Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Parts 1-8 Complete

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

When I began the blog, my intent was to post in-depth profiles of Jazz musicians and extensive pieces about a variety of Jazz topics.

The process involved with developing lengthy profiles and pieces often required that they be posted in segments or parts. 

From time-to-time, I collect these individual posts and group them into complete or all-in-one-place features, such as this one. 

When combined into one profile, these complete posts offer the reader a greater continuity about the topic and also make for more helpful archiving. 

They also make for very long reads so be patient!

The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 1

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


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



“‘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.



“If Don Ellis becomes, as some of us have predicted, the Kenton of the 1970s, his arrival at this summit will be the culmination of at least five years of concentrated effort to express himself as an individual through every channel available to him — playing, leading, thinking, composing, writing for magazines, teaching, studying, organizing, searching. His success will also be, interestingly enough, the first one in a quarter of a century established by a big band in Southern California (it was 25 years ago last spring [1966] that Stan Kenton started out at the Balboa Ballroom; Gerald Wilson's magnificent band is still on the brink of a breakthrough).”
- Leonard Feather, Jazz author and critic



Don Ellis led one of the most colorful big bands in the history of jazz from 1966 until 1978. Ellis's big band was distinguished by its unusual instrumentation, the exploration of uneven or odd time signatures, its occasional humor [one of its tunes was named The Magic Bus Ate My Donut] and its openness to using rock rhythms and electronics. His orchestra achieved enormous popular appeal at a time when the influence of big band music was noticeably fading. Ellis applied his knowledge of the music of non-Western cultures to the rhythmic language of jazz. He was one of the first to have accomplished such a fusion of ideas, and his work stands as a memorial reflecting a significant stage in the evolution of jazz.



I find it interesting that the name “Don Ellis” follows the name of “Duke Ellington” in my recorded music collection.



Both also died within 5 years of each other in the 1970s: Ellington on May 24th, 1974 and Ellis on December 17, 1978. But Duke was 74 years of age when he died and Don was just 44.  One can only wonder what Don could have accomplished with his orchestra had he another thirty years to develop its music.



Both Duke and Don led Jazz big bands that altered the orchestrated sound of the music and each was a pioneer in the way they did this although in Ellington’s case, he was the original pioneer in big band Jazz arrangements in a career that started in 1924 at the Kentucky Club in NYC and spanned a half a century of continued development while Ellis’ innovations only began in 1965-66 with his innovative big band’s appearance at the Club Havana and Bonesville in Hollywood, CA and lasted but a short decade until his death.



In a way, the comparison is unfair because Ellington is an immortalized iconic figure in the Jazz lexicon while Ellis, if he is remembered at all, is seen as a controversial figure in big band Jazz circles; one who is often accused of adulterous behavior because of his incorporation of Rock n Rock, electronic instruments and devices and the use of uneven or odd time signatures.



In creating this multi-part feature about Don and his orchestra, my hope is that it might facilitate a better understanding of the significance of the band and its music.



It is drawn from a variety of sources, not the least of which are the annotated liner and sleeve notes that accompany the recordings, as well as, excerpts from articles in the Jazz literature.



The uniqueness of this band deserved to be more fully chronicled and perhaps the following pieces might form a step in that direction.



In view of what was to come in terms of the big band that Don Ellis formed in the 1960s and beyond, the following description by Gunther Schuller was prescient in the extreme.



The context was the three week session at the School of Jazz in Lenox, MA [ which took place in the old baronial mansion,Wheatleigh Hall rather than The Music Inn].



Don Ellis was on the faculty that year and also performed in concert with other faculty members that included Al Kiger, trumpet, David Baker, trombone, Steve Marcus on tenor, Hal McKinney on piano Chuck Israels on bass,



These observations were printed in The Jazz Review. VOLUME 3, NUMBER 9, NOVEMBER, 1960.



“Don Ellis has already found his own voice, which seems to consist of a fascinating blend of jazz and contemporary classical influences. In fact, his playing represents one of the few true syntheses of jazz and classical elements, without the slightest self-consciousness and without any loss of the excitement and raw spontaneity that the best of jazz always had had.



I hear in Ellis' playing occasional rhythmic figures which derive clearly from the world of classical music, which, however, are interpreted with an impulsive infectious swing that never stops. It seems to me that Don has found a way of expanding the rhythmic vocabulary of jazz to include rhythmic patterns heretofore excluded because they couldn't be made to swing.



If this is true, it would constitute a major break through, and its implications would be far-reaching. As I have said Ellis' rhythmic approach is closely related to the harmonic-melodic one. In fact, the one is inseparably related to the other. It is evident that Ellis has listened to and understood the music of Webern, Stockhausen, Cage and others of the avantgarde.



One of his compositions, in fact, is based on an article in the German magazine "Die Reihe", a house organ of the electronic and serial composers” which specializes in the most rarified (and at times obscure) intellectualism thus far perpetrated in- the name of music. Yes, here again, Ellis' jazz feeling has more than survived what would seem to be a strange partnership. His playing that evening also indicated that he can sustain long solos based on one or two central ideas and hold your interest through his imagination and considerable command of his horn.”


Don Ellis - insert notes to Don Ellis Orchestra - ‘Live’ in Monterey [Pacific Jazz - ST-20112; CDP 7243 4 94768 2 0]



"Arranger-conductor-trumpeter Ellis mesmerized the Sunday afternoon concert with his program of advanced meters, a hell-bent brand of dynamics..."
— Eliot Tiegel, Billboard



"...the band plays with fire and precision, thanks to Ellis, who is demonic and startling conductor."
— New Yorker
"His exquisite phrasing, impeccable timing and tonal beauty, while never losing sight of they rhythmical sequences, astounded the audience. There was thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the end of the concerto. Fans of big band, small band, blues, concert, Indian music and soul jazz all have Don Ellis in common."
— Eileen Kaufman Los Angeles Free Press



MONTEREY-Since jazz has no organized method of grooming performers for stardom, it’s important new artists generally achieve prominence through some stroke of luck such as a hit record or a chance to be heard at a jazz festival. The latter channel opened wide Sunday to accommodate the 20 piece orchestra of a brilliant new talent, Don Ellis. Ellis' future as a major force is now assured, a situation for which we and he can both thank Monterey. The festival that established Lalo Schifrin, John Handy and others as names to reckon with in jazz can now add to its honor role the name of this tall, blonde, bearded young trumpeter and composer from Los Angeles. His band opened the matinee here Sunday and stopped the show. I almost wrote "stopped the show cold," but by the time Ellis and his men were through, the stage was an inferno. From the first moment Ellis avoided every convention of big band jazz. He has three bass players, all of whom open the first number sawing away soberly in unison. This work, entitled "33222122 2" after its 19 beat rhythmic foundation, built slowly and inexorably to a thundering, irresistible fortissimo.

What is astonishing about all this is that the results never taste of gimmickry. He has mastered the art of taking an old familiar form or idiom and turning it into something excitingly new without destroying its original essence. Whether his source is an Indian raga, passacaglia, a fugue of a blues, it all comes out sounding like the product of a wide-open mind in which jazz always remains a latent element.

Ellis plays a specially made four-valve horn capable of producing quarter tones. In the past year, he has developed into one of the most original and explorative new trumpet players. There are several other efficient soloists, especially in the saxophone section, but first and foremost this band is a dynamic and splendidly trained unit, and a mirror of its leader as creative composer, soloist and catalyst. His will certainly become one of the most influential voices in the new wave; the comment of on listener who suggested that Ellis may be "The Stan Kenton of the 1970s" is probably close to the mark.
—Leonard Feather, Jazz Critic Los Angeles Times



“With the birth of jazz in this country less than 100 years ago, the music of the whole Western culture was rhythmically revitalized. And since the beginnings of jazz, jazz musicians have been refining and expanding their rhythms. Sometimes in the refining, the element of swing has been all but lost (as in the "cool school" associated with the West Coast), and then in reaction to this, sometimes the swing has been put back, but most of the rhythmic subtlety and complexity lost (as in the "funk" music period). However, the overall pattern from the beginning has been to expand rhythmic horizons.



Recently the jazz mainstream's rhythmic vocabulary has been enriched to include 3/4 (or 6/4). And now almost every organ-tenor group plays a number of things in 3. This may not seem so startling at the present time, but just a few years ago debate was raging as to whether it was possible to swing in anything but 4/4. In fact in the early '60's one of jazz's leading educators, John Mehegan, made the statement that anything that was not in 4/4 could not possibly be considered jazz!



Another more recent breakthrough was made with Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" showing that it is possible to play jazz in 5/4 and that a large segment of the population is interested in hearing music in other than 4/4 or 3/4.

Rhythm was the main thing that attracted me to jazz: both in the excitement of swing and the complexity of the cross-rhythms. Alternation of 4's and 3's was one of the first things that occurred to me, and then I tried experiments of "stretching" the time by means of accelerandos and ritardandos. "Free" rubato time (so common to the avant-garde today) also proved interesting as did the possibility of having several tempos going on a once. The next step was to attempt to play things in 7/4 and 9/4. Arif Mardin, the Turkish jazz composer, gave me a chart in 9 divided 2-2-2-3 that was based on a Turkish folk rhythm, and made me more aware of the fact that the off-numbered meters which at first seem so exotic and difficult to us, are really very natural and a part of the folk culture of much of the world. As a matter of fact, friends have told me of playing Greek club dates where all the main dances were in 7 and 9, and even little kids could dance to these rhythms - and would get annoyed at the musicians if they missed a beat!



I reasoned that since it was possible to play in a meter such as a 9 divided 2-2-2-3, it should then be possible to play in meters of even longer length, and this lead to the development of such meters as 332221222 (19). To arrive at this particular division of 19, I tried many different patterns, but this was the one that swung the most. The longest meter I have attempted to date is a piece in 85. But this isn't so far fetched as one might think at first, because at the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA I learned of one folk song with a 108 beat cycle!



In the beginning there used to be two arguments against playing jazz in these new rhythms and meters: [1] They are not "natural." And my answer was: not natural to whom? They are natural to a great portion of the world's peoples. [2] You can do the same thing in 4/4. This is ridiculous, if one can't play comfortably in 5 and 7 for example, how can one hope to superimpose these correctly over 4/4? Also, superimposing any other meter over 4/4 is NOT the same thing as playing in that meter exclusively.



But make no mistake about it, learning to play in these new meters and rhythms is difficult for a jazz musician, and it has not been easy to find 20 musicians with the talent and ability who have the necessary determination to stick with it until they have mastered these new ideas. You would be surprised at the number of well known studio musicians who have tried to read the book of the big band and given up, finding that, much to their chagrin, they sounded like rank amateurs because they couldn't even find the first beat of a bar to begin playing!



In the midst of all my thinking and experimenting with these rhythmic ideas, a very fortunate event happened: I met the Indian musician, Hari Har Rao, and began studying with him, both at the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA and privately. He opened up undreamed of new worlds of rhythm that he and his teacher, Ravi Shankar, has worked out. I learned exercises for developing the ability to superimpose complicated rhythmic patterns, one on the other, ways of counting to be able to always keep my place in a given cycle, no matter how long or involved. He showed me how to arrive at new rhythmic ideas, the proper ways of working these out and practicing them. It was a tremendously exciting and rewarding experience. I have written a book explaining much of what I learned and hope to have it published some day so that others can learn this also.



From that time on, I have had two main goals in the realm of rhythm: a) to develop my playing and writing to the highest possible level rhythmically and b) to set the wheels in motion that will send these new rhythms permeating through our whole musical culture.



The big band was started three summers ago [1963] in Hollywood, but temporarily disbanded when I went back to New York for a year. Hollywood was the only place a band like this could have been started, because of the excellent free rehearsal studio facilities of the musician's union, the high caliber of musicians, and the fact that the musicians here are not so transient as in New York. In a project such as this, having a relatively stable personnel is an absolute essential. In the beginning one new person coming in a little wrong could throw the whole band off, however now the nucleus of the band is so strong that nothing can upset them.



The original idea for the expanded rhythm section (3 basses and 3 percussionists) was both musical and practical. I had been doing a lot of playing in Latin bands and became very fond of the sound of having 3 and 4 percussionists, each doing something different. The rhythmic polyphony excited me. On the practical side I realized that if only one drummer and bass player knew my book and if they had to leave for some reason, I would be stuck. So I tried the big rhythm section, fell in love with the sound and have used it ever since! In teaching the band these new rhythms, I have found that the hardest thing is to learn to tap one's foot unevenly.

Usually the 5's come most easily (patting in a subdivision of 2 3 or 3 2), then the 7's and 9's follow - each one usually being progressively more difficult. Once one is used to patting one's feet unevenly, the longer, more complex patterns are relatively easy.



The band has been working steadily every Monday evening (currently at "Bonesville" in Hollywood) for almost a year, and I remember our delight when about 6 months ago, after struggling like mad to feel comfortable in a fast 7 (divided 3 2 2), I brought in a chart in 3 2/3 /4 time (11), and the band played it at sight! That was a big turning point because they realized that now they could count almost any rhythmic pattern at sight. The time barrier had been broken.



Along with the new rhythms, I have been experimenting with new pitches and harmonic-melodic patterns. The new pitches have been made possible to my new 1/4 tone trumpet [4 valves rather than the usual 3] made by the Frank Holton Company at my special request, and this has opened up another fascinating world. The new harmonic-melodic patterns have come about by using the Indian Raga, or scale patterns in new (westernized) ways, in addition to experiments along the "traditional" classical avant-garde techniques of pitch organization.



In summation, let me quote the noted percussionist and composer, William Kraft, who said: "these rhythms are the first real challenge to come along in jazz since the Bebop." I know I have found that working with these rhythms over the last two years has been the most exciting and fruitful period of my entire career in jazz, and I hope that some of the excitement I feel communicates to you, the listener.”
-DON ELLIS 16 August 1966





Leonard Feather - insert notes Live in 3 ⅔ 4 Time [Pacific Jazz ST-20123; CDP 7243 5 23996 2 8]



“Duke Ellington once observed that success was a product of the confluence of four elements (I don't remember the precise words, but this is a close paraphrase): being I in the right place, before the right people, doing the right thing at the right time.



IBy these standards, Don Ellis was long predestined to be a success. The signs have pointed in his direction for several years, but the Ellington four-element formula presented itself last September [1966] at Monterey, where, with his 21-piece orchestra, Ellis brought the crowd to its feet with his astonishing repertoire of unpredictable, metrically eccentric, ingeniously scored performances.



To the factors pointed out by Duke, one might add a few more that could be considered no less vital in the pursuit of maximal achievement. They include determination, which Ellis clearly has in abundance; physical advantages (Ellis is about six feet, trim, handsome, neatly bearded and totally designed to disarm the resistance of every female member of the crowd); an articulate, outgoing personality (Ellis could easily build himself a full-time career as lecturer or panelist); and an awareness of the importance of publicity, coupled with a talent for self-promotion — in this department Ellis is so well fortified that it was obviously just a matter of time before his talent broke through. (I am assuming, a priori, of course, that genuine musical ability is a prerequisite without which the other qualifications cannot sustain anyone.)



If Ellis becomes, as some of us have predicted, the Kenton of the 1970s, his arrival at this summit will be the culmination of at least five years of concentrated effort to express himself as an individual through every channel available to him — playing, leading, thinking, composing, writing for magazines, teaching, studying, organizing, searching. His success will also be, interestingly enough, the first one in a quarter of a century established by a big band in Southern California (it was 25 years ago last spring that Stan Kenton started out at the Balboa Ballroom; Gerald Wilson's magnificent band is still on the brink of a breakthrough).



Ellis might be classified as a Third Streamer, an avant-gardist, or simply as a nonconformist. He himself is not too deeply concerned with the semantics involved. "There is no definite style indicated by the term 'new swing," he has said. "We are now at a time of experimentation where rules are not yet codified into cliches. So much the better. Too many jazzmen have been conservative, afraid of change. This is strange in an art that was born of change, whose very essence is the improvised, the unexpected.



"Anyone who plays even a little creatively or differently from the established school seems to be called avant-garde, especially if he makes any unusual sounds on his instrument. By this definition, the most avant-garde and consistently interesting player I heard during a visit to New York last year was [trumpeter] Henry Red Allen."



Similarly, last June another story appeared under his by-line: "The Avant-Garde is Not Avant-Garde!" He amplified this in the article: "By current avant-garde I refer to those playing the type of music associated with such musicians as Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and most of the artists of the E.S.P. Records catalogue. The predominant elements of this music (such as the lack of a definite rhythmic pulse or melodic or structural coherence, the use of myriads of flat notes with no overall direction and the at-one-time-unusual shrieks, honks and bleats) have now become commonplace and cliched. And as for 'newness' itself, these elements all date back some years."



If this type of incessant chattering and stream-of-consciousness meandering is no longer avant-garde, Ellis went on. then what is?



He answered himself: "Music based on solid audible structural premises... music that is well conceived and thought out (as opposed to the 'don't bother me with the technical details, man — I'm playing pure emotion' school)... music with new rhythmic complexity based on a swinging pulse with new meters and super impositions... music with melodies based on principles of musical coherence, utilizing the new rhythms along with intervals (pitches)... music making use of new harmonic idioms based on principles of audible coherence (in contradistinction to the 'everybody-for-himself-with-12 tones-Go!' school)... Musical worth or greatness is of the utmost importance. Whether something is avant-garde or not has no bearing on this."



These reflections are the fruit of years of experimentation in many directions. Ellis, born July 25, 1934, in Los Angeles, earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University. During the late 1950s he worked his way through a variety of big bands (Ray McKinley's Glenn Miller outfit, Charlie Barnet, Herb Pomeroy, Sam Donahue. Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton) as well as a period of U.S. Army bands. It was in the Maynard Ferguson band that I first heard him, during a concert tour in 1958. Though there was no chance for any avant-garde or highly individual expression during his brief solos, it was clear already that here was a talent to be watched. During the 1960-62 period Ellis managed to rid himself of the big-band-sideman image. He led his own trio at the Village Vanguard, played in Harlem with a quartet at Wells', was a member of the George Russell combo, and was closely associated during much of this time with a Boston friend, pianist-saxophonist Jaki Byard (who had also been a member of the Ferguson band).



