Don Ellis (July 25, 1934 - December 17, 1978) was an American jazz trumpeter, drummer, composer and leader of big bands
who consistently explored the area of unusual time signatures. He was the first to create a fusion between jazz-rock and
classical music. Don Ellis became known with his odd metered arrangements during his college years at the University of
Boston. He played 4-valve horns that were capable of playing quarter tones. He experimented with
Echoplex tape delay, octave followers and ring modulators for psychedelic effects, to be heard on e.g. the
DON ELLIS AT
All the data for the 4 albums described on this page is derived from
A transcription of the first measure of "Bulgarian Bulge" appears under a hand-written heading labeled "Liner
Notes:" ? no text is provided.
Although Ellis had flirted with rock elements in his previous big band releases, The New Don Ellis Band Goes
Underground (1969) announced a full embrace of a more popular style. The album features vocalist Patti Allen
and the vocal group The Blossoms on various selections, including Ellis's arrangement of "It's Your Thing" by
The Isley Brothers.
Rock elements manifest themselves through the pop-oriented arrangements, typically featuring a rock-style
beat in 4/4 and radio-friendly lengths of 3-4 minutes. The only selection on the release featuring exotic
rhythms is "Bulgarian Bulge," Ellis's arrangement of a Bulgarian folk song in an extremely fast 33/8. Ellis
also expands the use of quarter-tone trumpet to his entire trumpet section on "Ferris Wheel" and "It's Your Thing."
The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground is strikingly inconsistent with the adjacent Ellis Orchestra
releases. However, the recording foreshadows Ellis's commercialized approach to selections appearing on
several of his later recordings. The apparent contradiction suggests the influence of sales-driven executives
within Columbia Records.
After the release of The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground, Ellis continued to implement some degree of an
electronic/rock approach into his performances and recordings. Ellis even suggests in one of his books that
stylistically, rock-style drumming ? rather than jazz drumming ? was more appropriate to prominently displaying
his complex rhythms through the emphasis and the clarity of the diaphragms over the textural wash of the ride cymbals:
"[ . . . ] in bebop the sound went to the cymbals, in rock music (although the cymbals are still used) the opposite
has happened, and the basic patterns have gone back to the drums [ . . . ] cymbals give no definition of time
and merely add a blanket to the overall sound. So the burden of time-keeping has now come back to the snare and
bass drums. This also gives it a more solid rhythmic feel. For anyone who likes to swing hard, I think
this is a definite step in the right direction."
By 1970, Ellis's crossover into the rock domain earned his ensemble appearances with the popular rock
bands "United States Of America" and Frank Zappa's "The Mothers Of Inventions." This rock approach extended
beyond the music of Ellis's act and into the visual element of their live performances including their
wardrobe. According to one witness, "The band is outfitted by a local hip clothing store and they all
wear velvet-satin puff-sleeve affairs with white turtlenecks beneath. To see them alone is an experience."
Don Ellis at Fillmore - recorded live in 1970 - features several of Ellis's most famous compositions
including "Pussy Wiggle Stomp," "The Great Divide," and "Final Analysis." The double-LP release garnered a
Grammy nomination and includes an off-the-wall psychedelic arrangement of Lennon and
McCartney's "Hey Jude." The performance of another song borrowed from the pop domain - along with
the inclusion of Hank Levy's composition titled "Rock Odyssey" - confirms Ellis's lingering
connection to rock influences.
Recorded live Bill Graham's Fillmore West in San Francisco, CA.
Releases Columbia CG 30243 (1970)
Don Ellis - Trumpet, Drums
John Klemmer - Saxophone, Winds
Tom Garvin - Piano
John Clark - Saxophone, Winds
Doug Bixby - Bass, Tuba
Stuart Blumberg - Trumpet
Ernie Carlson - Trombone
Jack Coan - Trumpet
Ronnie Dunn - Percussion, Drums
Sam Faizone - Saxophone, Winds
Glen Ferris - Trombone
Jay Graydon - Guitar
Ralph Humphrey - Drums
Dennis Parker - Bass
Lee Pastora - Conga
John Rosenberg - Trumpet
Fred Seldon - Saxophone, Wind
Lonnie Shetter - Saxophone, Wind
Glenn Stuart - Trumpet
Don Switzer - Bass Trombone
Don Quigley – Tuba
Ellis was approached by film director William Friedkin to compose the music to his film The French Connection (with
movie stars like Gene Hackman, Tony Lo Bianco and Roy Scheider). Ellis accepted the project and wrote the music
to be performed by his own orchestra. In 1972 the Don Ellis won a Grammy Award for "The French Connection". Best Instrumental
Arrangement for the Academy Award Winning Motion Picture
Jay Graydon plays on the French
Connection 1 theme in 1971.
Ellis' final album for Columbia, Connection was recorded in August 1972. Among other tunes the album
featured "The Theme from "The French Connection", an abbreviated version of Ellis' movie score,
and "Chain Reaction", a tour de force by longtime contributor Hank Levy. Alongside these
highlights are arrangements of several pop songs by artists like Carole King, Yes, Andrew
Lloyd Weber and The Carpenters. The arrangements were generally in different meters than the
original, or arranged for the melody to be played
in a humorous way. There are no vocal tracks on this album.
Liner notes includes excerpt from Leonard Feather's book From Satchmo to Miles.
Connection (1972) features several arrangements of popular rock songs forced into meters different than
the original ? none of which were arranged by Ellis. Based on Ellis's success of his film score to the movie
The French Connection, the popular "Theme from the French Connection" was included on this release. Also
included on the release was Hank Levy's "Chain Reaction," a piece Levy considered to be his finest effort
for the Ellis ensemble. The scope and sophistication of Levy's composition makes it stand apart from
the rest of the pop-influenced selections on the recording. Connection was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1972.
Different packaging (back cover only) for PAUSA and BASF releases.
Soaring (1973) temporarily disengages the commercial approach found in Connection and continues the
musical direction set by Tears of Joy. Soaring contains the last recorded examples of Ellis's use of
the echoplex, and also capture Ellis's performance on drums. Ellis composed four of the eight original selections.
Review quotes on "Don Ellis at Fillmore" at Amazon.com:
"If you are a fan of Ellis' work, you need it. If you are into contemporary big bands and haven't heard the Don
Ellis Band, this is a good place to start. Some typically crazy Sixties stuff melded with Don's odd meter tunes
makes for an interesting, yet accessible mix."
"I remember, vividly, blasting the paint off the walls, listening to this fabulous and experimental album through
my oversized Polk Audio speakers. And, just as fondly I recall the quizical look it would produce on my mothers
face as she tried to understand the sounds of the odd meter, the quarter tone trumpet, the ring modulator and
the speaker in the guitar players mouth.
This is simply the gretest jazz album I ever owned, and maybe the best one ever produced. Ellis and his exquisite
band romp through the music with a presence, exuberance and accuarcy that still amazes.
The album altered big bands forever. Even now,the music is edgy, full of life and inspiring. Thank you Don Ellis."
Jay Graydon and Jock Ellis (trombone player and no relation) share fond and fun memories backstage!