Dec. 17th 2012 marks the 34th anniversary of the death of the trumpeter Don Ellis. A 1956 graduate of Boston University's music composition department, he began his career playing trumpet in the Glenn Miller (Ray McKinley, cond.), Charlie Barnett and Maynard Ferguson bands. In the late 50's he recorded with Charles Mingus and in the early 1960's joined George Russell's influential sextet. It was also at this time that Ellis began recording as a bandleader, releasing three albums between 1960 and 1962.
His first, called "How Time Passes", borrows its name from the title of an essay by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The album was recorded in early October 1960 and featured a top-tier rhythm section of pianist Jaki Byard (who also doubles on alto sax), bassist Ron Carter and drummer Charlie Persip. Here are two tunes from this album:
Don Ellis - Sallie
A very lyrical melody, which could easily have words written to it. Note the casual way in which the dissonant F and D are used in the final B major chord. The influence of George Russell is palpable throughout this album, and especially in this bar.
My apologies for the switching between the keys of B and Cb. I try to let the melody lead the way when I transcribe, but if I hold to that exclusively, sometimes the melody demands a double-sharp chord symbol or something outlandish like that. I also find that mid-tune key changes can be distracting. I have tried to make the tune as readable and intuitive as possible. If someone has suggestions to make this clearer, I'm all ears.
Don Ellis - A Simplex One
A tune which betrays a heavy Thelonious Monk influence. The progression near the end borrows from the harmonic progression of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps", which had only been known for about two years when "A Simplex One" was recorded. The two melodies may be played separately or simultaneously. The second melody may be an experiment with a 12-tone row idea.
Ellis' later work is much more well-known than these early records. In 1965 he formed the Don Ellis Orchestra, which stunned the audience at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival. By the late 60's the band had garnered a following among younger audiences, playing at many colleges and making a famous appearance at the Fillmore West alongside the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Ellis had also become involved in recording soundtracks, contributing to the soundtrack of Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby". In 1972 his Orchestra recorded the soundtrack to the hit film "The French Connection", and continued to perform widely. In 1975, Ellis suffered from a heart attack which set him back quite considerably, although he was performing again by 1976. After continuing to have heart problems, Ellis stopped playing drums with his Orchestra, and eventually stopped performing altogether. He suffered a fatal heart attack on Dec. 17th, 1978.
Don Ellis 1934-1978