Tuesday, May 28, 2019

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.”

“‘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 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 unusual time signatures, its occasional humor 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 unusual [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 ...


  1. Fantastic reading! Thank you! I’ve been a huge fan of Don Ellis since stumbling upon his “Live at the Fillmore” in my local library some time in the 80s. (Back then you could borrow records at the library). I recorded some cassettes which I think I still have.
    I’ve been looking for info on Ellis and his band intermittently on the internet for over 20 years. Initially, there wasn’t much. Then some YouTube videos popped up. Now there’s more and I learned so much from your blog.

  2. Thank you for this wealth of information about Don Ellis, a truly fascinating and substantive trumpeter, composer, arranger and musicologist. I was very fortunate to study with Harihar Rao myself, an unforgettable experience.

    I wish Harihar was still here to know about now in just the past few years, I've added piano improvisation to my composing, beginning with solo recordings, and last fall recording duets first with tabla player Anindo Chatterjee, and then and drummer Eliot Zigmund.

    To begin with about Don Ellis, I've long felt he did the finest film score ever for the French Connection.

    I had an appointment at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, funded by the NEH, transferring rare field recordings onto CDR at the time they acquired the Don Ellis Archive, including some of his performances costumes, and was dazzled by all the various items included in his archive.

    While at UCLA, I was called into a meeting with the Chair about how to raise funds for a traditional Mexican music project. My suggestion was to contact Herb Alpert because of his obvious love for that music. I honestly don't know if this is what led to the music department subsequently being named after him.

    Bravo to this site for the splendid introduction to the music of Don Ellis, whose trumpet playing from the late fifties and early sixties alone is incredible, representing a major improvisational voice, not to mention subsequent efforts, most of which I have yet to hear.

    - Michael Robinson, azuremilesrecords.com


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