' - and features an astonishing performance from Don Ellis (on drums as well as on trumpet; check out the duelling solo drums near the end of the piece). And, of course, the band indulges in several false endings, just to keep the audience on its toes (ironically, when the real end arrives, it actually seems to catch the audience by surprise).


If anyone doubted the abilities of Don Ellis and his orchestra, then the incredible big band feast that was 'At Fillmore' proved that the trumpeter was in a league of his own and managed to make other big bands from the same timeframe seem pedestrian by comparison. While being adventurous and innovative it was also commercially successful, peaking at #8 in the American jazz album charts.


A year later, in 1971, and while still at Columbia, Ellis was asked to score William Friedkin's cop thriller, The French Connection, and composed an eerily memorable score that took his music to a much wider audience. More film scores followed in the early 70s - including Kansas City Bomber and The Seven-Ups (the latter a Philip D'Antoni-directed cop thriller starring Roy Scheider) - as well as two more albums on Columbia, 1971's live album 'Tears Of Joy', and 1972's 'Connection'. Ellis then recorded for the German label, MPS, for a couple of albums before landing at Atlantic Records in 1977.


But a couple of years prior to that Don Ellis starting experiencing health problems. They stemmed from a serious heart condition that almost took his life in 1975. Granted a reprieve, he survived, recuperated and returned to doing what he loved best - making music. When the Atlantic deal came along, Ellis worked on what would turn out to be his last studio album, the space-themed, 'Music From Other Galaxies and Planets', released in 1977, which was followed by an appearance by his band on the Atlantic compilation, 'Live At Montreux'. But a few months after its release, Don Ellis's health started to deteriorate again and as a result, he ceased playing live on the advice of his doctor. In fact, he never played his trumpet in public again and on 17th December 1978 he succumbed to a fatal cardiac arrest. He was just forty-four years old.


Although he was tragically cut down in his prime, Don Ellis was an underappreciated maverick genius - but fortunately for us he left a rich legacy of recorded music behind. Though, for a couple of decades, he seemed to be a cult figure appreciated by just a small but devoted band of aficionados, many of his recordings have become available again in the digital age and there now seems to be a wider appreciation of his work, evidenced by the global acclaim that an award-winning film about his life, called Electric Heart, elicited when it was released in 2009.


The two albums featured on this BGO reissue - one studio, one live - capture Don Ellis in what was arguably the most productive phase of his career. During those four years (1967-1971) Ellis was uncompromising in the pursuit of his unique aesthetic vision and as a result shook up the jazz world with his radical new approach to large ensemble music.


He was, without doubt, a man ahead of his time. Or, as the great Maynard Ferguson so appositely put it: "Jazz had to invent a new term when it came to Don Ellis."
- Charles Waring, 2014
Jazz columnist for Record Collector,
contributor to MOJO and co-founder
of www.soulandjazzandfunk.com





1 comment:

  1. Have been a fan of Ellis since the late 60s. I saw him twice in the late 70s when he did his only (?) tour of the E. Coast with that band - 2 gigs & a workshop in the Philly area. It was the Tears of Joy band, with the string quartet embedded.

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