He made three combo albums of value. How Time Passes, on the defunct Candid label, produced by Nat Hentoff, featured him with Byard, Ron Carter and Charlie Persip. An entire side was devoted to an "Improvisational Suite" using a 12-tone row as a point of departure. New Ideas, a Prestige LP, used the same personnel with Al Francis on vibes added. As Don observed then. "All these players are skilled in the technique of standard jazz improvising on chord progressions, but they can also create without chords, and on tone clusters and tone rows. They are not limited in their approach to a mere ignoring of the changes to sound 'far out,’ but have the ability to control both the vertical and the horizontal elements of the music." Don has always sought out musicians with these qualifications; today he is lucky enough to have a whole big bandful of them.



Don has been heard in Europe twice: at the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree in 1962 and in Scandinavia in 1963. In 1962 he recorded, in Hollywood, a set for Pacific Jazz -Essence - with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Gene Stone or Nick Martinis on drums. In 1963, he formed a group called the Improvisational Workshop, making several live and TV appearances. He was a featured soloist in a performance that year of Larry Austin's "Improvisations," with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Returning to Los Angeles, he began graduate studies at the University of California; In 1964 he formed his Hindustani Jazz Sextet and expanded his already profound interest in Indian music.



"Indian classical music," he says, "possesses the most highly developed, subtle and complex system of organized rhythm in the world. The best and most technically advanced jazz drummer that has ever lived is a rank novice compared to a good Indian drummer when it comes to command of rhythms. The same thing applies to melodic instruments also. For many months I had the good fortune to study the art of North Indian drumming under Harihar Rao, who has been associated with Ravi Shankar for almost fifteen years. Harihar is a marvelous drummer and sitar player, his sense of time is so accurate that he can keep a steady slow beat while talking, reading or doing anything else. He is extremely bothered by the irregularities in time of the finest electronic metronomes he has heard."



Harihar Rao appeared with Ellis and the Hindustani combo in Hollywood clubs, and in Ellis's joint appearance with Kenton's Los Angeles Neophonic last year (1966.) It is undoubtedly through his influence that Ellis became more and more preoccupied with the use of unconventional metres in jazz. Don started his big band as a workshop experiment in 1964, but by 1965 was working one night a week at a Los Angeles club. A year and a half ago he moved into Bonesville, a moribund club in Hollywood operated by trombonist Walt Flynn.
Ellis has done everything in his power to promote himself, his band and the club. He even had bumper stickers printed reading "Where is Don Ellis?" that were seen on the backs of dozens of cars at the Monterey and Costa Mesa [Pacific Jazz Festival] festivals. He knows that the thing to do is study, develop something of value, get yourself talked about, find places where the right kind of people can hear you, and then convince them.



Without hesitation I predict that at year's end Don and his band will have been the No. 1 jazz success story of 1967. He has a set of principles that just can't miss.”





Digby Diehl - Electric Bath - 1967 [Columbia CS 9585; Columbia Legacy 88985346632]



In less than one hundred years, this album will be obsolete. Reverb amplifiers clavinets, loop delays and quarter-tone trumpets (no to mention conventional instruments) all will be junked. Time signatures such as 5/4, 7/4 or 17 will be too simple for the latest teen dances. And the hard-driving Rock sound will be supplanted by evenings spent receiving electrical jolts to the frontal lobes.



Maybe. But right now, Don Ellis' big band is the best sound that modern music has to offer. It is beautiful, exciting and contemporary: a Now sound that is the most exhilarating trip toward the 2060's anybody's ears have taken. Conceive, if you can, an aural collage created by the Beatles, Karlheinz Stockhausen,  Ravi Shankar and Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia ol Jazz.  And then, imagine that creation churning through the high-powered talents of twenty-one young musicians, like the rumble before you open the door ol a blast furnace. Electric Bath runs this scope of ideas and intensity.



Every Monday night for two years, Don has been rehearsing and experimenting with the band before capacity crowds at Hollywood jazz clubs. Dazzling performances at the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals drew astonishing acclaim in all sectors. His following runs the gamut from Zubin Mehta. director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Association, and if you could see Andy Williams bobbing his head in patterns of 3-3-2-2-2-1 -2-2-2 to follow one of Don's compositions in 19/4, you'd know why the musical world is taking notice.



Fascinating fun, that's why. Just as the incorporation of syncopation brought new vitality to popular music at the turn of the century, Don's use of a funky 7/4 or a blues in 5 gives us a delightfully renewed sense of tension in rhythm. New tempos change our awareness of accents, break down the cliche phrases based on 2/4 or 4/4 and. medium being the massage, make us listen in a very involving way with fresh perspectives. From this new rhythmic vista, electronics and quarter-tones are really natural extensions of a modern musical conception. The Don Ellis band has no academic hang ups about its music - it just radiates good vibrations in a refreshing contemporary idiom.



"Open Beauty," for example, begins as a shimmering spider web ol psychedelic effects The electric piano of Mike Lang flutters delicately over a bowed bass background as an echoing, airy, melodic surrealism which grows louder and more complex by layers until the whole band is screeching into a cataclysmic nightmare The 3}/4 movement of this Ellis composition lends new elements to the contrapuntal interplay between sections, as the reeds compliment the brasses like fugal coo-coo clocks. Similarly, the Fender-Rhodes piano, which is basically an electrified clavichord, suggests the presence of an entirely non-musical mechanism bursting into song.



Then, as the dense structural tangle subsides. Don Ellis plays what must be one of the most remarkable solo passages on record: duets, and trios with himself by playing into a loop delay echo chamber. His solo, like the entire piece, is based on harmonic open fifths, but he also uses simple :minor scales and ascending thirds for stunning jeffect. This passage creates a kind of sonic vertigo, as though he were tossing notes into a still pool and hearing the concentric waves ol sound return in musical circles that are played against one another. If one needed proof of the value of the .electric trumpet, the hypnotizing beauty of this passage would be sufficient.

"New Horizons" is a work based on a musical cycle of 17, which is divided into 5-5-7. The sharp crackle of precise ensemble playing can be heard to particular advantage in the brass section as they blow crisp phrases over the compelling tempo. In his use of stop choruses, call-and-response patterns or ragtime figures, Don seems to be suggesting that the history of Jazz fits into the new tempos. Mike Lang picks up the hint, and his piano chorus gives you the fantastic feeling of hearing Jelly Roll Morton through a time machine His comic boogie-woogie bass lines and modified ragtime licks are fine pieces of musical humor.



Creating orchestrally a facsimile of John Coltrane's "sheets of sound," this composition evolves though varying layers of dynamics to a percussion section workout, with all four members of the rhythmic backfield In motion at once. Even difficult touches like the bubbling fountain effect ;in the reeds at the end mesh beautifully to illustrate new musical horizons.



"Turkish Bath" captures the adventurous spirit ol the band completely. This wild Ron Myers chart opens with Ray Neapolitan on sitar and quickly moves into a lar, far-out East theme statement by trie reed section which is tuned in approximate quarter-tones and distorted through amplifiers for Turkish effect. Solo work by Don, Ron Myers on trombone and Joe Roccisano on soprano sax takes place against a kaleidoscopic background of beautifully arranged phrases Mike Lang on clavinet sounds remarkably like an electric guitar and lends Rock flavor to this outing. As the ear-wrenching dissonance of the reed section fades and the sitar returns for what sounds like the out chorus, catch the jarring juxtaposition as Steve Bohannon breaks in and whips the band through a recharged ending.



"Alone" is a composition by Hank Levy whose "Passacaglia and Fugue" for the orchestra has generated tremendous enthusiasm at concert appearances Ray Neapolitan's bass lines in a straight 5/4 tempo form the basis for an organic piece which unravels itself In logical elaborations on a Latin background On this tune, Don's solo begins with a humble-sounding group of mumbles that ascend in a kind of moaning climb to a virtuous display of pyrotechnics, like Superman climbing out of his Clark Kent duds. Again, the clean ensemble quality ol the band's playing is evident as each nuance of the composition is developed.



"Indian Lady" has the feeling of a hoe-down in a harem. This bluesy tune in 5 (divided 3-2) features Don on some fancy trumpet figures which utilize (the fourth valve of his horn for quarter-tones. The instrument which sounds very much like "soul" electronic organ is Mike Lang on the Fender electric piano. Ron Starr on tenor and Ron Myers on trombone romp into the fast-moving down-home feeling of the piece with aplomb and the band as a whole wails. Steve Bohannon, the young multi-tempo master of the percussion section, solos swingingly in 5 and pushes the band to a roaring close. As a comic afterthought, Don picks up the last few bars again for a Dixieland tag which is finished out by the whole band. Dixieland in 5!?



Well, trying to communicate this kind of New Sound in prose may be a problem, but it's nothing compared to the complexities of capturing the total effect of twenty-one instrumentalists playing through unusual electronic equipment. Producer John Hammond and Sound engineer Brian Ross-Myring have succeeded in recreating that "live" experience on vinyl with a fidelity beyond reasonable expectation. Just listen, and Don Ellis will prove to you that one record in some cases, is worth several thousand verbal notations.



Digby Diehl



(Mr. Diehl is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and various other publications.)



To Be Continued in Part 2 ...




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



The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 3
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


"DON ELLIS IS AN ADVENTURE"

“ELLIS IS the only jazz big band leader to both emerge and endure in the last twenty years.
The newest version (of his band) played Basin Street West last weekend, recorded an album for Columbia and demonstrated once again that it is the most exciting big band performing today. The main goodies this time were a brand new string section - cello, viola, two violins; all electrified - an a capella, free-improvising wind quartet and Ellis himself on drums (and a new four-valve flugelhorn).
In addition to the above mentioned, the band carries electric piano and bass, eight brass (including an extremely rare contrabass trombone) and three drummers.”
- John L Wasserman, 1971 San Francisco Chronicle

"SIGNIFICANT MUSICAL EVENT"

“FROM THE 110 minutes I heard last night (at Basin Street West) there is no question that this is a most significant event in contemporary musical development.”
- Philip Elwood, 1971 San Francisco Examiner

As I previously wrote in our introduction to Part 2 of the feature on the evolution of the Don Ellis orchestra, because Don Ellis is almost a forgotten figure forty years after his death in 1978, many of his recordings were 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:

[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.”

Part 2 focused on [1] Don Ellis at The Fillmore/Don Ellis Goes Underground  [BGO CD 1143]

Let’s continued Part 3 by exploring in detail the second BGO two-fer Tears of Joy/Connection [BGO CD 1317] and sharing the annotations contained in the accompanying booklet.


Don Ellis wrote these liner notes to Tears of Joy LP which was released in 1971 as Columbia C30927-28.

“THIS ALBUM was recorded 20-23 May 1971, at Basin Street West in San Francisco, climaxing a three-month tour of the United States. For some time I have wanted to expand the colours of my band, to develop a broader spectrum of musical resources and emotions. This tour provided an opportunity to experiment with a new concept.

On the previous tour (November 1970) we had already started using a woodwind quartet within the big-band format. I also wanted to try some ideas I had for strings, so I added a string quartet to the band. Since I had a woodwind quartet and a string quartet, why not have a brass quintet also?

People spend whole evenings listening to a brass quintet, a woodwind or a string quartet, so I reasoned that having all of these in the context of a big band should give us a fantastic variety of colours to draw from. We also have all of the possibilities of a jazz band, from a trio right up to the big band, with the addition of extra percussion, too.

I speak for the other composers on the album as well as myself when I say the challenge and sound possibilities of the combination have opened up new vistas of musical thought. When we added strings there was the problem of how they would fit within the volume level of a big band. We were fortunate to find the answer in the Barcus-Berry Transducer System, which gives incredible fidelity (the recorded sound is taken directly from this) and can give the strings so much power they can cover the whole band!

This album presents a variety of moods, ideas and sounds from the folk rhythms of Bulgarian Bulge, the downhome feeling of Blues In Elf and the sombre mood of Loss to the culmination in Strawberry Soup, a virtuoso feature number where you can hear each section of the band playing separately as well as in combinations with the others.

Tears Of Joy: This piece came about by accident one night during an electric trumpet solo on Concerto For Trumpet. The ring modulator was tuned to a low G and I happened to play a B and a whole chord appeared! I fooled around with it for a while and then the theme of the number emerged as a samba type thing in 7.

We needed at least one selection for the album under our usual ten to twenty-five minutes so I decided to expand what had happened into a piece. The shouts at the beginning happened spontaneously the first time we did it and have since become a part of the piece.

5/4 Getaway:While out on tour I telt we needed a new opener for our concerts, so during a short break in the tour I wrote part of this piece. The sax solo was added a few weeks before the recording, and the drum routine was worked out on a plane flight.

The way the composition turned out surprised me. It's a jazz feel, but in 5/4, and the chord progression is similar to a pattern which has been around since some of the earliest days of jazz. There have been many famous jazz tunes written on it - you may be able to identify motives from several of them in the piece.

The order of the drum solos is Ron, me and Ralph. Ralph wrote the unison drum fills which appear when the whole band comes in after the drum solos. The high note at the end of my solo is dedicated to Roy Stevens.

Bulgarian Bulge: This was originally recorded on our Underground album, but it has since been transformed into a showcase for our new pianist, Milcho Leviev. And therein lies a story:

A few years ago I received a letter from a man in Bulgaria who had heard the band on Willis Conover's "Voice of America" jazz programmes. We struck up a correspondence and he sent me some recordings of Bulgarian folk music.

These records really turned me around. Here were folk musicians playing dance music in time signatures I had never heard of! I was so impressed I transcribed the number that became Bulgarian Bulge.

I later found out that my correspondent was a musician and he sent me some scores and tapes of his work. It turned out that he, Milcho Leviev, was the leading jazz composer and performer (as well as film scorer) in Bulgaria. I asked him to join my band. It was impossible at the time, but just before this tour we were able to arrange to bring him to this country as a political refugee. He arrived the first night of rehearsals and came directly from the plane to the rehearsal and proceeded to amaze the entire band.

This is probably the first time a jazz musician has come along to whom unusual metres are his natural, native music. The Bulge is in 33 (and 36); it's just like a 4/4 to Milcho.

Get It Together: Sam Falzone wrote this piece and plays the tenor solo on it. I asked him to describe it in his own words:

"The idea of this chart came to me in '65 (when I first met Don). The chart came together when Don asked me to write something experimental for a string quartet idea he had for the band. [This was six years later.] It's very simply constructed. It has two main themes which I tried to write contrapuntally [in a symphonic fashion].

"The fast 11/4 section is a G dorian blues and the rhythm section really got it on. The basic theme is built in fourths and the second theme is the Get It Together theme, which I intend to put words to someday."


Quiet Longing: I took last summer off to write an unusual science fiction musical titled Future: Tense!!! and this is one of the songs from it. It's a love song.

Blues In Elf: Milcho Leviev and the string quartet are featured in this down-home type blues in 11 (or 3 2/3 over 4).

Loss: In this ballad in 7/8 we try to create the mood implied by the title.

How's This For Openers?: The main metre here is a fast 25 with a bridge in 27. The trombone solo is by Jim Sawyer and the alto solo by Lonnie Shelter. The band has become famous (or infamous) for our drum routines and this time I decided to write one that was soft and pointillistic, often moving quickly between the drummers. The order is me, Ralph, Ron and Lee.

Samba Bajada: Hank Levy has been writing for the band since the beginning. This time he turned up a samba in 9. You'll hear some incredible bass drum work by Ralph Humphrey. After my solo, the whole trumpet section is out in front doing their thing.

Strawberry Soup: Don Heckman, the noted critic and musician, once said to me that he had noticed most of the things we did in unusual metres were basically additive rhythms, that we hadn't explored dividing the metres up into smaller or larger units (within the original). This piece is dedicated to him. It is entirely in 9 (except for the coda) and the basic 9 is 9/4 with two 9/8 bars (3222,3222) in each 9/4 bar. Occasionally the 9/4 metre is stretched into a 9/2 bar (two bars of 9/4), so there are at least three levels of 9 going on.

The composition opens with a cello solo by Christine Ermacoff, followed by the string quartet. They are joined by the woodwind quartet (Jon Clarke, oboe; Sam Falzone, clarinet; Fred Selden, flute; Lonnie Shetter, alto) improvising freely.
The piano solo by Milcho Leviev is backed by Lee Pastora on conga and Dennis Parker on bass. Doug Bixby leads the brass ensemble on tuba and Jim Sawyer solos on trombone with me on drums behind him. Dennis Parker plays the bass solo leading into the string quartet passage. Ralph Humphrey is on drums behind my trumpet solo and Ron Dunn takes over for the sax soli.

The drum soli later on is accompanied by the horns and the order is me, Lee, Ralph, Ron. At the end of the soli you'll hear each drummer playing a different subdivision of 9 which culminates in a flurry of 16th notes combining four bars of 9/16 into one bar of 9/4. The coda wraps it all up in the only way possible!

Euphoric Acid: Fred Selden has a penchant for pithy, cryptic titles (mostly pithy - not too much cryptic) and he says this title " ... suggests a good feeling or natural high on life, people, music, existence." It features Fred on alto sax and flute.


Leonard Feather contributed the following liner notes to  Don Ellis: Connection which was released on Columbia [C31766] in 1972.

Of his own orchestra. Don Ellis says. "We went through a heavy rock phase, but now we're getting into new colors. By early 1971, I felt I had explored as much as possible within the standard orchestral framework, even with the electronics; so I added a string quartet, which helped to mellow the sound of the band when necessary, and transformed the sajtes into a woodwind quintet. We don't need three basses anymore because, everyone plays electric nowadays, so I switched to one Fender player. I'm enjoying all the challenges of this revised Instrumentation."

It is safe to assume that in the years immediately ahead, Ellis  will continue to acquire new knowledge and impart it to a growing audience wherever jazz is heard. Toward the end of the 196O's, I ventured a prophecy that Ellis would become the Stan Kenton of the 1970's. To a substantial degree, that prediction has already been borne out.
- 1978 by Leonard Feather from the book From Satchmo To Miles

“After all those exploratory years in search of himself, Don Ellis seems at last to have found a definable image, one to which every audience can relate.
You will find its reflection on these sides, not only in the echoplex and wah-wah effects on “Roundabout" and "Goodbye To Love,” but in the instrumentation (discussed by Don in the quote above) and in the overall spirit of this unique orchestra.

