By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Why isn’t Don Ellis up there in the pantheon of big band jazz icons with Duke, Benny, the Count, Dizzy, Woody, Kenton and the others?
The participants in a new video documentary, Don Ellis – Electric Heart are puzzled as well. Larry Ramirez, chief designer at Leblanc-Holton, which built Ellis’s unique quarter-tone trumpet, wonders, “I really don’t know why his music didn’t stick like some of the others. Maybe his recordings don’t have what the live performances had.” No, that’s not it; the studio recordings practically jump out of the speakers, and several were recorded live anyhow. Many of them were acclaimed in their time – Electric Bath was voted Album of the Year by Down Beat readers in 1968 – so it’s not like Ellis was a prophet without honor in his day.
Perhaps the following capsule summary of Ellis’s achievement may give some hints as to why he belongs in the pantheon, and also why he isn’t there.
In his heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s, Ellis took the big band format to places where it had never been before and has almost never been since. He gave his music a blast of electronics; wrestled with strange time signatures like 7/4, 19/4, even 33/16; brought in ethnic influences from regions seldom touched to this day (the Balkans, India); covered current pop and rock tunes as a matter of course, and made it all swing. He played his quarter-tone trumpet in a brittle, rapid-fire fashion, easily cresting the waves of those crazy time signatures with an unorthodox groove all his own. He lashed some of his music to classical structures, brought string sections into his bands, and even wrote classical works away from jazz, taking up where Kenton, Miles and Gil Evans, and a few others left off and running with it. His bands also had a quality that has been in short supply in jazz since his day – a sense of humor, often a wacky one.
But Ellis, alas, had a defective heart, and he died at the age of 44 in 1978 following an episode of near-fatal ventricular fibrillation three years prior. Without Ellis around as an innovator, teacher, cheerleader and organizer, his ideas fell by the wayside, I think, for a number of reasons – a), they were too difficult for most musicians to master; b), the innate conservatism of the tradition-encrusted big band format, at least in America; and c), by the 1980s, jazz entered a period of backlash where anything that used electronics and didn’t conform to the Gospel of Wynton was not taken seriously.
Made in 2007, Electric Heart was previously released by the UK’s Sleepy Nights Records in 2009, and is finally receiving widespread distribution this spring on the German Arthaus Musik label, just in time for what would have been Ellis’s 80th birthday (July 25). It is not an ideally-executed documentary, by any means. The script sounds awkward, the narration is stilted. The surviving videos of the Ellis bands that the filmmakers have unearthed are blurry, badly deteriorated. Hardly any attention is given to Ellis’s albums by the narrator; the gorgeous recurring title music (“Water Jewel” from the sublime, little-known, genre-obliterating album Haiku) isn’t identified until deep into the closing credits, nor is it discussed.
Yet the film gives us a good idea of the constant growth and changes that Ellis and his bands underwent – adding this instrumental group, deleting that one, searching for new sounds, meters, scales, creating excitement and volume levels that allowed the Ellis band to play in rock spaces like the Fillmore without any embarrassment. And it’s worth squinting through the flawed visuals and gawking at the changing period hair styles to get a loaded charge out of Ellis’s radical young bands. My favorite performance is an uproarious attempt by the band to negotiate the notorious “Bulgarian Bulge” (the one in 33/16!), apparently having a ball doing so and just succeeding.
The bonus feature is a killer – a full, sensational, nearly-hour-long televised performance in a San Francisco art gallery by the 1968 Ellis band, with its collection of portable amplifiers, triple bass section, and excitable leader. The music is wild, percolating, exotically beautiful, throwing Indian, Turkish, Latin, classical avant-garde, Echoplex, octave doublers, feedback, and who knows what other ingredients into the pot with the rest of jazz, daring anyone to object.
The man had an untethered, unbridled sonic imagination; you can only wonder what Ellis would have been capable of had his heart not given out so soon. Of all his later records, Haiku might have been the one that would have showed the way.