Don Ellis -- trumpet, composer, conductor; John Rodby -- keyboards; Frank De La Rose -- bass; Alan Estes -- vibes, percussion; Bob Harmon -- trumpet; Glenn Stuart -- trumpet; Ed Warren -- trumpet; Alan Weight -- trumpet; Ruben Leon -- alto sax, baritone sax, flute; Joe Roccisano -- alto sax, baritone sax, flute; Ron Starr -- tenor sax, clarinet, flute; John Magruder -- bass clarinet, baritone sax, flute; Ron Myers -- trombone; David Sanchez -- trombone; Terry Woodson -- trombone; Ira Schulman -- clarinet, flute; Ray Neopolitan -- bass, sitar; Dave Parlato -- bass; Mark Stevens -- percussion; Chino Valdes -- bongos, congas; Steve Bohannon -- drums
Known for his experimentation with unusual time signatures and his pioneering work with electronics, trumpeter-composer-bandleader Don Ellis brought his adventurous 20-piece aggregation to the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival to premiere material from his groundbreaking Columbia Records debut, Electric Bath, which was recorded on Sept. 19 and 20 and released later that year. Following on the heels of 1966's acclaimed Live at Monterey (on the Blue Note label), this Newport appearance instantly brought Ellis and his exciting new big band to a new level of notoriety in the jazz world.
They kick off their Newport set with the exhilarating "Indian Lady," a kind of exotic blues in 5/4 (divided 3-2). Ellis stretches on quarter-tone trumpet while tenor saxophonist Ron Starr and trombonist Ron Myers also turns in blistering solos. The band builds to a frenetic peak that culminates in some Dixieland styled spontaneous soloing before shifting to a mesmerizing drone that Ellis wails over with piercing trumpet tones. The atmospheric ballad "Open Beauty," which deftly segues from 3/4 to 5/4 to 3.5/4 time, is underscored by John Rodby's Fender Rhodes electric piano (an early example of that new invention) and showcases some lyrical flute work by Ira Schulman. The piece also features some psychedelic stylings from the leader, who utilizes loop delay echo chamber on his horn (which he referred to as his 'electrophonic trumpet'). Hank Levy's "Passacaglia and Fugue," a concert favorite from Live at Monterey, is a swirling contrapuntal band feature that also swings forcefully while featuring pungent solos from alto saxophonist Joe Roccisano and trumpeter Ellis. They close out this '67 Newport set with Ellis' dynamic "New Nine." Unfortunately, we only get a preliminary taste this evocative number, which is based on a Turkish folk rhythm (9/4) while melding Indian raga and American blues forms, before the tape runs out. For the full effect, check out their rendition on Live at Monterey.
Born in Los Angeles on July 25, 1934, Ellis' father was a Methodist minister and his mother a church organist. Raised Minneapolis, he attended Boston University and landed his first job in 1955 with the Glenn Miller band, directed by Ray McKinley. Following a two-year stint in the service, where he played in the Army big band, Ellis moved to New York and began working with bandleader Charlie Barnet. He joined Maynard Ferguson's big band in the Spring of 1959 (the same year that pianist Joe Zawinul and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter were also in the group) and remained for nine months. He remained with Ferguson for nine months. The '60s marked a period of productivity and experimentation for Ellis. He appeared on albums by Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and George Russell, remaining in the latter's sextet for two years. He later led small groups that included such forward-thinking players as pianists Jaki Byard and Paul Bley, bassists Gary Peacock, Ron Carter and Steve Swallow and drummer Charli Persip. Following collaborations in Europe at Poland's Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw and also with Germany's NDR's Jazz Workshop in Hamburg, Ellis returned to New York and formed the Improvisational Workshop Orchestra, which gave its debut performance on February 10, 1963 at the Five Spot. In 1964, Ellis began ethnomusicology studies at UCLA where he began working with Indian musician Harihar Rao, who inspired Ellis' interest in odd meters and led to his formation of The Hindustani Jazz Sextet. On July 14, 1966, the sextet performed at Bill Graham's Fillmore West auditorium, opening for the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Ellis subsequently formed his first big band and the group performed in September that year at the Monterey Jazz Festival. That same year, Ellis also appeared as a special guest on the Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free.
The Don Ellis Orchestra was first documented on 1966's Live at Monterey on Blue Note. The group's followup, Electric Bath on Columbia, was nominated for a Grammy award and was named Down Beat magazine's Album of the Year. Ellis followed with a succession of experimental, rock-tinged big band recordings, including 1968's Shock Treatment, 1969's Autumn and The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground and 1970's Don Ellis at Fillmore,, all of which featured his application of odd time signatures (5/4, 7/8, and 9/4 as well more complex rhythmic cycles like 19/8, 27/16 and 33/16) along with his 'electrophonic trumpet' which utilized echoplex tape loops and a ring modulator built for him by Tom Oberheim. Ellis continued to work with different ensembles through the mid '70s while also composing music for the films The French Connection and The French Connection II. By 1975, his health was failing. Ironically, his heart began beating in odd rhythms (a condition known as mitral stenosis). He was later diagnosed with an atrial septal defect and went into ventricular fibrillation early one morning in May 1975. Following surgery and recovery, he was back in action by 1976, performing once again with his Don Ellis Orchestra. He signed with Atlantic Records in 1977 and the band went to Switzerland to record Live at Montreux. Ellis' last known public performance took place on April 21, 1978, at the Westside Room in Los Angeles. He died of a heart attack on December 17, 1978 at age 44. - Bill Milkowski