Don, and the gifted writers who supplement his own contributions to the band's library, would appear to have found an elusive formula that can communicate to almost any listener. He has incorporated his own sounds and concepts, without any commercial compromise, into television and motion pictures (check the track here from his brilliant "French Connection" score) he has taken the word onto innumerable clinics, showing the school and college audiences where it's at from an all encompassing viewpoint.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Ellis philosophy is that in exploring the future, he has neither abandoned the present nor broken his ties with the past. There Is an almost Bacharach-like melodic quality to the theme as he outlines it in Hank Levy's "Chain Reaction". The protean Milcho Leviev, who gets my vote for Bulgarian Jazz Pianist of the Month, supplies a gospel touch as Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" gets under way. There are many more such roots from which the Ellis branches grow.

Don has begun to gain a corollary reputation as a discoverer or developer of talent. In addition to Levy and Leviev (the latter's  arrangement of "Superstar" Is a highlight of the album), there is now Dick Halligan, who finds in the orchestra a palette for broader textural concepts than were available to him in his Blood, Sweat & Tears days. Halligan has fashioned a brilliant original work in "Train To Get There" (with some Ellis overdubbing). His arrangement of a Carole King song offers pulsating evidence of how that sensitive lady really felt the earth move.

Whether the source of the music lies within the band or derives from such groups as Yes (Fred Selden's reshaping of "Roundabout") or Procol Harum (Hank levy's treatment of "Conquistador"), everything the band now plays has the Ellis imprimatur. Perhaps my prediction should now be adjusted: he is the Don Ellis of the 1970's, rather than a shadow or echo of anyone else and that in itself is identity enough.”


Matt Phillips wrote these booklet notes when Tears of Joy/Connection was issued as a combined CD in 2017. [BGO CD 1317]

“THE BURGEONING jazz/rock movement of the late-'60s was mostly a small-group phenomenon, but by the early 1970s it was also impacting big bands. Like fellow trumpeter/composer/bandleader Maynard Ferguson, Don Ellis's brand of fusion sometimes drew upon pop and commercial music for inspiration, and, arguably, there was an oft-neglected humour at play in taking on material by The Carpenters, Carole King, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Procol Harum.

But Ellis was also a subtle revolutionary, adding a string quartet and two drummers to his band (as well as occasionally getting behind the kit himself) and investigating unusual time signatures, folk melodies, modern classical music and Eastern modalities. It was certainly no surprise when Ralph Humphrey, Ellis's drummer in the 1970-1972 period, went on to play with Frank Zappa, another master of mixed meters and unusual musical fusions.

If Ellis's in-your-face brand of early-'70s jazz/rock was somewhat of a hard-sell for big-band purists, it certainly found some celebrity fans. No less a hard taskmaster than Steely Dan's Donald Fagen told writer Don Breithaupt in 2007: 'You know what I kind of liked? The Don Ellis Big Band. It was popular in New York. He had a quarter-note trumpet and there was this nice boogaloo-y big band chart they used to play on the jazz stations.' Fagen might have been talking about Ellis's 1970 album At Fillmore, a live recording which had mainly focused on original material (though also included a seriously way-out version of 'Hey Jude'). This was a period when Ellis's charts were getting quite a rep in the education community, many performed by America's top high-school and college big bands, and he was also earning a Best Instrumental Arrangement Grammy for his soundtrack to William Friedkin's megahit movie The French Connection.

For the follow-up to Fillmore, Ellis decided to record live again and also focus mainly on original compositions. But a cursory look at Tears Of Joy's personnel shows that it would not be your typical live album. As well as adding the string quartet in May 1971, he also hired Bulgarian piano virtuoso Milcho Leviev who could improvise fluently in time signatures that would probably be intimidating to most American players. Produced by Phil Macy, the album was recorded over three nights between 20th and 23rd May 1971 at Basin Street West, the legendary San Francisco jazz club active from the mid-'50s to 1973.

Tears of Joy kicks off with Ellis's title track, a barnstormer in 7/8 starting with heavily harmonized trumpet and some strong percussion work from Lee Pastora. The string quartet enters with a folky countermelody before a gentler, almost pastoral section ushers in some excellent groove playing from drummers Ralph Humphrey and Ron Dunn.

Another Ellis original, 5/4 Getaway, was specifically designed as a concert-opener. It is essentially a vehicle for Humphrey and Dunn, the former contributing the written fills which cue the band back in. Ellis ends with an extraordinarily high note 'dedicated to Roy Stevens', the lead trumpet player with the Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie big bands.

Bulgarian Bulge, which first appeared on The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground album, is an extraordinary assault-course of mixed meters. Ellis himself rather glibly described it as 'in 33 and sometimes 36'! The track becomes a feature for Leviev, the pianist who had arrived in America as a political refugee just a few days before the recording in San Francisco. He solos with great fluidity over a minefield of tricky time signatures.

Get It Together, written by tenor player Sam Falzone, was first conceived in 1965 as a piece for string quartet. A stately, almost regal theme leads into a fast G Dorian blues in 11/4 time with a very strong melody. Falzone claims he once intended to add lyrics to the piece but never got round to it.

Side two of the old vinyl album kicked off with Ellis's Quiet Longing, a piece originally written for a science fiction musical called Future: Tense!!! Ellis describes it as 'a love song' in his own liner notes for the album. His Blues In Elf is another investigation of 11/4 time. Leviev tacks off proceedings with a quirky take on Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' before unleashing a sparkling blues solo. The string quartet then enters with a beguiling section, before Ellis solos strongly, underpinned by some wonderfully dissonant harmony from the horns and strings. A rasping Gil Evans-like horn arrangement leads into another Leviev solo, this time on clavinet.

Loss, also composed by Ellis, ends the old vinyl side two with a chill down the spine. A glorious, ethereal opening string section transcends its 7/8 time signature, with Ellen Smith's viola especially prominent. Ellis restates his melody before a Spanish-sounding section features some of his lowest playing on record.

How's This For Openers? kicked off the vinyl side three, a remarkably complex composition with a folky feel, reminiscent of Aaron Copland's work. The string trio transform themselves into the rhythm section at 1:03, laying down an incredibly treacherous vamp for Ellis to solo over (a YouTube wag has analysed the time signature as 25/16!). Sawyers' trombone then gets a short solo, before a superb tutti section featuring the whole band and a knockout Selden alto solo.

Hank Levy's Samba Bajada begins with a striking modal melody over pedal point D, before a sparky Latin groove in 9/8 with Pastora's congas and cowbell prominent, over which Levy places all kinds of melodic material, veering from minor to major and back again. Ellis solos superbly over the gradually-undulating vamp, urged on by Humphrey's expressive kit work. A brief percussion interlude leads to another winning vamp in D featuring a Spanish-tinged melodic motif. Ellis's stratospheric note leads him into a humorous solo exploring his enormous trumpet range and lightning fast licks, before Humphrey gets into some almost Tony Williams-like figures between kick drum, floor-torn and snare.

A strikingly ambitious number kicked off side four of the vinyl album.The Strawberry Soup suite begins with some stirring, melancholic solo cello from Christina Ermacoff, and then a pastoral trio section. Slowly other members of the ensemble cut in alongside the string trio before the whole band enters with a 9/4 vamp which builds in epic style. Leviev embarks on a rhapsodic solo over Humphrey's flittering brushwork, leading to another highly arranged section featuring Doug Bixby's tuba with Ellis rushing to accompany him on drums. Humphrey picks up the sticks and then Jim Sawyer’s solos strongly over a fairly ramshackle avant-groove with some almost Larry Graham-like playing from bassist Dennis Parker. By now, the double-drums are really firing, and Parker gets a brief solo before a gorgeous 'plucked' section from the string section. Ellis's solo leads the band back through another heavily-arranged, swinging interlude with some treacherous bars of 5/4. There are elegant solos from Jon Clarke on oboe and Kenneth Nelson on French horn before three drummers (Ellis, Humphrey and Dunn) solo over a repeat of the original 9/4 vamp, with added voices from various band members this time. A rousing reprise of the 'A' section leads the track into its final surprise - a raunchy 6/8 R'n'B tag with floor-shaking bass trombone.

Fred Selden's gloriously eclectic Euphoric Acid closes Tears Of Joy, beginning with Leviev's Zawinulesque electric piano vamp and a tough, funky horn chart leading into a rasping Falzone tenor solo. Then there's an elliptical, almost ambient section over which Falzone moves over to the flute, before two totally random two-bar injections of the string trio, and a 'mock-heroic' reference to 'Glory! Glory! Hallelujah'. The lack of audience applause suggests that this outrageous track was a soundcheck or rehearsal take.

Tears Of Joy was a milestone recording for Ellis. Released in late 1971, it had demonstrated a remarkable array of bold, sassy, distinctive compositions and arrangements with a huge variety of styles and time signatures. To this day, many Ellis fans describe it as his finest album. But the follow-up would be a very different proposition. Produced by the legendary Teo Macero, Connection was recorded in August 1972 and featured an almost identical band line-up to Tears Of Joy. The album featured Theme From "The French Connection", an abbreviated version of Ellis's Grammy-winning movie score, but more controversial would be the 'pop' covers of songs by Carole King, Yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bill Withers and The Carpenters. But this was no ordinary 'covers' album, nor an unalloyed attempt at commercial success - Ellis and his team of arrangers completely revamped these songs with strange time signatures, unsettling timbres and lots of dissonance.

Connection kicks off with Sam Falzone's arrangement of Joe Sample's Put It Where You Want It, a tune that originally featured on the Crusaders I album. While Leviev's clavinet playing is a treat, the horn arrangements curiously miss out some of Sample's 'blue' notes, producing a rather grating effect. But the tune has real punch and Graydon's wah-wah blues licks add considerable spice. Leviev's arrangement of Alone Again (Naturally), a hit for Gilbert O'Sullivan, is one of the more bizarre offering on Connection. One thing's for sure - it's pretty unforgettable. Jay Graydon lays down a stunningly Steely-esque guitar solo, possibly with added Talkbox.

Leviev turns Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Superstar into an amusingly baroque undertaking, beginning with mock-heroic chord slabs and then segueing into a superbly funky horn chart, beautifully recorded. Ellis solos strongly over a 7/8 groove, during which the band join in with some spirited vocals, before an amusing final minute with various false endings.

Richard Halligan arranges Carole King's I Feel The Earth Move, a bizarre,
hyperactive juxtaposition of funk, jazz and pop in 7/8 which unsettles as well as surprises. There may be nothing else like it in the 'jazz' canon. Ellis's Theme From" The French Connection still has real power, and it effortlessly trumps the version heard in the feature film. In the bandleader/composer's favourite 7/8, it slinks in with a memorably macabre riff before some sparkling wah-wah clavinet and organ from Leviev and exciting shaker and congas from Pastora. Vince Denham also gets some solo time on alto sax, panned hard left, before Leviev takes the tune out with some wacky organ.

Hank Levy's take on Procol Harum's Conquistador is next up, again mainly in 7/8 and starring with an agreeable mix of clavinet, string quartet and horns. Gary Herbig solos strongly on what sounds like a clarinet put through a wah-wah pedal - possibly the only recorded example in music history. Fred Selden's arrangement of Yes's Roundabout has to be heard to be believed. The horns take care of Steve Howe's memorable opening guitar lick, while the trumpets perfectly ape Jon Anderson's melody line. Leviev plays Rick Wakeman's extraordinary organ pan note for note and adds some freaky clavinet too. Ellis's super-fast trumpet triplets, echoing Wakeman's clavinet on the original, are uncanny. Herbig then solos strongly on soprano over the closing vamp.

Hank Levy's composition Chain Reaction starts with a striking chart for trumpets and woodwinds in 13/4 time. Ellis solos lengthily over a slowly-building band arrangement. Then, at 5:24, there's a funky Leviev intrusion on clavinet, before some striking exchange of fours between Leviev's piano and the string quartet. All in all, it's a remarkable suite of music and possibly the standout on Connection.

Fred Selden arranges a hyperactive version of The Carpenters' hit Goodbye To Love, creating a psychedelic, almost surreal mash-up of styles, with Ellis soloing strongly on wah-wah-assisted trumpet. Bill Withers' Lean On Me, arranged by Earle Corry, repeats the trick - it's a bizarre mix of Latin percussion, honking horns and odd time signatures. Train To Get There, written and arranged by Richard Halligan, closes Connection with a superior slice of jazz/funk which wouldn't have sounded out of place on The French Connection's soundtrack. It features some killer Leviev clavinet and a striking, almost drum-machine-like beat from Humphrey. Graydon solos strongly in the right channel before the fade.

Released late in 1972, Connection was strong beer and didn't receive the positive critical reaction Tears Of Joy had enjoyed. It would also turn out to be Ellis's final album for Columbia Records. His follow-up, Soaring, bypassed the world of pop music to focus again on original compositions, and he would never again return to covers. But these two albums stand as towering achievements and fascinating examples of big-band boldness. They push the boundaries and contribute something completely new to jazz/rock with their piquant timbres, outrageous arrangements and top-class soloing.
Play 'em loud. The neighbours are listening…”
- Matt Phillips, London, July 2017
Writer, musician and founder oi soundsoSsmprise.com and movingtheriver.com



The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 4
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Don Ellis is often associated with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor as a proponent of the avant-garde jazz of the late 1950s and early 1960s, However, he generally avoided a radical free-form style, seeking instead to infuse traditional big-band styles with novel or exotic influences, particularly in his use from 1964 of Indian and Near Eastern rhythms. Because he sometimes employed serial and aleatory procedures in his earlier style he has also been identified with the third stream movement; later he renounced these approaches.

Ellis's significance to jazz composition lies in his pioneering use of various techniques and resources: complex meters, the electronic distortion of timbre, amplified trumpet, and the human voice used instrumentally. Perhaps his most important contribution was the use of quarter-tone melodic structures, particularly his invention of a 12-pitch quarter-tone scale for notating blues-type melodic variants. In 1975 Ellis consolidated his experience in this area in the textbook Quarter Tones, just as he had earlier brought together his rhythmic experience in The New Rhythm Book.

As a trumpet player Ellis possessed an agile technique and a fine tone. Influenced by Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, and Clark Terry, he evolved a personal, innovative style, often applying electric amplification and ring-modulated modification to the timbre of the instrument. From 1965 he showed an interest in alternative tuning systems - partly as a result of his interest in the music of Harry Partch - and acquired a quarter-tone trumpet which allowed him to achieve a new subtlety of expression, particularly in traditional blues passage-work.”
- Robert Dickrow, in Barry Kernfeld,Ed., The New Groove Dictionary of Jazz.

As I noted in the introductions to Parts 2 and 3 of the features on the evolution of the Don Ellis orchestra, because Don Ellis [1934-1978] is almost a forgotten figure forty years after his death in 1978, many of his recordings were 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:

[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 comprised of 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.”

Part 2 focused on [1] Don Ellis at The Fillmore/Don Ellis Goes Underground  [BGO CD 1143]

Part 3 focused in [2] Tears of Joy/Connection [BGO CD 1317] 

Part 4 continues by reviewing in detail the third BGO two-fer Shock Treatment/Autumn  [BGO CD 1333] and sharing the annotations contained in the accompanying booklet.


Digby Deal who wrote the following notes for the release of Shock Treatment on CBS Records in 1968 was at the time, the West Coast editor of EYE magazine and a freelance contributor to both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

“ANTONIN ARTAUD (1896-1948), creator of "Theatre of Cruelty", describes in a startling passage from his memoirs the strange sensation of therapeutic electric shock treatment experienced as a patient in a French insane asylum. At the moment when current surged through his body strapped upon a table, Artaud recalls his psychological release to a whole new orientation toward his existence, as though his point of view was fixed at a spot in the ceiling looking down at himself. This new way of perceiving reality became a poetic, as well as philosophical, insight to Artaud, and his elaborations of this new orientation produced revolutionary echoes throughout the world of theatre.

With Don Ellis, the mode is also electrical  - strictly through amplifiers - and, musically speaking, his sonic shock treatment is a whole new way of looking at (and listening to) things. But the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of Don's 21-piece orchestra are far from being a jazz "Theatre of Cruelty". 

What he's got, if you can believe his enthusiastic following, is an Aural
Garden of Earthly Delights. In this album, Don has found his groove in a recording studio, and he transmits that in-person spark with assurance. The band has moved out of the happy confines of jazz clubs in recent dates and into the gyrating scene of rock 'n' roll ballrooms. At the Cheetah, the Kaleidoscope, or the Carousel, kids are dancing frantically under stroboscopic lights to the big electric sounds of a jazz orchestra. Only get this: They're dancing in 7/4! It's like a sociologist's dream come true to see a big band back on the site of the Moulin Rouge (Kaleidoscope) or the Aragon (Cheetah), where the sons and daughters of Depression Era parents are re-enacting those scenes from Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

While Simon and Garfunkel were in listening to the recording session for SHOCK TREATMENT, Paul Simon remarked that one reason the Don Ellis band is gaining popularity with the young audiences is that, like the best rock groups, the Ellis band is speaking out with a musically individual voice. Nat Hentoff once said the same thing when he commented that "Don Ellis is beyond category". It seems strange to recall that just a few years ago, Don was considered some kind of a Third Stream weirdo, playing crazy tempos no one could comprehend with his Hindustani Jazz Sextet. Now the experimentalism and individualism has paid off. Not only has the orchestra succeeded on its own terms, but it has been embraced by the modern music scene (for example, recently Don played on "rock-group" recording dates for both the United States of America and the Mothers of Invention). "Music, like any art, hits you on an emotional level before you dissect it analytically," says Don. "A lot of people relate to the 'sense of life' in our music. I just see it as a new way of swinging."

A new way of swinging, indeed. Take the science fiction sounds of 'Star Children', for example. The distant moon music murmurings of the chorus, singing in shifting tempos, provide a unique setting for Don's trumpet which breaks over the low rumble of brasses. The use of choral elements is a page out of Penderecki and Ray Bradbury, both at the same time. The saxophone section can also be heard playing in octaves with themselves by means of a special electronic device called the Conn Multivider which adds an octave below to their soli lines.

