Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 3

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


“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


“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 and

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