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Dave Ellis: Of Jams and Jazz

By Published: January 4, 2005
AAJ: There's a link there between what Charlie does and the whole jam band scene, which is really resurgent now. You've had experience in that scene as well, working with the artists formerly known as the [Grateful] Dead...

DE: [laughs]

AAJ: ...How did you wind up working with those cats?

DE: Well, the short version goes like this. The first record the Charlie Hunter Trio did was on Les Claypool's label, Prawn Song. Les did a recording session with Rob Wasserman, the bassist, and he brought Jay from our group along to do that. It was like a commercial or something. So Jay got introduced to Rob, who at the time was working in a duo with Bob Weir, just a little project of their own. And they asked Jay to come and play, so it became a little trio, and Jay eventually left the Charlie Hunter Trio to focus on that.

About a year and a half later, when they had changed the name of the band from "Scaring The Children" to "Ratdog," they were adding more people. They had [pianist] Johnny Johnson come in and play, and [harmonica player/guitarist] Matthew Kelly was in there. And then Jerry Garcia died, which threw everything into an upheaval.

Now, I left Charlie's group in 1995 or so, and began work on my first album for Monarch Records in '96. At that time, Ratdog was looking for a lead voice, but because Jerry had only been gone for eight months or so, it would have been blasphemous for them to consider having a guitar lead. So they wanted to do something different, and Jay said, "hey, I know somebody we could bring in here," so I just came up and started hanging out and playing, and it just blossomed. As soon as the impact of Jerry's death had been accepted and they'd moved beyond it to a certain point, the guys put The Other Ones together as a band.

Each of the guys left from the Dead had projects of their own going on, so everybody kind of brought a guy along from their own project. So I was Bob's guy. [Drummer] John Molo was Bruce Hornsby's guy. The band all got together and agreed on Steve Kimock and Mark Karan; two guys to cover Jerry's spot. And Mickey Hart had his entire "R.A.M.U." [Random Access Musical Universe] setup, which involved a lot of people backstage that you never see, that was his crew. So that's the relatively short version.

AAJ: We're gonna get back to this in a moment, but you brought up something interesting that I don't want to lose: cross-pollination. There were so many different things going on in the Bay Area at that time, and you were all communicating. And that was less than ten years ago. But it seems like the scene has changed since then. How would you characterize that change?

DE: We're in a deep valley right now. I've been around here forever, and I've seen peaks and valleys. They generally come in relatively regular five or six-year intervals. But there were some very high times, and a very fertile scene in the early '90s, with the Hunter Trio, Alphabet Soup, the Broun Fellinis... all kinds of bands. It was fertile ground: lots of small clubs with jazz where you could go in and pay five bucks and stay there all night listening to music.

But those go in waves. Currently, it's a very, very bad situation. For instance, there's not a national-profile jazz club within the city of San Francisco. And that's a real indication of the state of things. Many, many of my old colleagues have moved away, to New York or LA. I'm one of the few, or maybe one of the only remaining guys from that crowd. It's a very shallow pool right now. I think the current administration and the state of the economy and terrorism threats and all that stuff have deepened the valley this time, and extended the time period.

On the bright side, what I feel right now — being somewhat sensitive to it — is a swell from underneath of the need for creative outlets for everybody. And that blossoms when it blossoms, I can't anticipate when that'll be, but I'm beginning to feel it. Not just from musicians, either, but from the general population. There's a missing element, and what I've seen in the past is that people begin to hunger for places to join together and things to hang around.

AAJ: Okay, now getting back to The Other Ones, how does it differ playing in that sort of a jam band environment from playing in a straight-ahead jazz environment? Is it a matter of how you play, or how you interact with the audience?

DE: That's an excellent question. First, let me say how they're similar. Most often I'm asked how could you possibly have gone from one to the other? And I point out the similarity in intent of the organization. They're both creative, open, and improvisational. Now the Dead is a phenomenon. It's its own thing, in a way. It's obviously had the thousands of spinoffs and created lots of pockets in other kinds of music, but the idea that you could combine very good, thoughtful compositions with an open format of creativity and creation is just about exactly what jazz is.

As far as differences, the demographic is significantly different. Harmonically, jazz is much more complex. And I think I can say with confidence that it requires more practice and study as an instrumentalist to become accomplished in the field of jazz.

When you say "jazz," it's such a broad thing, but I generally think of it as the continuation of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Miles, Trane, and so forth. That lineage.

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