Probably the most obviously experimental composition in this album is ‘The Tihai', inspired by Don's association with Harihar Rao, Ravi Shankar's long time musical colleague. The title is an Indian word which describes a thrice-repeated phrase, rhythmically played in a manner completing the last note of the phrase on the first beat of a new measure (in this case, the phrase which can be heard particularly in the trumpets behind the tenor solo is played over four bars of 7/4). When you've figured that one out, listen closely to the finger-snapping at the opening of the album: although the 7/4 is divided 2-3-2, the snapping accents 2, 3-1/2, 5 and 7. The chanting in the middle of this tune is Don and the band repeating the tihai, utilizing Hindu phrases known as "boles" to articulate the drum rhythms.

But fun-and-games with counting aside, ‘The Tihai' generates a terrific series of musical cross-currents which explode most impressively in the wailing solo work on this cut. Ron Starr on tenor leaps out for the first angular flight in the midst of the rhythmic polyphony and is followed by Mike Lang on piano who plays boogie-woogie phrases against a jagged Latin line in the left hand and comes out swinging. Don complements his work on wa-wa mute throughout this tune with an open trumpet solo which climbs to a shrieking, siren-like climax.

One of Don's finest solo outings, however, is on 'Homecoming', a soulful blues in 3/4, with a little help from his friends on flugelhorns. Ron Starr roars in with genuine ease on the Hank Levy composition 'A New Kind Of Country' and tears up that 7/4 (divided in a fast 2-2-3) beautifully right through to his brief cadenza passage at the end. Here, too, the orchestra demonstrates its facility with ensemble work in unusual time signatures even at up-tempo.

'Mile's Theme' represents a real innovation for the band: a tune in 4/4. ("That's 5/4 minus one," as Don explains it.) The electronic voicing in this particular piece lends that outer space quality to the flutes being played through amplifiers with both reverb and tremolo against Mike Lang's clavinet. After what sounds like a bow in the direction of Claude Thornhill in the arranging, Don plunges into an eerie trumpet solo played first through the Conn Multivider, then with loop delay, and finally an overdub of open trumpet softly in the background, creating a gossamer web of solo sound. 

John Magruder's 'Zim', featuring the composer on baritone sax, is written in 13 (3-3-2 2-3) and is a neat juxtaposition of melodic and rhythmic structure. The brass hit some especially effective rhythmic accent figures in this one.

'Beat Me, Daddy, Seven To The Bar' (divided 3-2-2) opens with a cooking trumpet introduction by Don, which builds to rocking ensemble work. John Magruder on baritone, Mike Lang on piano and Ron Starr on tenor all have some healthy solo space, but the crowning bit on this composition (and one of the best moments on the album) is a drum duet between Steve Bohannon with sticks and Chino Valdes on conga and bongos. They begin by trading fours, then twos, then half bars.

As if to top off a perfect session, the band recorded 'Opus 5' in an unheard of single take. Deciding they liked it exactly this way, as well they should, they left it without a change. The composer of 'Opus 5', Howlett Smith, is a blind pianist who was in Don's UCLA extension course in arranging. And, to add another first, this impressive piece, enhanced particularly by solo passages from Mike Lang and Don, is Mr. Smith's first big band arrangement.

All in all, this album is a welcome step forward for the Don Ellis orchestra and a collection of music worth careful contemporary scrutiny. As mentioned on Electric Bath, this is the best sound modern music has to offer and a welcome revitalizing of a jazz genre. Lovers of the big band sound have suffered for a long time with the Lombardo-Welk schlock treatment; it's high time we had some SHOCK TREATMENT.”
- Digby Diehl, 1968




Al Kooper served as the producer for Autumn and wrote these liner notes for the original LP which was released on CBS in 1968.

“I REMEMBER the day that Clive Davis, President of CBS Records, brought Don Ellis into my office. I owned both his LPs, Electric Bath (63230} and Shock Treatment (63356), and might be considered a fan by anyone's standards. I remember when I was in Blood, Sweat and Tears and I brought Electric Bath to a rehearsal and played it for everyone. I remember noting with flattery the way our albums were often reviewed together and we were called bands moving in the same general direction. But most of all, I remember seeing the Don Ellis band perform for the first time.

The day after I met Don, I journeyed with him in the band bus to Tanglewood where the band was sharing the bill with the Modern Jazz Quartet and Judy Collins. During the five-hour bus trip we talked of many things. I learned about Don's fierce dedication to his music, his concepts and his plans for a forthcoming album. We arrived at Tanglewood and I was surprised to see that Don was closing the show. He was in pretty heavy company and yet no one objected or thought twice about it. I found out why the moment they walked on stage. The band is outfitted by a local (LA) hip clothing store and they all wear velvet-satin puff-sleeve affairs with white turtlenecks beneath. To see them alone is an experience. To hear them... well, words cannot describe blah blah blah... I was so impressed with that evening's performance and the standing ovation and the two encores that I swore that the band must be recorded live at some time in the near future. The band was to leave for Europe the next day, and Don and I made plans to record a new album when they returned.

Upon returning from Europe the band was booked into Boston and then into Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. I was to meet Don and record the band live at Stanford. Don came out a day early to check facilities, etc., and was quite shaken. They had had to cancel the Boston gig because their instruments had not yet arrived from Europe. Frantic calls were made all that day, and I believe they arrived scant hours ahead of the concert. We had our recording equipment ready to go and I was a little frightened myself. The result of this hang-up was that most of the musicians were dying to play, itching to get a hold of their instruments which had been denied them for almost a week. The result of this set of circumstances are 'Indian Lady' and 'K.C. Blues'.

On 'K.C. Blues' Frank Strozier is heard on alto introducing the tune and playing the open choruses. He is followed by John Klemmer on tenor sax and Pete Robinson on Fender piano. The tune, Don says, is based on a classic Charlie Parker solo.

'Indian Lady' first appeared on the Electric Bath album, but the tune had undergone so many changes I suggested we include an updated live version: Don is featured on trumpet, Glenn Ferris on trombone, Pete Robinson on Fender piano, and two brilliant duels. The first is "between" Ellis' two tough tenors, John Klemmer and Sam Falzone. The playing started out on an extremely high level and by the time five minutes passed by I was amazed as they screamed out together through five or six choruses, even putting the band through an impromptu dixieland pseudo-waltz section. You can tell by the audience reaction how it went down and you can barely hear the beginning of the other duet between Ralph Humphrey and Gene Stringing, two of Ellis' trio of outstanding percussionists.

The remainder of the album was recorded in Studio A, CBS Records, Hollywood, by Brian Ross-Myring, who also picked up the Stanford Concert. Ross was the engineer who worked on Don's previous albums.

'Scratt And Fluggs' is sort of a breakdown in 5/ 4 time with the various sections taking up banjo and guitar lines. Don is featured on trumpet and Pete Robinson on tack piano with some curious left-hand work.

Various friends and wives were allowed to cheer the band on. I am responsible for falling over the music stand at the end.

'Child Of Ecstasy' is a Don Ellis composition showcase for lead trumpeter Glenn Stuart. It's a mysterious blend of Eastern and Western mini-influences and features some dazzling pyrotechnics by Glenn.

'Pussy Wiggle Stomp' is a Don Ellis soul tune which is quite different from anybody else's soul tune. It's a 7/4 look at some gospel changes with a recurring theme. Pete Robinson is heard on piano, Sam Falzone on tenor and Ralph Humphrey on drums. This is an especially rewarding track for me because I think we captured some of the band's best playing ever which is so hard to do in the studio. A highlight of this is Don's trumpet solo which jumps octaves and trucks right along even when the band tacets except for some syncopated hand clapping. Humour is prevalent throughout the 47 false endings.

I save Variations For Trumpet' for last because it is a major work. It is divided into six sections which are as follows: Sec.1 - Theme; Sec. 2 - 5/4; Sec. 3 - 9/4; Sec. 4 - 7/4; Sec. 5 - 32/8; Sec. 6 - Theme and Coda.

This is Autumn for Don Ellis and his orchestra. It shows a maturing and cohesiveness far beyond its time (pardon the pun). It is not a cold, steely album. It is quite human; sometimes sad, sometimes joyous, occasionally humorous and variously frightening. But it is, I believe, the sound of our time.”
Al Kooper, 7968


And here are the very extensive notes that Charles Waring prepared for the BGO tw-fer Shock Treatment/Autumn  [BGO CD 1333]. Mr. Waring is a Jazz columnist for Record Collector, contributor to MOJO and co-founder of www.soulandjazzandfunk.com.

"Don ELLIS is beyond category." 
- jazz writer Nat Hentoff

“DON ELLIS died too young, too soon. He was just forty-four years old when he succumbed to a fatal heart attack on the evening of Sunday 17th December 1978 after returning home from a concert given by jazz singer Jon Hendricks. Given the fact that Ellis had been increasingly unwell after being diagnosed with an abnormal heart condition four years earlier, and experienced his first heart attack in 1975, when he almost died, perhaps his demise wasn't a total surprise to those that knew him, but it was certainly a shock nonetheless. At the time, he had just released his second album for his new label, Atlantic Records (Live At Montreux) and still had a voracious appetite to make more new music. But sadly, that wasn't to be.

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 this BGO twofer - combining 1968's Shock Treatment with 1969's Autumn - is the third so far from the redoubtable UK reissue label, which aims to rectify what is a profoundly disappointing situation given Ellis's significance as a musician.

Don Ellis was born on Wednesday 25th July 1934 in Los Angeles, California, to a father who was a Methodist minister and a mother who played the organ in their local church. As there was a piano in the house, he gravitated towards that particular instrument at a young age. "From when I was a little baby," he once told an interviewer, "I would get up at the piano and improvise. I would make up pieces when I was young." Later, he was smitten by jazz and brass music after accompanying his father to a concert by the Tommy Dorsey Big Band. The concert had a profound effect on the young Ellis, as he recalled in a 1978 TV interview: "I'll never forget all these trombone players that came down the front and played 'Seventy-Six Trombones' and I saw these slides going in and out and this marvellous big sound coming out. I said, that's what I want to play, and so I wrote to Santa Claus and said, I want a trumpet for Christmas - now, I actually meant a trombone but I didn't spell too good at that age and so I wrote down trumpet instead of trombone, so I got a bright shiny trumpet for Christmas. Well, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't a trombone but at the same time it was bright and shiny and I played it and in fact, I've played it ever since."

Indeed, Ellis became a trumpet prodigy and when he was a teenager, he went to study music in Boston, eventually earning a degree in composition. By this time, he was totally infatuated with jazz - trumpet mavens Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie were key early influences - and his first serious gig was in 1956, playing in the horn section of the still functioning Glenn Miller Band (even though its leader had died in World War II), then under the direction of Ray McKinley. It proved to be a good learning experience for the young Ellis, who afterwards was conscripted into the US army and was posted to Germany, where he had an opportunity to write and arrange for a military big band.

In 1958, Ellis's mandatory stint in the army came to an end and he ventured to New York City for work, eventually landing a job in fellow trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's band, where he stayed for nine months (playing on the albums A Message From Birdland and Newport Suite) before becoming interested in developments that were happening in the Big Apple's nascent avant-garde scene. He recorded with Charles Mingus on the bassist/composer's Mingus Dynasty LP in 1960 before being recruited to play in the group run by advanced jazz theorist George Russell. It was while he was playing with Russell's innovative sextet in the early '60s that Don Ellis released his debut LP, How Time Passes, on the Candid label, which was billed on the front cover as "third stream jazz", a term coined by jazz academic and composer Gunther Schuller, to describe the fusion between classical music and jazz.

Ellis joined Bob Weinstock's Prestige label later in 1961, recording New Ideas for the company's New Jazz imprint, which was primarily established to showcase contemporary, cutting-edge sounds (avant-garde magus Eric Dolphy was a label mate of Ellis's). It was now patently evident that Ellis wasn't content to play straight bebop but wanted to explore uncharted territory, which became even more apparent on his more overtly experimental album Essence, released on Pacific Jazz in 1962. At this point, the jazz community were beginning to take notice of the young trumpeter, who the same year topped a poll by jazz critics in the influential jazz bible, Downbeat magazine, in the category of New Star.

The first half of the 1960s was a hectic time for Ellis. As well as performing as a soloist with noted classical music conductor Leonard Bernstein in boundary-pushing third stream concert programmes (like Gunther Schuller's 1962 opus, 'Journey Into Jazz'), he also explored experimental music during sojourns to Europe (at concerts in Poland, Germany and Sweden) and on returning home, in 1964, he enrolled at UCLA to study ethnomusicology with Indian-born US sitar and tabla player Harihar Rao, a development which led to Ellis forming the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, where he fused jazz improv with elements from eastern and Asiatic music. The fact that the sextet played with rising counterculture stars the Grateful Dead and Big Brother & The Holding Company at San Francisco's hip Fillmore venue in 1966 reflected a greater open-mindedness to musical cross-pollinations at that time.

But it was his forays into big band music that really caught the ear and in 1966, he started putting a large ensemble together which he dubbed the Don Ellis Orchestra and they recorded a seminal LP called Don Ellis Orchestra Live! At Monterey on Pacific Jazz, which featured all the hallmarks that would come to define Ellis's unique signature style - unusual time signatures and novel orchestral sonorities. It was a performance that blew many people's minds, including eminent jazz writer, Leonard Feather, who remarked in his review of the concert: "I almost wrote that 'he stopped the show cold', but by the time Ellis and his men were through, the stage was an inferno."

Hot on its heels came another incendiary live performance captured on the ensemble's second LP for Pacific Jazz, Live in 3 2/3 4 Time, which marked out Ellis as not only an innovator but also someone who could make the largely extinct big bands relevant again in a jazz-rock context.

In 1967, mighty Columbia Records came calling. Then the home to jazz giants Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk, the company's A&R guru and producer, John Hammond - the man who had 'discovered' Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin - sensed something momentous in Ellis and his 20-strong band's exciting new music and promptly signed them to the label. The first fruit of their marriage was the outrageous Electric Bath, where Ellis upped the ante even further by using a quarter-tone trumpet and electronic delay effects against a musical backdrop that was driven by asymmetrical meters and represented a bold fusion of jazz with the visceral punch of rock music.

This BGO twofer catches up with Ellis in the immediate aftermath of Electric Bath. It's 1968 and 34-year-old Ellis is once again in the studio with A&R veteran John Hammond, then 58, at the helm. Though in terms of its personnel, it had many of the same players that appeared on Electric Bath, the album was attributed only to Ellis, with no mention of his orchestra. Whereas Electric Bath was comprised of only five extended tracks, Shock Treatment had double the amount of songs - ten in all, and most were relatively short (around the three and-half minute mark) interspersed with two longer ones (as opposed to four extended ones on the first Columbia album). It was perhaps a sign that Columbia wanted something more digestible in commercial terms and certainly, some of the tunes were more accessible than those found on Electric Bath. According to the album's original liner notes, Columbia duo Simon & Garfunkel were present as interested onlookers for part of the sessions, which took place on February 14th and 15th of 1968.

'A New Kind Of Country' is a boisterous, funky opener from the pen of Hank Levy (1927-2001), a Maryland-born composer with a penchant for writing charts in unusual time signatures and who had written music for bandleader Stan Kenton. Levy wrote 'Alone' on Electric Bath and also composed 'Whiplash', recorded by Ellis in 1974, which became the title song in the acclaimed 2014 Hollywood movie of the same name about a tyrannical jazz teacher who pushes a drum student to the edge of a breakdown.

'Mercy Maybe Mercy' is another Levy composition, opening with Steve Bohannon's crisp drumbeat in 7/4 time, over which are placed elegant brass charts, followed by solos on soprano sax and organ.

The lightly-swinging modal jazz piece, 'Opus Five' - in 5/4 time, the same metre that Dave Brubeck used for his famous 1960 jazz hit, Take Five' - is the longest and arguably the best cut on the album and was written by US jazz pianist Howlett Smith. It's driven by an ostinato groove and has a pronounced eastern flavour. There's a long passage of acoustic piano extemporization from Mike Lang, followed by Don Ellis, who begins his solo quietly before ramping up the sonic drama and excitement. There's a brilliant passage by the brass section as the rhythm becomes intense due to the introduction of percussion.

The humorously-titled 'Beat Me Daddy, Seven To The Bar' is a Don Ellis tune that starts with his unaccompanied trumpet for thirty seconds before the introduction of a wild, mutant Latin groove -in 7/4 time - that's propelled by clanging percussion. There's some exciting interplay between the brass section and soloists, the latter including pianist Mike Lang and tenor saxophonist Ron Starr, and there's also a drums and percussion breakdown segment where the rhythmic impetus of the piece seems to evaporate before a brief raucous reprise of the main groove heralds an explosive climax.

Propelled by human percussion in the shape of finger snaps, another Ellis composition, 'The Tihai', is initially more ethereal in character. Its title refers to an expression describing a technique found in Indian music where a musical phrase or motif is played three times in succession. It usually starts being played across the beat and then concludes by landing decisively on the beat. This is something that Ellis probably gleaned from working with Harihar Rao, who had himself studied with Indian master Ravi Shankar. The second longest tune on the LP, 'The Tihai' features vibes and muted trumpet in a mellow intro before becoming more vibrant and morphing into a playful but complex, brass-heavy big band workout in 9/4 time. Again, there's a lot of piquant Latin-style colouration in the rhythm section and some dynamic juxtapositions in texture as well as chiaroscuro use of musical light and shade.

The Ellis-penned 'Milo's Theme' opened side two of the first vinyl pressing of Shock Treatment. Ellis creates some striking orchestral sonorities on the intro and plays electric trumpet, using a delay effect that creates horn ricochets. What eventually emerges is an elegant ballad that is exquisitely orchestrated by its composer.

'Star Children' is a cosmic mood piece laced with slivers of Indian sitar and haunting astral choir vocals that wouldn't have been out of place on the soundtrack to the NBC TV sci-fi series, Star Trek, then in its second season in 1967. Against this backdrop, Ellis plays trumpet lines that have an Hispanic inflection. After its gentle start, the piece concludes with crashing brass chords.

