A trumpeter who dealt in compound time signatures and died of an irregular heartbeat at 44—it sounds like I’m making it up, especially because Don Ellis’s name has become so obscure. He’s remembered now, if at all, as the leader of a splashy late-’60s West Coast big band that briefly established him as the heir to Stan Kenton’s hectoring progressivism. Better he should be remembered for the three engrossing small-group LPs he made after leaving George Russell earlier in the same decade. The rarest, a 1962 quartet date for Pacific Jazz with Paul Bley on piano called Essence, has finally been reissued, and I bet it prompts some re-evaluation. It has an after-hours feeling, but with a difference—by ’62, instead of jamming on the blues for their mutual satisfaction, musicians were going over ideas gleaned from Schoenberg, Cage, and early world music recordings. Ellis’s lightning-fast lines on the densely percussive “Ostinato” should be all you need to pique your interest, and the piece itself represents an intellectual approach to African music that contrasts tantalizingly to the emotional response of that era’s black musicians. But along with tunes by Rodgers and Hart, Strayhorn, and Carla Bley, there are also Ellis originals based on theories of tonality not yet absorbed into jazz—all of it amounting to a fascinating alternative history, answering the question of what free jazz might have sounded like had it evolved directly from Stravinsky and Shorty Rogers.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 27, 2005