Warming Up

Warming Up

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Unsung Trumpet Players: Installment Number One

OK so this post below will be the first of a series of blog posts about unsung trumpet players.  There’s no rhyme or reason to the order that I’m going to post about these players.  If I think about or hear someone then maybe I’ll write about him or her.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to include soundfiles in a post.  When I learn how to do that I’ll also include some audio samples of the featured player.  So on to the first installment of Unsung Trumpet Players:

Don Ellis: Guilty Pleasure

I’ve been a Don Ellis fan for about 10 or 12 years, ever since I picked up his “Connection” album from a record store in Amsterdam – I paid 25 guilders (obviously before the Euro) for it.  How could I resist that album cover?   Don’s huge side-burned face on the front and him cheesily lying down in some sort of leisure suit on the back cover.  And then there were the tunes on the album: sweet covers like the theme to “Jesus Christ Superstar” (another guilty pleasure of mine, I admit), Bill Wither’s “Lean On Me,” “Runaround” by Yes, Carol King’s “I Feel The Earth Move Under My Feet,” Ellis’s own theme from the awesome early 70’s flick, “The French Connection” (with a badass Gene Hackman), Procul Harem’s “Conquistador.”  And then Don is listed as playing a quarter tone trumpet through an Oberheim ring modulator and an Echoplex.  What?  Totally worth 25 guilders!  Needless to say, after many, many listens this album is truly one of my favorites in my collection of about 2500 records (I have no idea how many CDs I’ve got now – too many probably).  I loved “Connection” (and its cheesy cover) so much when I got it that I made everyone who came into my house pose for a picture holding the album cover.  Silly, I know, but whatever. I have no idea where those photos are now, but here’s a shot of the front cover with my eldest son Julian (10):

And here is my wife Sara (not particularly a big Don Ellis fan!) showing the back cover:

What’s on this record, and almost all of the other Don Ellis records I’ve bought over the years, are examples of his obsession with unorthodox time signatures (well, unorthodox for jazz – especially big band jazz).  Don rarely writes stuff in 4/4.  But he wasn’t always into odd meters.  Don was a traditional jazz section man when he was young, playing in the trumpet sections of Glenn Miller, Charlie Barnet, Army bands, and then with Maynard Ferguson.  That’s traditional 4/4 swinging stuff.  But when Don moved to NYC after leaving Ferguson (around 1959, I think - probably around the time Ornette arrived) he started getting into the avant-garde scene there playing and recording with George Russell and Gunther Schuller and then he did a record with Charles Mingus and a couple great records as a leader (“New Ideas” and “How Time Passes” with Jaki Byard and Ron Carter; and “Out of Nowhere” with Steve Swallow and Paul Bley).  Somewhere in that period he apparently got into Hindustani music and my guess is that that’s when he got heavy into different time signatures which really became his artistic hallmark and legacy.

Also apparent on “Connection” as well as other Ellis records is his obsession for lots of sound – almost like a jazz equivalent of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound.  Don must have dug that Wall of Brass sound (kinda like Stan Kenton who was certainly guilty at times of having too much brass).  And all of his trumpet players had chops enough to play in a Maynard Ferguson trumpet section, especially Don’s longtime lead player, the late Glenn Stuart.  But Don also wrote rich and full, often traditionally-voiced ensembles for his sax sections and he had some great sax players in his bands over the years.  And then there’s the percussion.  Don often had two drummers (three sometimes when Don played the drumkit as well!), and multiple percussionists.  And then there are the electronic effects.  Not only did his keyboard players and guitar players utilize cutting-edge electronics, Don himself really was a pioneer with effects for the trumpet.  Don was playing with that stuff before Miles, before Clark Terry did that album with the Varitone attachment (sweet album BTW).  And then as Don’s career hit the 70’s he started adding a string quartet to his live bands (his album “Haiku” exclusively features Don’s writing for strings – not a bad record), and he even once toured with a vocal quartet as part of the band (that’s just bizarre).  So his bands could definitely get a traditional big band sound, but they were also tuned into the rock thing and the classical thing and probably also what would become known as “world music.”