'Homecoming' is more down to earth, with strong blues inflections revealed in Ellis's glistening trumpet melody, which glides over a slow, throbbing pulse. It's probably the most traditional big band-sounding song on the album.

It's back to an unorthodox compound tempo with 'Seven Up', whose title alludes to its 7/4 metre. A bright, jaunty piece which is brimming with contrapuntal interplay, it swings blithely despite its unusual time signature (coincidentally, Don Ellis later wrote the soundtrack to a 1973 thriller movie called The Sevens-Ups).

'Zim', written by John Magruder, a saxophonist and woodwind player in Ellis's band, concluded the original first pressing of Shock Treatment. It's initially a more reflective piece, built on an ostinato bass motif which gradually gathers momentum, and is characterised by cleverly interwoven brass parts and call-and-response phrases with the soloists.

Don Ellis was satisfied with the album he presented to Columbia for release but it was when he first heard a copy of the finished product, that he realised something was wrong, and which left him feeling, to use his own words, "embarrassed and not proud". Explaining what had happened in a letter he wrote to Downbeat magazine, he said: "Upon completion of the album, I did the mixing and editing here in California and then sent the finished product to New York. It wasn't until the album was already released that I heard a pressing. Much to my horror, I found that without consulting me the whole album had been changed around  - rejected masters and unapproved takes were used (not the ones which I had selected and edited), the wrong tunes were on the album, unauthorized splices were made which disturbed the musical flow of some of the compositions (beats were even missing from bars), whole sections were cut out, some of these being the high points of the album. Therefore the liner notes, which were done to the original album, do not agree with what is actually on the album, calling attention to solos and high spots which are not there. Also, the wrong personnel is listed on the jacket. When I discovered what had happened I was, naturally, disturbed and asked Columbia to redo the album. They graciously consented and I was able to change the album back to its original form except that I left 'Mercy Maybe Mercy', which my producer particularly liked, in place of 'Zim', which I hope will appear in a future album. Unfortunately, they were not able to call back all the thousands of albums which had already been released. However, they did send a note to the reviewers telling them that the copy which they had received was defective, and to please not review it until they received the corrected copy."

The second, revised, version of the LP had been cut to nine tracks, and slightly juggled the song sequence. 'Seven Up' and 'Zim' had been dropped completely (though they were later reinstated on Koch's 2012 CD reissue} and a new song, 'Night City' (co-written by Ellis), was included which featured mellow close vocal harmonies from an uncredited choir over a psych-soul backbeat.

Thankfully, no controversy and confusion surrounded Don Ellis's next studio opus, Autumn, which was attributed to Don Ellis And His Orchestra and included new member, tenor saxophonist John Klemmer, who would later go on to enjoy a distinguished solo career. This time John Hammond relinquished his role as producer and in his place came Al Kooper, the keyboardist in another path-finding act of the late '60s, jazz-rockers Blood, Sweat & Tears. He described Autumn in his liner notes as "the sound of our time". Two of the cuts - Ellis's take on bebop maestro Charlie Parker's 'K.C. Blues' and the original tune, 'Indian Lady', which was first recorded on 1967's Electric Bath - reflected Kooper's desire to capture the onstage electricity generated by the band in a live context. Both were recorded during a performance at Stanford University in 1968. The remaining four cuts of the album were laid down in Columbia's Hollywood studio.

The opener is 'Variations For Trumpet', a 20-minute epic divided into six parts that begins with a huge explosion of sound that dissolves via a phasing effect to leave a desolate, bittersweet trumpet theme suspended over a shimmering backdrop. The music is embellished with dancing woodwind figures before the theme is restated in a more grandiose manner. A transition section with shards of reverberating, echoing trumpet leads to a more reflective second passage before another recap of the opening theme. 

At around six minutes, a sprightly ostinato passage in 9/4 time introduces the third section of the piece which is peppered with horn solos and lively interplay. At 9:18 into the piece, a fiery Latin fourth section - driven by percolating percussion - is played in a virile 7/4 metre which gradually intensifies and results in some thrilling music; just to complicate matters rhythmically, the piece fragments into a breakdown passage featuring avant-garde style trumpet and piano shards before the tempo picks up at 13:55 for a swirling and vigorous 32/8 tempo. The music hurtles to a noisy climax where the orchestra is drowned out by a veil of white noise before a re-statement of the main theme beginning at 16:21 leading to a concluding coda, where the piece ignites in a blazing cadenza of glory. Producer Al Kooper described 'Variations For Trumpet' as "a major work" and he's not wrong. It's possibly the most impressive piece in Don Ellis's musical legacy.

A contrast in style, tone and duration is heralded by 'Scratt & Fluggs', a short, scruffy, foot-tapping barn dance-style knees-up which is rendered in 5/4 time. Though it sounds like a live track, it was recorded in the studio and according to Al Kooper, the audience whoops and cheers are supplied by 'Various friends and wives (who) were allowed to cheer the band on". When the music stops, the clatter of a falling music stand hitting the floor is clearly audible on the recording. According to Al Kooper in his liner notes, that was his fault: "I am responsible for falling over the music stand at the end," he confessed, with a profound sense of embarrassment.

Less frenetic but no less energetic is the quasi-gospel-jazz romp, 'Pussy Wiggle Stomp', which is initiated by syncopated handclaps. It's also executed in 7/4 but swings like a Muhammad Ali left hook. It's exuberant, playful and humorous, with plenty of solo spots - most notably from Sam Falzone on tenor sax, Pete Robinson on piano, Don Ellis (who blows some incandescent trumpet) and drummer Ralph Humphrey. The piece is also notable for having a mind-blowing forty-seven false endings. Just when you think it's safe to assume the piece has ended, it starts up again.

According to producer, Al Kooper, "I think we captured some of the band's best playing ever," and it's hard not to agree with him. Ellis later released another version, a live one, on 1970's Don Ellis At Fillmore album.

The live big band take on Charlie Parker's 'K.C. Blues' opens with two and-a-half minutes of rhapsodic melodic lines from a lone saxophone (altoist Frank Strozier), before a walking bass and piano begin a lightly swinging jazz-blues gait. Brass explosions signal the entrance of the full band. At four minutes in, John Klemmer's tenor sax picks up the baton, counterpointed by some slick horn interchanges. Rhythmically, the piece morphs into an infectious shuffle groove with densely-textured parts around the six-minute mark as it moves towards a noisy climax. A lull in the sonic drama allows Pete Robinson to show off his piano skills on the Fender Rhodes before the full band re-enter and initiate a frantic finale.

Beginning with a layered trumpet fanfare, the ballad 'Child Of Ecstasy' spotlights the Ellis orchestra's lead trumpeter, Glenn Stuart, who shows himself to be more than equal to the task. He hits some ear-splitting high notes at the song's conclusion.

Ellis fans would have already been familiar with the Eastern-influenced 'Indian Lady', one of the highlights of 1967's Electric Bath album. At 17-and-a-half minutes long, this live version (recorded in Palo Alto at Stanford University) is double the length of the original studio version. Explaining the decision to include another rendition on the album so soon after the studio version, producer Al Kooper said: "The tune had undergone so many changes I suggested we do an updated live version." Taken at break-neck speed - imagine the Count Basie band ramped-up on speed - it presents a series of wild solos (Ellis, trombonist Glenn Ferris and pianist Pete Robinson) before featuring a couple of combative duels. The first is a long one between Ellis and the jousting tenor saxophones of John Klemmer and Sam Falzone, over a rhythmic pulse that can only be described as frenzied. The second pits drummer Ralph Humphrey against percussionist Gene Strimling before a recapitulation with the full band at 14:23, who seem to be powered by rocket fuel. There are a couple of false endings, too, which shows that despite the intensity and seriousness of the music, humour wasn't entirely absent. Unsurprisingly, given what they had just witnessed, the audience reaction at the end is floor-stompingly tumultuous. They had seen a new kind of large jazz ensemble that had were taking big band music to a new, higher, level.

But the Don Ellis Orchestra wasn't just any big band. They blurred the strict demarcation lines between jazz, rock, classical and world music. And they didn't look like jazz musicians. According to Al Kooper, "the band is outfitted by a local (LA) hip clothing store and they all wear velvet-satin puff-sleeve affairs with white turtlenecks beneath." They looked more like rock stars, reflecting a time when some of the more adventurous and forward-looking musicians in the jazz community were keen to fuse jazz with other types of music to make it appear more relevant to younger listeners. On that level, the Don Ellis Orchestra succeeded. At a time when bebop was dying and the avant-garde scene was making jazz more esoteric, they breathed new life into the genre with the thrilling kind of musical cross-pollination that can be found on the two albums in this collection.

After Autumn, Ellis stayed with Columbia for four more albums - The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground, Don Ellis At Fillmore, Tears Of Joy and Connection (all these titles are available in twofer sets by BGO). While he was still at Columbia, Ellis began a parallel career scoring movie soundtracks. It was his second one, for the multi-award-winning 1971 William Friedkin film, The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman as tough cop 'Popeye' Doyle on the trail of a narcotics gang, that brought Ellis's name firmly into the consciousness of the mainstream public. Ellis won a Grammy for his score and also wrote the soundtrack to the sequel, French Connection II, in 1975, as well as other gritty crime thrillers like The Seven-Ups.

After leaving Columbia Records in 1972, Ellis joined German label MPS in 1973, where he issued two fine albums - Soaring and Haiku - before health issues curtailed his activities. He was eventually diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease that affects the heart muscle and can cause irregular heartbeats and increases the risk of sudden cardiac death. In 1975, Ellis suffered a heart attack and almost died. In fact, he claimed before he was resuscitated, that he had a near-death experience. "It sounds weird, I know, but it was a remarkably beautiful experience, maybe the ultimate high," he told interviewer Don Heckman in Downbeat magazine in 1977.

Though he must have felt he was living with the sword of Damocles hanging over him, Ellis recovered sufficiently to recommence working and signed to Atlantic Records in 1977, where he released a brace of albums. But in 1978, Ellis was ordered to stop playing trumpet by his doctor because of the stress it placed on his heart. He heeded his doctor's advice but a few months later, he died from a heart attack.

Unequivocally, Ellis's early death has contributed to his obscurity. If he had lived longer, he may have found a bigger audience for his music and been more widely recognised for his accomplishments. As it is, though, he's not afforded the respect that his talent and innovative music deserved. The two albums in this BGO compilation are a reminder of Don Ellis' unique musical gifts, highlighting not only his virtuosic trumpet playing but also his brilliance as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. Playing electric trumpet and using effects like an Echoplex and a ring-modulator several years before Miles Davis, he was undoubtedly a pathfinding genius who was ahead of his time. Above all, Don Ellis was original, fearless, uncompromising, driven, and never content to reheat old ideas and repeat the past. To use Star Trek parlance, he was not afraid to boldly go where no musician had been before.”
- Charles Waring, 2018



The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 5 - "The Avant-Garde Is Not The Avant Garde"
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Ellis's significance lies in his use of groundbreaking musical techniques and devices, new to the world of jazz. Ellis's innovations include the use of electronic instalments, electronic sound-altering devices, experiments with quarter tones, and the infusion of 20th-century classical music devices into the jazz idiom. Ellis's greatest contributions, however, came in the area of rhythm.

New rhythmic devices ultimately became the Don Ellis trademark. His compositions frequently displayed lime signatures with numerators of 5, 7, 9, 11, 19, 25, 33, etc.  His approach within more conventional time signatures could be equally innovative through the use of rhythmic superimpositions. Ellis's rhythmic innovations-dcspitc much criticism - were not gimmicks, but rather a direct result of his studies in non-Western musical cultures, which included graduate work at UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology.

"Exotic rhythms" is a term used by the author as a categorical description of Ellis's innovative rhythmic devices. The expression "odd meters" is often used to describe the rhythmic innovations of Ellis. However, Ellis's innovations extend above and beyond issues concerning metrical structure and time signatures alone, as this dissertation will demonstrate. Additionally, although the phrase "odd meters" may in some cases have the appropriate implications, the word "odd" inherently limits the implied definition to meters with odd-numbered numerators - a much too restricting limitation to Ellis's approach. The author's choice of the term "exotic rhythms" addresses both the unconventional nature of Ellis's new metrical and rhythmic constructions, and indicates their non-Western inspiration. The term "exotic" has come to imply origins from another country or culture, out-of-the-ordinary, or excitingly-strange - all of which to appropriately describe Ellis's rhythmic concepts.

Ellis ultimately applied his experiences and knowledge of the music of non-Western cultures to the rhythmic language of jazz. He was one of the first to have accomplished such a fusion of ideas, and his work as a composer and an author stand as a memorial reflecting a significant stage in the evolution of jazz. This dissertation will attempt to assess the significance of the achievements of Don Ellis by examining his life, his writings, and his music.”                                            
- Sean P. Fenlon, Doctoral Dissertation, Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University

The JazzProfiles feature on the evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra continues with the interviews and essays that appeared in Downbeat magazine in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Avant-Garde Is Not The Avant Garde by Don Ellis appeared in the June 30, 1966 edition of Downbeat.

The distinctions that Don drew in this piece were crucial to understanding his music, but, unfortunately, most people missed them at the time because they were not listening.

In a nutshell, what he was saying is that throwing up all over your instrument is not avant-garde, nor was it music. It was in fact, noise [Don was kinder and labeled it “musical incoherence”].

“IF THE AVANT-GARDE Constitutes those artists in the forefront of their particular art, artists blazing trails with the newest techniques, then, after some reflection, one must admit that the current avant-garde of jazz is no longer really avant-garde.

By current avant-garde I refer to those playing the type of music associated with such musicians as Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and most of the artists of E.S.P. records catalog.

The predominant elements of this music (such as the lack of a definite rhythmic pulse or melodic or structural coherence, the use of myriads of fast notes with no overall direction, the at-one-time-unusual shrieks, honks, and bleats) have now become commonplace and cliched. And as for "newness" itself, these elements all date back some years.

It should be obvious that there are certain musical techniques that, although perhaps startlingly new and different when introduced by the originator, become trite and hackneyed when reiterated by others. All of the above fall into this category. (They may still be used, of course, but need to be incorporated into an original, meaningful structure.)

The current avant-garde movement began for sound musical reasons: the old (bebop) style of jazz had become stale. Most of the players — even the originators — were usually repeating overused, worn-out formulas that had lost their freshness and significance. There was need for change.

Everything had become so codified into pat rules that most were afraid to do anything else. Jazz musicians needed to lose their (musical) inhibitions — to be unafraid to try something new and different, to take some chances. If nothing else, the best of the avant-garde has succeeded in making (even rather traditional) jazzmen loosen up a bit, to reach out for some new ideas.

In the beginning the artistic need was there. Jazz sprang out in many directions at once. Every avant-garde jazzman seemed to have his own conception of the right way to make the breakthrough. It was an exciting and creative period. In view of this, it makes one all the more sad to see it degenerating into musical incoherence —with pseudo-mystical pronouncements and political nonsense thrown in besides.

If this type of avant-garde music, with its incessant chattering and stream-of-conscious meandering, is no longer avant-garde, what is?

Using the aforementioned definition of avant-garde, those artists who could be classified as truly in the forefront of the art would be playing music characterized by the following:
•  Music based  on solid audible structural  premises (the opposite of the  musical doodling now so prevalent).
•  Music that is well conceived and thought out (as opposed to the "don't bother me with technical details, man; I don't need to develop my ear, artistic  sensitivity, musical knowledge, instrumental technique—I'm playing pure emotion" school).                 
•  Music with  new rhythmic  complexity, based  on a swinging pulse with new meters and superimpositions.
•  Music   with melodies   based on principles of musical coherence, utilizing the new rhythms along with new intervals (pitches).
•  Music  making use of new  harmonic idioms based on principles of audible  coherence (in contradistinction to the everybody-for-himself-with-12 tones-go! school).

One might ask that if, with all this talk about the avant-garde, being avant-garde is really important? The answer would be: basically, musical worth or greatness is of the ultimate importance. Whether something is avant-garde or not has no bearing on this.

Being avant-garde can be of importance if the prevalent style of music has become stagnant. It then becomes mandatory to find new ways to express musical thought. The main thing, however, is to produce great music.

Speaking of the avant-garde that breaks away from the mainstream, there are two general directions it can follow: 1. it may break away and do something "new" at all costs — whether of value musically or not — thus denying the importance of musical intelligence, sensibility, or sensitiveness; 2. it may he aware of the need for a change and attempt to construct new ideas that offer a way out of a given musical dilemma, giving new meaning to music — an "enhanced" view of music that would enable the music to be more exciting and would portray profound musical intelligence on all levels.

An analogy would be a man who wants to build a new type of airplane. He could be in the avant-garde by doing one of two things: 1. building an airplane with a fantastic new design — the only problem being that it can't fly (don't bother him with details); 2. building an airplane with perhaps radically new principles but one that nevertheless improves or enhances the idea of airplaneness. In short, this one looks and flies better.

I suggest that musicians and listeners interested in being in the forefront of their art but still concerned about creating great art, rather than preaching political doctrine or expunging themselves emotionally, check carefully to see on which side of the avant-garde fence they are sitting.”

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


Regarding his own work in the late 1960s, Ellis said, "Music, like any art, hits you al an emotional level before you dissect it analytically. A lot of people relate to the 'sense of life' in our music. I just see it as a new way of swinging"
- Sean P. Fenlon, Doctoral Dissertation, Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University

The JazzProfiles feature on the evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra continues with the interviews and essays that appeared in Downbeat  magazine in the 1960s and 1070.

Times for Revolution an interview with Don Ellis by Pete Welding appeared in the April 20, 1967 edition of Downbeat.

Much of the information in this article has appeared subsequently in other writings about Don but what is important to keep in mind about this interview is that it is a primary source. It’s not a secondary source regarding Don and his music written by a researcher, but rather, Don himself talking about what he attempting to do with his music in response to interview questions that were put directly to him by Pete Welding.

