Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Evolution of the Don Ellis Orchestra - Part 8 - "Don Ellis Electric Heart" by John Vizzusi [From the Archives]

 © 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.


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.


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:

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