Even though Don was always looking for new sounds and was attuned to what was hip and current, he might have  been guilty of making his music too much a reflection of his times.  His music certainly sounds dated today.  That doesn’t mean it sounds bad.  On the contrary, I dig it so much partly for that reason.  But when you listen to the “Tears of Joy” record, or “Live at the Fillmore” (“Hey Jude” on that record is alone worth the price of the whole record), and definitely “Connection,” the music does sound dated – a product of its time.  And because of that, sometimes it sounds cheesy today.  But I don’t mind cheese (I like Neil Diamond, for crying out loud).  The "Connection" album is often hopelessly cheesy in so many ways.  And let’s be honest here – Don Ellis was a great trumpet player. No doubt.   He was technically a master player in all registers of the instrument – with a big trumpet sound.  And he could certainly play effortlessly through chord changes at breakneck tempos (kinda has a Dizzy Gillespie influence at those fast tempos).  And he had a serious arsenal of extended techniques.  But….and for me this is a big “but”…..his playing can be seriously hokey.  His sense of swing is generally not very hip at all.  He’s also often guilty of stringing together long lines of eighth notes in a corny way and he’s no stranger to flexing his chops and over-playing. 

So we’ve got a guy that can play some corny trumpet (really well) with a (totally killin') big band that can sound outdated and cheesy?  That doesn’t sound all that enticing, but for some reason I love it.  All those qualities which seem negative somehow make me like him more.  I don’t know why.  But then when you consider all of Don's positive attributes and qualities - the quest for new sounds and combinations of instruments, the obsession with “different” time signatures, and the sheer fact that the man kept a big band successfully working and recording throughout the mid and late sixties all the way through mid-70’s in the rock and roll era where almost no one else could make that same claim (!! - this alone should put him in the history book) – well, then Don Ellis starts to become a really important musical figure, something of a visionary and iconoclast.  Though unafraid to try to be commercial (he had to be to pay that huge-ass band!), he did push the boundaries continuously.  And here is the kicker: it turns out that even his heart beat in a different way than everyone else's, in odd meters!  His arrhythmic heart is what killed him at the young age of 44. 
Thanks for the music, Don, and thanks for making the Connection!

For more info on Don Ellis: http://www.donellismusic.com/

Here's my middle son Miles (7) with another great Don Ellis record:
And here's my youngest son Gabriel (4) with another Don Ellis record:

Ok and one last one of Sara just because she was nice enough to indulge me:

Hope you find yourself listening to some Don Ellis.  Don't wanna buy an album? You can always rent The French Connection and listen to the soundtrack.

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  1. Nice piece, I love Ellis too, who really finesses those big late 60s/early 70s arrangements that can sound cheesy in other hands. After having ELECTRIC BATH on vinyl for years, I just picked up the CD, and I love hearing "Turkish Bath" edited down into a punchy 45rpm single, from 10:29 to 2:52.

  2. Nice! Thanks for reading, Dan! Yeah I'm a straight up sucker for Don Ellis. The thing that boggles my mind is how he managed to keep a big band together when pretty much no one else was doing that. It must have been a financial nightmare, but he pulled it off. And he did it with a sense of exploration and risk-taking. Very cool!

  3. Ok…so…it’s been 2 years since anyone’s written anything on this post. Yet, I just stumbled upon your Don Ellis piece because I hadn’t heard his stuff for a while, started “Googling” and voila!

    A couple of things that always stood out for me was that, 1: no matter how many time other big bands attempt his charts, there’s always something missing. He had a way of bringing out the raw emotion of the players. There really was an energy that was somehow transported from Don to the players, then to the audience. 2; his approach to writing seemed to be to use simple themes, then turn them in all kinds of directions, often inserting humor for us musicians, while allowing HIS musicians flex their muscles a bit (Pussy Wiggle Stomp, for example -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNVTaITRbEY)

    A real inspiration for me.

    Anyway, thanks for your post.

  4. très grand trompettiste et musicien le temps n a pas de prise sur sa musique toujours actuelle