His ability to articulate his approach to big band Jazz cogently and coherently is as much a part of Don genius as the music himself, because it was imperative that it be taught to others in order for it to come into existence. Don knew that his conception was but one part of the equation; the execution of this concept formed the other half and he had to teach it to others before it could be realized.

“IT DOESN'T LOOK LIKE the headquarters of a revolution. At first glance, in fact, there is little to distinguish it from its neighbor "antique" shops, job printers, and electronics stores that cluster on West Los Angeles' Melrose Ave.

It's a strange location for a jazz club.

Still, Bonesville is not only a busy, important club in its own right but, in its capacity as home base for the Don Ellis Orchestra, serves as a kind of operational and rallying center for the dissemination of the leader's ideas.
While there are no manifestoes tacked on the door, a revolution has been taking place—and none too quietly—within the club's walls for a number of months. In the last year and a half, trumpeter Fills, first at Ihe Club Havana and lately at Bonesville, has forged a totally new jazz orchestra, and what the band has been doing under his zealous guidance is, in a real sense, revolutionary.

What strikes one most forcibly upon seeing the band is the rhythm section— three drummers and three, sometimes four, bassists. The remainder of the group's instrumentation is relatively orthodox: four trumpets, three trombones, five reeds, and piano/organ.

When the band starts playing, however, the reason for the expanded rhythm section is evident. The music is rhythmically exciting to a degree unmatched by any other jazz orchestra. The bassists and drummers set up a fantastically complex, elaborate rhythmic counterpoint, over which the orchestra rides with tremendous power.

While there is superbly disciplined ensemble and section playing, plus excellent solo work from a number of the horn men, the orchestra's forte is most evidently its consummate execution of difficult time signatures and its effortless way with forceful, emotion-charged rhythmic polyphony of an intricacy and subtlety not heard in orchestral jazz before.

The power the hand generates is almost physical.

Excitement is the orchestra's stock in trade, and the greater part of this, Ellis says, is attributable to the band's approach to rhythm. This is an outgrowth of his own long preoccupation with the subject, as he noted in an article in the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival program brochure :

"Rhythm was the main thing that attracted me to jazz: both in the excitement of swing and the complexity of the cross-rhythms. For many years now I have been trying to conceive of new ways to expand jazz rhythms. Alternation of 4's and 3*s was one of the first things that occurred to me, and then I tried experiments of 'stretching' the time by means of accclerandos and ritardandos. 'Free' rubato time (so common to the avant-garde today) also proved interesting, as did the possibility of having several tempos going at once.

"The next step was to attempt to play things in 7/4 and 9/4. Arif Mardin, the Turkish jazz composer, gave me a chart in 9, divided 2-2-2-3, that was based on a Turkish folk rhythm, and made me more aware of the fact that the odd-numbered meters, which at first seem so exotic and difficult to us, are really very natural and a part of the folk culture of much of the world….

"I reasoned that since it was possible to play in a meter such as a 9, divided 2-2-2-3, it should then be possible to play in meters of even longer length, and this led to the development of such meters as 3-3-2-2-2-1-2-2-2 (19). To arrive at this particular division of 19, I tried many different patterns, but this was the one that swung the most.

"The longest meter I have attempted to date is a piece in 85. But this isn't so far fetched as one might think at first, because at the department of ethnomusicology at UCLA I learned of one folk song with a 108-beat cycle."
Most of these experiments in rhythmic elaboration were conducted on his own through a tedious process of hit-and-miss investigation.

Ellis was feeling his way toward rhythmic sophistication; the process was considerably accelerated when he moved to the West Coast in 1962 to pursue graduate studies in UCLA's music department.

He met Hari Har Rao, an .Indian sitarist and former pupil of Ravi Shankar who was teaching in the university's ethnomusicology department. Ellis enrolled in Rao's class in Indian music, supplementing this with private studies with Rao.

Ellis recently recalled the meeling:

"It's been a continuing interest of mine to develop rhythmic ideas, but it wasn't until I got out here and started studying Indian music with Hari Har Rao that I truly realized that there's a whole other world of rhythm. I knew about rhythm and swing and time and different meters— I had even written that piece in 19/4 long before I had met Hari Har—but it wasn't until I met him that I realized how far advanced Indian musicians were rhythmically and how far behind we were in our culture. It's when you understand the subtleties in their music that you see how incredible it is."

Some time before he met Rao, when he was getting interested in rhythms, Ellis bought recordings of Indian music and listened to them. He found it all very nice, even exciting, he said, but it wasn't until he had met Rao that he realized that, even though he had been listening to the music, he had no idea what was going on.


"In fact," he said, "most of the time what I had thought was, say, a downbeat wasn't even close to it. I had no idea what they were really doing until I started studying it. I'll wager that there's no possible way for anyone who hasn't studied the music to understand it; it really takes conscious study. Not that you can't just listen to it and get something out of it, but you can't listen to it and even keep the basic beat unless you've studied it. The cycles are so much more complex."

Because rhythm is his main interest, Ellis went on, his all-consuming passion has become to develop himself as far as he can rhythmically and, as a sort of byproduct, to get these rhythms permeating throughout the whole popular culture ("it's already happening now," he said), getting people aware that there's more than 4/4 and 3/4 and that even within them there's a lot more that can be done with them in terms of rhythmic subtlety and sophistication.

"In the beginning," Ellis wrote for Monterey, "there used to be two arguments against playing jazz in these new rhythms and meters: 1) They are not natural. And my answer was: not natural to whom? They are natural to a great portion of the world's peoples. 2) You can do the same thing in 4/4. This is ridiculous; if one can't play comfortably in 5 and 7, for example, how can one hope to superimpose these correctly over 4/4? Also, superimposing any other meter over 4/4 is nor the same thing as playing in that meter exclusively."

Ellis’ formation, with Rao, of the Hindustani Jazz Sextet followed. It was an inevitable outgrowth of the two musicians' mutually interdependent interests. Ellis was by now totally engaged with the rhythms of the East, while Rao was interested in coming to a fuller understanding of jazz. It was a fruitful association. Ellis described his debt to Rao:

"He opened up undreamed-of new worlds of rhythm that he and his teacher, Ravi Shankar, had worked out. I learned exercises for developing the ability to superimpose complicated rhythm patterns one on the other, ways of counting to be able to always keep my place in a given cycle, no matter how long or involved.

"He showed me how to arrive at new rhythmic ideas, the proper ways of working these out and practicing them. It was a tremendously exciting and rewarding experience."

The Hindustani Jazz Sextet enjoyed considerable popular success wherever it played on the West Coast, the trumpeter recalled, though he also remarked that he and Rao were unable to interest a record company in the potential of the group. In the summer of 1963, Ellis decided to expand the sextet to orchestra size.

"I figured that with a bigger band," he said, "it would be easier to get the gospel spread as to the new rhythms, because we'd be exposing more of the musicians to it. Also, I've always loved the big-band sound—that was my original interest when I first started listening to jazz."

The band, which rehearsed weekly for about half a year, rehearsed on Wednesday mornings al the musicians union.

The instrumentation was that of the standard jazz orchestra, with only one bassist and one drummer. The first phase of the Ellis orchestra ended when, later that year, he went back east.

ATTENDING THE Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where he was a member of the Lukas Foss Ensemble, Ellis worked for a while with another rehearsal band, led by trumpeter Sam Noto, and also formed a small group for playing gigs in the Buffalo area.

To lend added rhythmic interest to this latter group's work, he employed two bassists and two drummers. Had he been able to find more qualified rhythm players in the area, he said, he would have added them to the section.

Experiencing some difficulty in getting from the drummers what he required of them, Ellis finally had to learn to play drums himself—"at least enough to demonstrate what I wanted them to do," he said.

Returning to Los Angeles in the summer of 1965, Ellis immediately set out to re-form the big band. His ideas for the generation of rhythmic complexity within the framework of a large orchestra had crysta!iized sufficiently for him to embark on the difficult task of recruiting a rhythm section considerably larger than the standard one.

He felt that the new rhythms, if they were to work in the big-band format, required at least three bassists and an equal number of percussionists. Finding the right men was not easy.

"I started auditioning rhythm-section men." he recalled, "and I was lucky at first, because I found two of my most important bassists, Ray Neapolitan and Chuck Domanico, right off. It was at a rehearsal of Paul Moer's band that I met Chuck and his best friend, Ray, who was also a bassist.

"They started making the early rehearsals with me—that is, without the rest of the band; we were just trying  to get the rhythm section set, since it is so crucial to the band's total conception.

"It's interesting—we went through almost every drummer who was in town and auditioned them, and we couldn't really find anyone who could play the rhythms. The guys would come in—and some of them were very big names—sit down, and we'd start, but after a bar they'd be completely lost, had no idea where they were. They were rather embarrassed.

"It was suggested to me by a young altoist. Tom Scott, that there was an organist in town who also played drums—a young guy, Steve Bohannon. Tom thought that he might be able to do the thing. So we had him come in, and he sat down and asked, 'Well, what's the subdivision? We told him whatever it was. I said, 'Oh, it's 19; it's divided 3-3-2-2-2-1-2-2-2.' He said okay, and I counted off the tempo, and he just played it, and he's never had any problem with whatever rhythm I would set up. He just plays it. I attribute that to the fact that he doesn't know that it's supposed to be hard. "So Steve came in and ever since then has been the foundation of the rhythm section."

Then there was the late Ross Pollock, a drummer who studied with Hari Har Rao. Both Bohannon and Pollock were still in high school at the time they started with the band. Pollock, Ellis said, in just the half-year he was with the band, "developed fantastically" but died in a tragic elevator accident while touring Europe with another group. "This was a great blow to all of us in the band, personally and professionally," Elis said. "Everyone was wondering what would happen to the band, because he was one of the powerhouses of the rhythm section.

"Luckily, however, we found a young guy, Alan Estes, who was a friend of Bohannon's. Al wasn't basically a set drummer; he was a mallet man, but he could play the rhythms. So he converted to the standard drum set and has been with us ever since."

With the major rhythm problems relatively solved, Ellis assembled the brass and reed sections and initialed full orchestra rehearsals at the union. The group rehearsed throughout the summer and underwent considerable personnel change.

"Guys would come in and go out," Ellis recalled. "This was a process of determining whether what we were doing was for them and whether they were for us. But now the personnel basically has settled; the nucleus of the band has been with me from the start."

In the band now are Glenn Stuart, Alan Weight, Ed Warren, Bob Harmon, trumpets; Dave Wells, Dave Sanchez, trombones; Terry Woodson, bass trombone; Ruben Leon, Joe Roccisano, Ira Schulman, Ron Starr, John Magruder, reeds; Dave Mackay or Roger Kellaway, piano, organ; Ray Neapolitan, Chuck Domanico, Bill Plummer, Frank DelaRosa, basses; and Steve Bohannon, Alan Estes, and Chino Valdes, drums.

From the weekly practice sessions at the union, the band moved to the Club Havana, on the Sunset Strip, in late September, 1965, playing there on Mondays until moving to Bonesville several months ago.

Of the men in the band, Ellis remarked, "A lot of the guys are school teachers. We have one lawyer. Some guys work days, and others are full-time musicians. This makes for a certain stability. In fact, I have more problems with the men who are full-lime musicians. One of our trombone players, for example, wasn't getting enough work around town, so he had to go on the road for a few months to get some money together. That sort of thing presents problems. That's why I've tried, as much as possible, to stick to guys who are doing studio work or something else that keeps them in town, whether teaching school or whatever."
This regular work over a long period gave the men sufficient opportunity to get the kinks out of playing unfamiliar meters, which were from the first the band's signal feature.

This process was to take some time, for there is a considerable difference between merely being able to play the unusual rhythms and playing them with crispness, authority, and naturalness.


"In teaching the band these new rhythms I have found that the hardest thing is to learn to tap one's foot unevenly," Ellis has noted. "Usually the 5's come most easily (pairing in a subdivision of 2-3 or 3-2), then the 7's and 9's follow—each one usually being progressively more difficult. Once one is used to patting one's feet unevenly, the longer, more complex patterns are relatively easy. ... I remember our delight when . . . after struggling like mad to feel comfortable in a fast 7 (divided 3-2-2), I brought in a chart in 32/3 /4 time (11) and the band played it at sight! That was a turning point because they realized that now they could count almost any rhythmic pattern at sight. The time barrier had been broken."

Recently Ellis recalled, "Just getting the band to play a chart in a 7 or something like that and feel natural in it—it took about a year for the band to settle into it. That happened just before we went to Monterey—that is, when the guys really felt secure in the rhythms."

THE BAND'S playing at the Monterey festival—its first engagement other than Monday nights at Bonesville—came as a revelation to everyone who heard it at the Sunday afternoon program of "new jazz." The group's great fluency in the projection of exciting rhythmic counterpoint was revealed in number after number, each played with verve, wit, impeccable drive, and a complete lack of self-consciousness. The difficult rhythms and meters sounded thoroughly natural.

The group repeated its success three weeks later at the Pacific Jazz Festival at Costa Mesa, Calif., 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Ellis arranged for the taping of the band's festival appearances and, through a firm he directs, Ellis Music Enterprises, produced and sold the albums to Pacific Jazz' parent label, Liberty records. Pacific Jazz says it plans to issue at least iwo LPs of the performance.

The recordings, Ellis hopes, will create a demand for the orchestra and the music he has been nurturing so lovingly these last 20 months of Monday nights.

With interest in the tonality and rhythms of Indian music increasing daily, Ellis said he feels that it is only a matter of lime before the band is discovered and taken up by large segments of the public.

"I'd like nothing better than lo get people dancing to the new rhythms," he said. "I know it's going to happen, because the rock groups have already started using these rhythms. It's just a matter of time; il could happen almost overnight. If the thing starts catching on, everybody will be doing it. Even if it doesn't catch on right away, it will filter down little by little, so that in the next 10 to 20 years the whole scene will have changed rhythmically."

Ellis, perhaps characteristically, seems in no particular hurry to force acceptance of the orchestra.

He explained that he is not especially eager to embark on the usual grueling round of one-nighters, long bus trips, separation from family, and all the other inconveniences of road-band living.

Ellis has had enough of this, the result of his several years as sideman with the bands of Herb Pomeroy, Ray McKinley, Sam Donahue, Claude Thornhill, Charlie Barnel, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, and Maynard Eerguson, as well as with various small groups including George Russell's highly experimental sextet.

The idea! situation, Ellis opined, would be that in which the band played a certain number of concert-dances at select locations during the year, spending the bulk of the time working in Los Angeles-area clubs, with perhaps several weeks in Las Vegas, Nev.

An increased demand for the services of the orchestra would perhaps permit the leader more free time to pursue additional studies and to write for the band. Currently much of his time is taken up with teaching, fulfilling studio calls, and working several nights a week in a successful local Latin band.

It is evident that Ellis is a strong-willed person, well informed and highly articulate, with opinions on a variety of subjects, particularly music and the music business. If his ideas at first seem somewhat unconventional, conversation reveals that he has well-thought-out reasons to support all of them. His continued creativity and the existence of his orchestra is perhaps the best and most meaningful illustration of Ellis' ability to operate successfully in both idealistic and practical worlds.

His comments regarding his preoccupation with Indian music and its recent seepage into U.S. popular music are pertinent and appropriately well framed.

"I think it’s something that's in the air," he said of the growing interest in Eastern music. "With Hari Rao we were the first Western musicians ever to play with an Indian musician over an extended period of time. Of course, there have been situations in which Indian musicians were brought in to record and a jazz musician was thrown in with them, but no one knew what the other side was doing. But this was the first time that an Indian musician really wanted to learn what was happening in jazz and the jazz musicians really wanted to find out what was happening in Indian music-—and to see what could be dune by taking the best elements of both and putting them together.

"It's curious—we made recordings of the group [Hindustani Jazz Sextet] but could never get a record company interested. We played engagements all around Los Angeles and were always successful and well received; the group was quite in demand.

"Then—I don't know how it happened— but the Beatles picked up on the sound of the sitar, and all of a sudden it automatically became the thing to do. It then went directly to the pop field, which is now taking it on very big; strangely enough, it's now filtering back to the jazz field.

"It's funny how those things will happen— the jazz guys will sometimes innovate a thing, and everybody will ignore it. Then a pop group will take it, make it popular, and then all the jazz musicians will start doing it.

"But all the groups that have used the sound of India, so to speak, have taken the easy way out. Just lo have the sound of the sitar and the drones—immediately you associate it with Indian music…. But none of them have yet gone into what I think is the most valuable contribution that Indian music can make lo our culture and that's the rhythmic. None of them have gotten into that, probably because that's so difficult."

Another problem faced by the group's attempting to integrate the sound of Indian music and that of Western music, Ellis continued, is their incomplete understanding of the nature of Indian music; this has led some lo attempt lo try to incorporate an Indian melodic or rhythmic cycle bodily into a Western jazz or pop piece.

"I haven't taken, say, an Indian cycle and used it," Ellis said. "What I have done is to take the techniques that have been taught me for working rhythmically and asked: how can I get this to swing, how can we put it in a jazz context? I've done it that way, which is just another way of enriching the general jazz vocabulary by adding a new technique. But it's not a grafting on, whereby you merely take a specific Indian cycle or such and incorporate it bodily . . . that's what a lot of the other groups have done. They've taken one thing—say. the sound of drone and sitar—and put it in and have it play something that's entirely foreign to it."

Ellis went on to speak of the use of tonality in his orchestra and the debt to both Indian music and one innovating American composer:

"As far as tonality goes," he said, "the conscious influence has been Harry Partch, who's living out here now. Harry, of course, has set up a whole other system of musical intonation, and he was the one who really made me aware of just how abominable the equal-temperament system is.

"Now, jazz musicians and folk musicians always have found ways to get around equal temperament. You've doubtless heard a blues musician get on a blue note and just by sort of bending that note around, he'll get the whole club screaming—just by manipulating that one tone just very slightly. This is something that shows the great emotional power of tonality."

Comparing the "handful of scales" in Western music with the "literally thousands” in Indian music, Ellis remarked:

"We're really only touching the surface of melodic music. Western music developed in another sense—in the harmonic and formal areas—but I think it's time now to go back and start re-examining some of these things . . . like the basic problems of intonation, the system of tuning.

