Don Ellis – Time Lord

September 19, 2012

A jazz musician of extraordinary ability, Don Ellis was many things: a superb trumpet soloist, a gifted composer, an outstanding bandleader; but perhaps most important of all, he was a master of intricate time signatures. It is this last quality that most readily explains why his music, much of it recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has not aged in the slightest. All of it is as engagingly vibrant as it was on the day it was first played. His big band music is breathtakingly exciting, and always brilliantly performed. The music Don Ellis wrote and arranged for his band consistently demonstrates how far out of his time he truly was. He still is; but this is not to suggest that there is anything too far out of reach, although it might well have seemed that way to some of his listeners three decades ago.

Don Ellis - Electric Bath CD cover

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Consider just three of Don Ellis’s many albums; all of them by his big band, which is the way I first heard this masterful musician: Electric Bath (Columbia), Autumn (Columbia) and ‘Live’ at Monterey (Pacific Jazz). Throughout, the band scorches through startling charts, in time signatures as unexpected as 7/4 (Pussy Wiggle Stomp), 17/4 (New Horizons), and 19/4 (33 222 1 222), and swings like mad in all of them. Astonishingly, Don’s music places no severely limiting intellectual demands on the listener; it is all instantly understandable and wholly captivating. And always, there is plenty to stimulate the mind.

Don Ellis - Autumn CD cover

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For example, the marvelous 20-minute Variations For Trumpet takes the listener through six sections and time signatures of 5/4, 9/4, 7/4 and 32/8. Written down like that, it might seem intimidating, yet it is not in the least difficult to appreciate. In every moment, there is a sense of wonder and joy; section work and solos that bring delight, even laughter, in response  to their audacity.
Don Ellis is the star of the show on all of these three CDs, with his writing and hot trumpet playing, complete with experimental use of a ring modulator and a specially made ¼-tone trumpet, and his occasional helping hand on a third drum kit (two drummers and three bass players were the norm). But he never hogs the limelight and there are other notable instrumental soloists: among the brass are Glenn Stuart, Bob Harmon, Glenn Ferris, the saxophonists include Ira Schulman, Sam Falzone and Frank Strozier, while the drummers who keep the exhilaration high include Ralph Humphrey and Steve Bohannon.

Don Ellis - Monterey-cd

Pacific Jazz
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Not many bands have taken up the challenges set by Don Ellis during his short lifetime, but reissues such as these present his fans with wonderful opportunities to hear some of the most extraordinary, and some of the best, big band music that has ever been recorded.

Although these thoughts have centered upon his big band material, Don Ellis was by no means restricted to this format. Indeed, hearing his playing with small groups, such as on Haiku, the subtle depths of his work is perhaps more readily apparent, the music delightfully patterned with delicate light and shade.

Don Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 44, but his music and his influence and importance live on, something that is strikingly apparent from John Vizzusi’s Electric Heart (Sight & Sounds Films), a video documentary that traces the career of this notable musician. This video is an excellent way in which to learn much about Don Ellis. In this film, Don Ellis’s musical talent is set out, along with clear statements of the respect and admiration others felt for this remarkable man. 

dvd-cover Don EllisTowards the end of the film, one of the few bands that have taken up the challenge of Don Ellis’s music puts in a lively appearance. This is a tribute band that includes in its ranks Sam Falzone and Ralph Humphrey. Through this video it is even more apparent today than it was 30-something years ago, that Don Ellis was timeless. The video is available from the makers at and is a must for all who love big band jazz and especially those who have a special place in their hearts for Don Ellis, a true Lord of Time.



And speaking of tribute performances, a Don Ellis reunion band is among the mouthwatering cast assembled by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute for Groovin’ Hard, their 2012 big band spectacular. Among other reunion bands are those featuring the musical legacies of Louie Bellson, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Buddy Rich. If you are lucky enough to be in the neighborhood of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel on West Century Blvd between 10 October and 14 October 2012 you can find details at:


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