I was half-asleep in my bunk on a Fred Wesley tour bus a few years ago heading for the next where-the-hell-are-we European city when the sound of an amazing saxophonist literally pulled my eyes wide open. It sounded like an old bootleg recording of Sonny Rollins playing standards that I was unaware of, full of rhythmic and harmonic twists and turns. The sound was deep and rich and ever changing colors. I popped my head out of my bunk curtains wanting to confirm my assumption of Sonny's presence when to my surprise the response came back, "No, it's a live recording of Pee Wee Ellis!" This was my first awakening to the talent of the great Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis.
Of course I had known of Pee Wee's standing as one of the key figures in the funk revolution that took place in the mid-1960's. I knew that he had written and arranged some of the James Brown classics like, "Cold Sweat", "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud", "Mother Popcorn", "Get It Together", "Lickin' Stick" and dozens of others. I also knew Pee Wee as a member of the funky JB's with Bobby Byrd, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. But I wasn't aware that Pee Wee's amazing talent went way beyond the funk world. That he was playing with Ron Carter and Chuck Mangione in High School and that he studied with Sonny Rollins when he was 16. That he was playing with the Sonny Payne Trio in New York when he got the call in 1965 to join the James Brown Revue. That he was the musical director and arranger for the CTIKudu record label working with George Benson, Hank Crawford, Esther Phillips and many others. Or that he formed a band with another great jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman in the late 70's.
Lucky me I just spent the last three weeks playing and listening with great joy to the one and only Pee Wee himself as Fred Wesley (also one of the founding fathers of funk) invited Pee Wee to be the special guest on our latest European tour. What a great experience it was for me playing "Cold Sweat" and "Chicken" and other Pee Wee classics every night. What amazed me though was that Pee Wee made funk sound jazzy and jazz sound funky. Somehow he synthesized the two into one great music. His playing made it clear to me that jazz had had a great influence on funk and funk had had a great influence on jazz. Pee Wee plays very melodically and yet his sound is also full of dirt and grit. His solos would swing even on the straight eighth note feel of his funky soulful classics. I was in awe listening to the depth of his inventiveness. Interestingly I had a similar kind of feeling playing with Pee Wee as I did with Stan Getz a number of years earlier even though the music was a completely different style. Somehow the depth of their playing touched me as being similar.
Pee Wee has been working a lot over the past two decades with the great Van Morrison (Pee Wee and Van both live outside of London) as well as with Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley (the "baddest" funky horn section in the universe). Pee Wee has also recorded many of his own albums over the years each with a different flavor, some more jazz some more funk. His latest recording is called Ridin' Mighty High and is on the Skip Records label out of Hamburg, Germany. It's already climbing the charts in Europe and will soon be here in the States. Check Pee Wee out when you get a chance, he's more than worth the listen.