"For this reason I've developed a quarter-tone trumpet. It's funny—I can play some of the traditional blues licks with the aid of the fourth valve and get that same feeling but in quite a different way than guys have done before, having had to use their lips solely for the thing. Also, it gives me that much more of a chance to get at any pitch I want. With the aid of my lips and the extra valve, I'm that much closer. So that's opened up a whole new world for me too."

Ellis indicated some of the problems encountered in attempting to adapt the playing of microtones to large ensembles.

"In Indian music," he said, "they usually have only one melodic instrument and one drone, because the intonation has to be so fine . . . when you get into these microtones. It's hard enough to get guys to play in tune in a normal sense; the more people you have, the harder it is, because just one person out of tune throws the whole section out of tune. So, in a large orchestra you have to think not in terms of such minute quantities (at least right now) but in terms of a larger concept of tonality.

"However, I've written a piece that the band plays in a quarter-tone scale. I've worked it out so that the trumpets can do it by false-fingering; for the trombones, of course, there's no problem; the saxophones have to use their lips, but they don't play the notes that aren't near some note on their horns."

The band's arrangements, primarily by Ellis, are for the most part in the unusual time signatures that are its forte. "I've welcomed anything that's in our groove," Ellis explained, "and that's more or less what I tell an arranger who says he'd like to write something for the band. 'That's fine,’ I say. 'We'll take almost anything that's not in 3 or 4.'"

Arrangers from within the band include altoists Leon, Scott, and Roccisano, trombonist Myers, trumpeter Harmon, and pianist Mackay.

"A lot of the arrangements," Ellis explained, "are quite loose, so that I can bring in different sections at will. I can change them around while we're playing them. This isn't particularly new to jazz, however, because the older bands, when they didn't read music, did the same thing. So it's probably a departure from what has been conventional practice for the last 10 years or so but not necessarily radically new to jazz. As far as voicings and the like go, I have my own devices I have tried and used in the overall sound of the band, which I don't think you'll find in any other band."

Stan Kenton, an orchestral innovator in his own right, remarked recently lhat the next few years will see a renaissance of the big band—but a big band with a difference, not merely offering re-creations of what has gone before. Kenton said he felt that jazz was about to break out of its doldrums into a period of "new vitality injected by rhythmical innovations." "We're at the brink of an exciting new era," he said, "an era that will fuse many types of music we have previously heard separately."

When the new big-band ecumenism starts swelling, Ellis and his 20 disciples of the new rhythms and the new big-band gospel will be ready.”  

   

The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 7 "From Satchmo to Miles"
        
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


For the next segment in our continuing series on the evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra, circa 1964-1978, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles turns to the chapter on Don Ellis in Leonard Feather’s From Satchmo to Miles.

The fact that there is a chapter on Don in this book [published in 1972] is significant in itself as the other chapters in the book are based on those Jazz musicians who exerted a great influence on the shape of the music including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Norman Granz, Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles and Miles Davis.

Rarified company, indeed, as Leonard explains in his introduction “From Satchmo to Miles … incorporates firsthand observations of a dozen figures, all of whom, I feel, have been vital to the development and advancement of jazz ….

I admit to having chosen these personalities very selectively. If you look for Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton, whose importance I would not wish in any way to belittle, either explicitly or implicitly, perhaps it should be pointed out that their exclusion does not mean that an essential aspect of jazz in the past forty years has been neglected. Count Basic is at least as valid a representative of the swing era as Goodman; Don Ellis in many ways offers a present-day parallel to Kenton.”

“JUST AS RAY CHARLES has succeeded in wiping out artificial barriers between jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and related idioms, so has the general trend of recent years indicated an increased anxiety on the part of innumerable musicians not to think or operate in terms of categories.

More and more often we have heard such statements as, "I don't want to be labeled a jazz musician," "Jazz and rock must draw from one another," "Jazz is a white man's word," and various dogmatic remarks telling us that jazz in some way inhibits the performer's freedom, and must yield the right of way to a new music, free of the stigma allegedly implicit in that word.

It remains unquestionably a matter of fact rather than opinion that jazz today is alive, that even those artists who abhor the word continue to play the music, that it is taught more extensively than ever at the school and college levels, that concerts and festivals are staged in its name.

Since the late 1960s the changes in jazz have been more fundamental and have evolved at a more accelerated pace than at any previous period. On the one hand, musicians are demolishing the fences, opening the way toward the new, nameless idiom that represents their concept of a musical Utopia; on the other hand, factionalism, particularly in the form of racial separatism, has tended to draw the performers away from each other, polarizing a music in which unification has long been an objective.

These contradictory cross-currents are nowhere better illustrated than in the cases of Miles Davis and Don Ellis. Both are generally accepted as innovative jazz musicians; both are composers who play trumpet and flugelhorn; both have become deeply involved in the use of amplified instruments, wah-wah pedals, ring modulators, and other devices that control and distort what we have always thought of as "natural" sounds.

Despite these superficial similarities, however, the worlds of Ellis and Davis overlap only minimally. The most conspicuous difference between them is that while Ellis is primarily interested in experimentation with big-band jazz, Davis has given new directions to small combo music. Don talks to his audiences at length about the subdivisions of 9/4, 7/8, 9/8, or 3/2 they are about to hear; Miles, who does not find it necessary to tell his listeners anything, allows his musicians almost limitless latitude and is far more concerned than Ellis with freedom and spontaneity.

That Miles is black and Don white may be assumed by some to connote an automatic difference in their approaches. Of course, it could be pointed out that Ellis worked for quite some time as a sideman or leader in predominantly black combos, and that Miles has never had an association more fruitful than his partnership with the white composer-arranger Gil Evans in a series of ambitious orchestral ventures. The contrast actually is one of attitudes determined by background and associations rather than simply of race per se. Ellis clearly has sprung from the roots that gave us Stan Kenton. His orchestra usually is almost or completely all-white, as Kenton's bands have been, and the composition of his audiences is similar. Miles thinks black and talks black, but his appeal is interracial, and paradoxical though it may seem, his group in recent years has been more international and more integrated than Ellis' band; in person or on records he has employed an English bassit, a Scottish guitarist, Austrian and English pianists, and a Brazilian percussionist.

The temperamental differences between the two men are not hard to perceive. As both trumpeter and leader, Ellis exercises a tight, hard-edged discipline. He can perform with great lyricism but more often displays harmonic and rhythmic complexities. The listener is less conscious of the technical or intellectual effort that goes into the creation of a Miles Davis solo.

It must not be concluded from these observations that the jazz of Ellis and the jazz of Davis are mutually exclusive: a member of one group might find himself at ease with the other. Still, these two dominant personalities of the 1970s are representative of two clearly different directions in contemporary jazz.

On the afternoon of September 18, 1966, the audience at the Monterey Jazz Festival accorded a tall, blond, trumpet-playing composer-bandleader named Don Ellis what may have been the most thunderous standing ovation in the festival's history.

One of the most talented young musicians in America today, Ellis is also something of a paradox. As a musician, he is a radical innovator, an exponent of unlimited freedom, an uninhibited experimenter who once performed a piece consisting entirely of musicians standing around a piano and looking at it in total silence. At the same time, on the personal level he is a conservative, clean-cut, all-American — totally rigorous and disciplined.

His triumph at Monterey climaxed years of experimentation with almost every kind of musical adventure. There were tours as a band sideman; combo gigs with Charles Mingus and George Russell; the formation of several groups of his own that played Greenwich Village, Stockholm, Oslo, and Warsaw; Third Stream ventures with Leonard Bernstein and Gunther Schuller; study on the West Coast; and a long flirtation with Indian music that resulted in his Hindustani Jazz Sextet. After a year in Buffalo he went to Los Angeles where, in 1964, he launched a rehearsal band, which varied from twenty to twenty-three men and which produced the orchestra responsible for the Monterey madness.

Intermingled with Ellis' various jobs were several stretches of studying and teaching, an initiation into liturgical jazz, numerous painstaking attempts at journalism, and a number of forays into the recording field, some of which ended in frustration when the albums were never released.

Nat Hentoff, one of Ellis' earliest and most vociferous rooters, has observed that "No contemporary jazz composer makes use of as many different devices. He draws from both the classical and jazz traditions, and invents forms of his own. His writing is as varied as his playing."

Donald Johnson Ellis was born in Los Angeles on Jury 25, 1934, the son of the Reverend and Mrs. Ezra Ellis. A precocious child, he began to show musical talent at a very early age. His mother, a church organist who had studied to be a concert pianist, noticed Don's rapid development; by the age of five he could transpose a tune from C to G without hesitation.

"But I rebelled against piano lessons," says Don. "I hated scales. The trumpet, on which nobody ever had to talk me into taking lessons, was what held my interest."

His formal musical education included composition studies with four teachers, trumpet lessons with at least seven, and a degree in composition from Boston University in 1956.

His attraction to jazz began at West High School in Minneapolis. "The first band I ever heard in person was Tommy Dorsey's, with Charlie Shavers on trumpet. I was so fascinated I even forgot the chick I was with and just sat there open-mouthed." A few years later he heard both the classic Hot Five 78s of Louis Armstrong and "Manteca" and "Cool Breeze" by the early Gillespie band. Although Armstrong and Gillespie were far removed from each other, they both excited Ellis.

(Don himself has been compared to such diverse jazz artists as Dizzy, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Maynard Ferguson, Fats Navarro, Clark Terry, and almost every jazz trumpet giant.)

After graduating from college, Ellis auditioned successfully for the Glenn Miller band, then directed by Ray McKinley, and joined up immediately. "I'll never forget how he started his professional life," his father recalls. "He had nothing but a toothbrush, a razor, and a trumpet."

"It was quite an indoctrination," Ellis agrees. "We had three months of one-night stands with a total of three nights off, making a minimum of 500 miles a day on the bus. But I was happy to be right out of college making $135 a week. I stayed until September of 1956, when the Army got me."

The Army was more fun than drudgery; the Seventh Army Symphony and Soldiers' Show Company included a jazz orchestra, for which he was chief arranger. During his second year the band was fronted by Leo Wright, later well known as Dizzy Gillespie's sax-and-flute specialist. The personnel also included Sam Fletcher, the singer; Cedar Walton, the pianist now best known as an Art Blakey alumnus; and saxophonist Eddie Harris.

Once out of the Army, Ellis shared a cramped apartment in Greenwich Village with Fletcher, Walton, and pianist Horace Parian. He played some local gigs, a few brief stints with dance bands in Boston, and a short tour with Charlie Barnet. Then one night Slide Hampton and Joe Zawinul of the Maynard Ferguson band heard Don sit in with a combo at Smalls Paradise in Harlem, and promptly recommended him to Ferguson. He joined the orchestra in the spring of 1959 and remained for nine months. "Maynard was a great natural talent," says Ellis. "In those days no one else could play like that."

In the next couple of years Ellis broke away more and more from standard bebop playing and the symmetrical, formula method of writing. He demonstrated his concern for freedom and expansion of tempo and meter on his first album as a leader, a 1960 cut on the long-defunct Candid label. Prominently featured on the LP was Ellis' roommate, a friend from Boston and an ex-Ferguson colleague, Jaki Byard, who was closely associated with Ellis from 1959 to 1962.

"Ironically," Ellis recalls, "at the time of what turned out to be the end of our professional relationship, I was set to take a quartet into Wells' in Harlem, and found that Jaki didn't want to play uptown." Byard, who is black, and Ellis were feeling the first effects of the reverse racism that disapproved of mixing.

Some observers, aware of Ellis' rightist views, find a curious paradox in his close musical association and personal friendship with black musicians. His father is a friend of Richard Nixon, who has visited Rev. Ellis’ church, and Don is a staunch Republican, a Reagan enthusiast, a Goldwater fan and an opponent of the Rumford Fair Housing Act. He says: "I'm for a complete laissez-faire capitalist economy" and believes that "If people who have the intelligence not to be prejudiced would simply ignore racial differences, the whole racial problem would be solved rapidly."

In his politics as in several other respects Ellis has much in common with Stan Kenton. Like Stan, he is a restless seeker after new musical forms. Both men are tall (Ellis six feet, Kenton six feet four inches) and physically prepossessing; both have a keen sense of self-promotion; both lean toward grandeur and magniloquence rather than simplicity and soul.

Don is a firm disciplinarian. "Those rehearsals have to start right on the button," says Dave Wells, formerly of Ellis' trombone section. "He figures out his whole life that way."

Ellis' rigid self-discipline enabled him to concentrate his efforts on the furthering of his professional ambition. As everyone now knows (including the imitators, who are multiplying by the minute), the door to success was unlatched by mathematics—a kaleidoscope of metric novelties that could swing the tempo of his big band, in the course of a single set, from 5/4 to 5/8 to 13/4 to 27/18 to 6/8, with only a now-and-then glimpse back at that quaint old 4/4 beat that used to be the basis of all jazz.

According to Third Streamer Gunther Schuller, who annotated the first Ellis album and later used him in a series of contemporary music concerts, "Ellis has found a way of expanding the rhythmic vocabulary of jazz to include rhythmic patterns heretofore excluded because they couldn't be made to swing. ... It is evident that he has listened to Webern, Stockhausen, and others of the avant-garde."

The shape of swing to come was clearly indicated in a 1961 interview when Ellis said, "I don't know where jazz is heading, but I'd like to see it keep improvisation and swing. And it doesn't have to be sanctified to swing ... it doesn't always have to be 4/4. There are a lot of other time signatures to try out. I think we'll go into 5/8 and 7/8. Hall Overton was showing me some things like that. . . ."

The Village years were productive both on the musical and personal levels. One night a stunning blonde ex-model named Connie Coogan walked into the Phase 2 on Bleecker Street where Don had a gig. She became Mrs. Ellis in July of 1961. Their combined experimentation has included a natural-health-food kick, which allegedly improved Don's vision, enabling him to Throw Away That Glass Mask (early photos show him wearing heavy horn-rimmed glasses). Don even gave experimental names to his sons, Brav and Tran, born in 1963 and 1964. "This was an attempt to get away from the same old familiar names," he explains. "Brav was derived from Bravo and Tran from Transcend." The Ellises were divorced in 1971.

In October of 1962 Don went through the familiar prophet-without-honor phase. He and Connie left for a couple of months of travel and study, starting at the International Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw. He wrote "Warsaw Diary" for Down Beat, recording the minutest details of the festival, each entry clocked to the nearest fifteen minutes.

He and the Poles, who were deeply immersed in the Third Stream, got along famously. Soon afterward, in Stockholm, Ellis reported, "We were treated like royalty. The musicians I recorded with for Swedish radio were very sympathetic to the 'new thing' and impressed me with their natural feel for it."

It was in Stockholm that Don earned his first headlines by mixing straight playing with "jazz happenings" at Gyllene Cirkeln [Golden Circle], a jazz restaurant. The happenings supposedly represented an acting out of something a musician might have thought or felt during the evening in relationship to what he had been playing. The concept was reflected in such gambits as using sticks on the piano, pouring salt into it, inflating and bursting paper bags, crawling around under the piano, or drawing a paintbrush across the strings.

Looking back at these attempts to become the John Cage of jazz, Don says, "I felt jazz musicians could do more than classical musicians. The idea was, everybody was too staid and stagnant, afraid to try new things. I never felt that Ornette Coleman was that new or radical.

"There was one happening called The Death in which we just stood around the piano looking at it. It was fascinating, because of the varying audience reactions; it was a dramatic thing.

"This was just something I wanted to try out, but I later found it didn't have enough substance to justify doing it over and over. Other areas were more fruitful."

Lalo Schifrin, the composer and pianist who collaborated with Ellis in an Improvisational Jazz Workshop in New York in 1963, had reservations about Don's motives for staging happenings. "Don was and is one of the most creative musicians on the scene," says Schifrin. "His imagination is just what jazz needs. However, sometimes he would become too bold, just to attract attention. I felt we were becoming too much actors, and for me this was not really art. Later I was pleasantly surprised to see Don come back to music. I guess he had just gone through a Dada period, like the French poets and painters in the 1920s."

In 1964 Don returned to Los Angeles, where he conducted workshops in improvisation and ensemble playing at UCLA. At this time a latent fascination with Indian music surfaced as he studied with the sitarist Hari Har Rao, who worked with him in a group they called the Hindustani Jazz Sextet. Next he formed a big workshop orchestra, the forerunner of his current band.

From the start the big group employed unconventional meters and instrumentation; Ellis added three drummers and a three-man bass section. The latter sometimes sawed away in somber unison but also were often used for intricate harmonic effects. His percussion section included cowbells, conga, cuica, and bongos, as well as conventional American drums. A later innovation was an attachment that can feed sound from Don's trumpet or any of the other horns to an elaborate amplifying system.

If the men have problems with a 5/8 or 9/4 beat, Ellis sits down with them and claps the part until everyone claps together. (Aware that drummers had difficulty learning to keep the odd time signatures, Don taught himself to play drums— "in self-defense, so I could demonstrate to my drummers how those meters went.") "He's a real teacher-preacher type personality," said Dave Wells. "I never saw Don lose his temper with the band. He covers up his emotions very well. When our morale was low, you can imagine how much this helped."

The Ellis initiative was forcefully demonstrated one night when the band arrived at the Havana Club where they were working, and found it padlocked: the owners had had a disagreement and closed it up. Ellis, unruffled, called up Walt Flynn, a trombonist friend, who was working at a Hollywood club called Bonesville. Within an hour the entire band followed Ellis into Bonesville, together with customers from the padlocked room.

"From that time on," says Ellis, "things began to pick up."

Stan Kenton, intrigued by the concept of offbeat time signatures, took Ellis under his wing. One evening in February 1966, Don brought the Hindustani Jazz Sextet to the Los Angeles Music Center. In an original work aptly entitled Synthesis, he grasped Kenton's entire mighty Neophonic Orchestra, stuffed it in his very hip pocket, and ran off with the show.

"We used two basic ragas," Ellis says, "with Hari Har Rao on sitar and tabla. I explained to the audience that the Indians have the most sophisticated rhythmic system in the world." He also used a jazz saxophonist, plus mallet and rhythm instruments, all fortified, of course, by the twenty-five towering neophonicists around them. The synthesis wound an idiomatic route from New Orleans to New Delhi, with brief European and African detours along the way.

The Kenton break set the ball in motion . . . now it was up to Ellis to keep it rolling. During the next few months he urged his Bonesville audiences to keep up a letter-writing campaign, pleading that the big band be introduced at Monterey. Festival chief Jimmy Lyons read the letters, heard the band, and gave his word that the deal was on. Meanwhile the fast-growing Bonesville movement took on the aspect of a cult.

On a typical Monday evening at Bonesville, Don's wife Connie sat by the entrance, ready to collect the $1.50 admissions. On the wall at her side was a placard advising the unaware that membership in the Don Ellis Jazz Society would entitle the joiner to such privileges as a reduced ($1) admission fee, a free brochure about Don and the band, an autographed photo of Don, and a free supply of "Where Is Don Ellis?" bumper stickers of the type that had publicized him at Monterey. It was 7:30. For the past hour the band had been running over some new charts. The concert was due to start at 8, but this was one of those nights when the early entrants would get in on the end of a rehearsal.

Ellis tried out a number he had scored for a vocal album. A songwriter friend had commissioned him to write arrangements of several of her tunes. After the first rundown, Ellis said, "All right, now let's transpose it from D minor to E minor, and then we'll try it in C minor, because one chick has a real low voice, and we don't know yet what singer is going to do this song or what her range will be." The band patiently went through the chart in all three keys, with Ellis taking the vocal on trumpet.

This done, Ellis looked around and, in a very even voice, said, "Are we having trouble getting blue shirts for Monday? It looks kinda nice, you know, blue shirts. Those wearing white tonight, what happened?"

An unintelligible mumble came from the three-fourths of the band members wearing white shirts. "Well," said Ellis, "make it blue every night from now on." A moment later he was busy explaining to a drummer how to get the right feeling into a 5/8 work.

By the time the rehearsal ended, the room, a sparsely decorated high-roofed bar with a seating capacity of three hundred, was half full. By the end of the first formal set, customers were standing in line outside.

After each number Ellis spoke to the crowd as if he were addressing an assemblage of loyal constituents. When he found himself becoming too technical in explaining the next number, he used a bit of humor to lighten things. For instance, after explaining a work written in a nineteen-beat meter and correspondingly titled "3-3-2-2-2-1-2-2-2," he added, "Of course, that's just the area code,"

On the program that night was a composition by a Czech writer, Pavel Blatny. A couple of years before, Ellis had received a tape recorded by Blatny in Prague of an original work featuring a trumpet playing quarter-tones. 
"Blatny later sent me the music, then I persuaded a New York instrument manufacturer to make me a quarter-tone trumpet. I guess they were determined not to let the East beat out the West. Maybe someday I'll get a five-valve trumpet so that I can play eighth-tones."

Another finger-twisting feature of the opening set was a boogie-woogie number conveniently shorn of one beat, which gave it a limping quality. Ellis called it "Beat Me Daddy, Seven to the Bar."

As the evening wore on, Ellis' announcements became more informal and engaging than ever. He announced his forthcoming appearance at Shelly's Manne Hole (the band's first full week anywhere). He plugged a benefit for an ailing musician. After dwelling on three or four more extraneous topics, he said, "Oh, yes, about this next tune. What did I say we were going to do?"
Early predictions of success have been borne out by Ellis' progress in the past five years. Don is very much involved in all aspects of the music field. He led the all-star "dream band" at the Berlin Jazz Festivals in 1967 and 1968; at the 1968 Festival his cantata, Reach, was premiered. He has scored two motion pictures: Moon Zero Two, filmed in London and not released in the United States, and The French Connection; he also made a joint appearance with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, playing Ellis’ Contrasts for Two Orchestra and Trumpet,

Still as deeply concerned with teaching as with learning, Ellis has given courses at U.C.L.A. and San Fernando Valley State College. He has emphasized his role as a drummer, playing more frequently and studying with a private teacher.

The band, gaining substantially in public acceptance, has toured extensively and with notable success at colleges, and has played everywhere from the Ed Sullivan Show to the Fillmore West (both of which it has fortunately survived). There has been a series of Columbia albums of variable merit. The band was nominated for a Grammy award by the Recording Academy for four consecutive years but has not yet won.

The Kenton analogy was brought to mind when, during Kenton's illness, Ellis substituted for him as leader for a week in the summer of 1971.

Of his own orchestra Ellis now says: "We went through a heavy rock phase, but now we're getting into new colors. By early 1971 I felt I had explored as much as possible within the standard orchestral framework, even with the electronics; so I added a string quartet, which helped mellow the sound of the band when necessary, and transformed the saxes into a woodwind quartet. We don't need three bass players any more because everyone plays electric nowadays, so I switched to just one fender player. I'm enjoying all the challenges of this revised instrumentation.

"As for my political views, I don't consider myself a right-winger. I'm a radical for personal freedom and liberty. I'm disappointed in Nixon. He came in on one set of principles, then operated on another. Why, if a left-winger had made some of those same proposals, everybody would be up in arms!"

Nat Hentoff once pointed out that Ellis had done much to prove, by his own example, that musical freedom is increased rather than constricted by the acquisition of knowledge. It is safe to assume that in the years immediately ahead he will continue not only to acquire new knowledge but also to impart it to a growing audience wherever jazz is heard. Toward the end of the last decade I ventured a prophecy that Ellis would become the Stan Kenton of the 1970s. To a substantial degree that prediction has already been borne out, and I suspect, to paraphrase Goldwater, that in his heart Kenton knows this is right.”

The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 8 - "Don Ellis Electric Heart" by John Vizzusi
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


While Jazz and its makers have historically been well-served by an aural record in the form of recordings, tapes and discs, all too often, video documentation has been lacking.

I say documentation because there are any number of clips of Jazz artists performing in Hollywood films and on television excerpts filmed through a camera and later saved on tape, but well prepared career documentaries are the exception rather than the rule.

Thankfully, the decade and a half existence of the Don Ellis Orchestra has been made into an insightful and interesting documentary in John Vizzusi’s Don Ellis Electric Heart.

Here’s John’s explanation of how and why this film came into being.

DON ELLIS... FOREVER!

By John Vizzusi

"In the summer of 1972 I attended a show at The Oakland Civic Auditorium featuring The Don Ellis Band as the headliner." It was an evening filled with rock music from The Sons of Chaplin and Moby Grape. 

The Ellis Band was late and the audience became restless and many headed for the exits. We were there to see Don Ellis although I only knew of him from a Music Theory Professor at West Valley Junior College that thought Ellis was the greatest Jazz musician of the day. I anticipated this but had my doubts. When Ellis finally came out wearing his electric blue cape and carrying his silver trumpet case, he immediately told the audience he was sorry for the delay and because of his lateness, he would go "all out~for us. 

From then on, it was the most incredible show of any band I have ever seen then and today! I was astonished at his mix of Jazz-Rock-Blues-Soul-Classical and his own version of what we would call World Music today. He went far beyond anything I have ever heard and it all seemed to work, that is his odd-metered arrangements and strange electronic sounds. But this was not a gimmick I quickly realized but written arrangements and were so complex myself and the audience were completely mesmerized. He and band received a standing ovation for each piece he played and then for the last songs, we simply stood up and danced into the aisles. 

And when Don Ellis himself jumped from the stage and came down into the crowd it was just unbelievable! The memory of this concert has stayed with me my entire life.

Cut to 1997 as I was digging through my old Jazz LP's,l came across my Don Ellis albums. I listened to all of them in a day and I asked myself, whatever happened to this guy? I remember being very saddened when I heard of his death in 1978 as he was only 44 years old. But why was it that a musician this noteworthy was never talked about nor his music very seldom played. I stopped wondering quickly and created 'The Sights and Sounds of Don Ellis' a promotion to memorialize him and to get a Doc Film made on his life story. 

It was disgusting and still is that a Jazz Artist of this magnitude can just die out, name and music. So I stoned out on a path to attempt a resurgence of the name of Don Ellis, in Jazz and beyond. With the help of Don's son Tran Ellis, working together we were able to track down old footage shot on film and videotape. 

At that point I was able to offer a promotional DVD of Ellis 'Live' at Monterey, Concord and in San Francisco to whomever wrote a testimonial letter about their own experience with Ellis and donated a few bucks. What happened freaked me out! Thousands of letters, hand-written and e-mails rolled in along with some nice funding to at least get me started with the bigger Doc project. Folks from around the world started to call along with ex-members of his bands. They all asked the same question I initially asked, what happened to Don and why isn't his music being sold or played? Finally after years of research and development, I was able to secure funding to go into production on Electric Heart.”

More information about the film which was produced and released on Art Haus Musik is in the following annotation that was prepared by Hans Dieter Grünefeld for the booklet that accompanies the DVD. It is translated by Alan Seaton.

COMPLEX METERS AND SOUND EXPERIMENTS IN THE JAZZ LAB DON ELLIS - A PORTRAIT

The more radically musicians play around with conventions, the livelier the discussions. Don Ellis was a musician whose aesthetic principles were both admired and regarded with some suspicion within the jazz scene. On making his highly acclaimed debut with his big band at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966, he introduced the concert's opening title with the number sequence "33 222 1 222" (his subdivision of a 19-beat bar), adding ironically that it was also the area code for Los Angeles. Since then, Don Ellis has been a byword for rhythmic provocation wrapped engagingly in eccentric humour. 

No jazz musician before him had ever tested to such a degree the durability of these unusual meters. Nevertheless, using this new arithmetic Don Ellis successfully created a distinctive, idiosyncratic style, which integrated formative influences from the post-bebop era, ethnic music from India, the Far East and the Balkans, rock and pop, not to mention contemporary and avant-garde classical music in various stages and combinations.

Donald Johnson Ellis was born on 25 July 1934 in Los Angeles (USA). His father was a pastor, his mother a pianist. They encouraged his musical talent by buying him a trumpet and providing him with the opportunity to study at Boston University, where he graduated in 1956 with a Master's degree in composition. After military service, he claimed his place on the professional scene as lead trumpet in Maynard Ferguson's big band. It was not long before Don Ellis began to make a name for himself as an exceptional soloist. In 1959, Charles Mingus hired him for the recording of Mingus Dynasty. Two years later he was involved with Eric Dolphy on George Russell's Ezz-thetics album, a seminal work which heralded the shift in jazz towards modal tonalities and improvisation. 

At the same time, Don Ellis experimented with his own eccentric ideas in small ensembles. Supported by pianist and saxophonist Jaki Byard, his mentor from Boston, he attempted to rise above harmonic cliches with a "synthesis of jazz and classical elements" (Gunther Schuller), while making twelve-tone rows (e.g. in his Improvisational Suite No. 1) the reference for free solo associations. ...How Time Passes..., the title of this first album under his own name, attempts to create a variable structuring of time by constantly accelerating and slowing the tempo.

The topic would occupy Don Ellis with increasing intensity from now on. "In Los Angeles (1962) I met an Indian musician called Hari Har Rao, a student of Ravi Shankar. I'd always been interested in different rhythms (...), but it wasn't until I met him that I realised just how far one could go, and how complex these things could be. He was just a complete revelation. We formed a group called the Hindustani Sextet, which was the first time that Indian and jazz musicians worked together on an extended basis - and tried to learn each other's music." 

Based on his experience with the Hindustani Sextet, Don Ellis sought other musicians from the region to try out new rhythms in the context of a big band. Young teachers, students and session musicians attended the rehearsals; finally, out of this core of players emerged the Don Ellis Orchestra. "It has not been easy to find 20 (...) musicians with the talent and ability to play unusual time signatures like 7/8," Don Ellis wrote in his text to the Monterey album. Moreover, he met with hostility from a number of dogmatists, who felt odd meters were unnatural. Don Ellis countered with: "Not natural to whom? They are natural to a great portion of the world's peoples." Despite such opposition from within the jazz scene, Don Ellis forced through the realization of his ideas with obsessive zeal.

What was original in this was that Ellis did not see unorthodox time signatures as in any way rivalling the dominant rhythms of Afro-American swing, rather as fuel to raise jazz (as an art form) to a universal level. For him, therefore, the avant-garde was always an organic concept - and swing an unconditional option. Within this concept, however, he modified the dimensions to such extremes that certain measures, such as 3 ⅔ /4 (= 11/8) and the way of counting them (22223) seem like intriguing mathematical puzzles even today. However, Don Ellis's arithmetic contains qualitative vibrations that are very different from "conventional" swing.

Just as irritating as his rhythms is his compositional style. Instead of the conventional jazz song form, Don Ellis developed the relevant meters from a melodic framework, (not vice versa), often borrowing structures from classical music and creating an independent musical discourse in the process. His Variations For Trumpet (on Autumn), for example, take the theme through five different rhythmic phases; here, Don Ellis's solo episodes appear as if accompanied by a shadow in the arrangement and - a first in recorded jazz for 1968 - make use of stereo recording technology to enhance the overall sound aesthetic.

In any case, Don Ellis modified the big band to create a flexible grouping. To begin with, he augmented the conventional ensemble, reinforcing the rhythm section with three bass players, two drummers and at least one percussionist. From the outset the saxophone section was packed with multi-instrumentalists who also played clarinets and flutes. Later, when the trend shifted towards jazz-rock, he introduced electric instruments. Then, in 1971, Don Ellis gave his orchestra a radical makeover: suddenly there were no longer sections at all, but instead a string quartet amplified by a Barcus-Berry transducer system, a brass septet (3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba and horn), woodwind quartet (including oboe) and a rhythm section with three drummers and a percussionist, who would freely regroup to create different sound combinations. Strawberry Soup (on Tears Of Joy) is a good example of how well the approach works. In this variable Rondo the components attach themselves after each improvised execution of the basic 9/4 figure to each soloist in turn, resulting in a hypnotic kaleidoscope of tonal shades.

In addition to being an intellectual conceptualist, lecturer, writer, composer and arranger, Don Ellis was first and foremost a brass freak. In 1966 he commissioned a quarter-tone trumpet (featuring an additional fourth valve), because he considered the equal temperament twelve-note scale to be arbitrarily limiting. With his special trumpet he could not only fit "24 equal notes to the octave, but I could also, with a slight adjustment of my lips, get almost any interval that I would want," - a technique particularly well illustrated in The Squeeze (on Pieces Of Eight).

To one of the trumpet's tuning slides he attached a small microphone, which could be hooked up to amplifiers. Two years before Miles Davis established a trend for electric jazz with his revolutionary Bitches Brew, Don Ellis had already alienated the sound of his trumpet by connecting it to a variety of devices. Using the echoplex he could play duets with himself as extravagant cadences, such as in the soaring, impressionistic ballad Open Beauty (on Electric Bath), or his cover of the Beatles song Hey Jude (on At Fillmore). In certain solos he introduces distortion, grunting parallel octaves or amusing sound kicks with an Oberheim ring modulator and Conn Multi-Vider. His arabesque trumpet style was heavily influenced by bebop linearity. With high-speed arpeggios and striking staccato patterns, he found his way around the complex rhythms with great virtuosity.

Don Ellis also had a Superbone (a hybrid trombone with valves), a Firebird trumpet (with trombone slide) and a four-valve flugelhorn, capable of reaching very low registers, such as in the ballad Loneliness (on Live At Montreux), a poetic gem. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Don Ellis was also an accomplished drummer. From 1970 onwards he played an active part in the band's drum rota and gave himself the lead role in his composition The Devil Made Me Write This Piece (on Soaring). Not long afterwards, however, Ellis was forced to give up playing drums - and even cut down his solo activities as a trumpeter - on account of a weak heart. He suffered a heart attack in 1975, from which he made a very slow recovery. He made a return to the stage in February 1978 with a quintet at the first Jazz Yatra in Bombay. But on 17 December 1978, Don Ellis died of sudden heart failure at his home in Hollywood. 

Throughout his relatively short career Don Ellis was immensely productive and his music met with an enthusiastic response. Appearances on television shows in the United States and Europe as well as regular tours strengthened his reputation as an innovative musician. He composed around 250 titles, by no means all of which were released under his name on his 18 LPs (now also available as CDs). Posthumous releases include Pieces Of Eight, Live in India and Don Ellis and the Wojciech Karolak Trio live at the Jazz Jamboree 1962, Warsaw (Polish Radio Jazz Archives). Several of his albums were nominated for a Grammy, although it was the score he wrote for the thriller The French Connection which finally won him the prestigious award in 1972. 

Don Ellis was always at the forefront of progressive jazz trends; he even managed to transcend them without disowning the tradition of his role models Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie. Less well known is the fact that Ellis played trumpet in the Frank Zappa song Brown Shoes Don't Make It (on Absolutely Free), jammed with the prog rock group Emerson Lake and Palmer, and was also a recognised figure in the classical scene: he composed Contrasts For Two Orchestras And Trumpet for Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and when Leonard Bernstein recorded Music Of Our Time in 1962, Don Ellis teamed up with Barre Phillips (b) and Joe Cocuzzo (dr) to form the trio for Improvisations For Orchestra and Jazz Soloists by Larry Austin. 

Twice, in 1967 and 1968, he made guest appearances at the Berlin Jazz Festival, where he fronted a hugely successful programme with a dream band in 7-time that included Reach - Cantata For Choir. Orchestra And Trumpet. However, although the impact of his ideas and his charismatic personality were spectacular during his lifetime, it is only in recent years that the music of Don Ellis has again become the focus of closer attention. 

Now for the first time we have an opportunity to enter his complex laboratory of meters and sound experiments - thanks to John Vizzusi's film biography: Don Ellis - Electric Heart (The Man his Times and his Music), which tells his life's work through specially recorded interviews with colleagues, including Maynard Ferguson and Gunther Schuller, and authentic concert recordings. In this way the jazz world is able once again to benefit from Don Ellis's rich legacy.”

It isn't often that the work of a Jazz artist of the magnitude and complexity is comprehensively rendered in a video format. Do yourself a favor - don’t miss the rare opportunity to do so as represented in John Vissuzi’s professional produced Don Ellis - Electric Heart (The Man his Times and his Music).

Here’s an excerpt: