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Dave Ellis: Of Jams and Jazz

By Published: January 4, 2005
AAJ: Have you maintained professional connections with your high school associates?

DE: Oh, absolutely. Completely and totally. In fact, my best friends are still the guys I was in the band with back then: Miles Perkins, who's the director of Mingus Amungus, was the bassist in that band; Josh Redman was in the band of course. Many people who are not directly in the performance area now but are involved in music in other ways, like Jeff Lipton, who's vice president of a company called Pulse 3D; they do this thing called virtual personalities, which is an extremely hip, forward-looking IT endeavor. He was the baritone saxophonist in our section. We were all very close and have remained that way.

AAJ: Now, let's get to this new album [ State of Mind ]... Your first two albums as a leader were very well received, but then there was a long lag between those and the current album. Was that intentional, or were you a victim of circumstances?

DE: Mostly circumstances. If you look at the recording date on my new album, you'll see it's March and November of 2001. The circumstances were that I had another album on my Monarch Records deal, and [producer] Orrin Keepnews and I had agreed to work on it together; we'd actually begun the planning stages back in 1999. But then Monarch pulled the plug on the deal by saying, "we want you to play smooth jazz, and if you don't, you can't do anything." So I said, "well, I won't be doing anything. Forget it."

It's funny, you know, "smooth jazz" is another one of those broad terms. I have a lot of electronic music experience, and I enjoy doing that, but I'm certainly not going to be told what I'm gonna do in order to make a record. So when Orrin got what was essentially an eMusic deal to make a record, he and I re-ignited the process to get this record back in motion, and we made it happen just like that.

Then, because of the state of the record business, which has been in flux since about that time, eMusic was bought by Universal and the project got shelved. Then Orrin had to work to acquire the masters, and then go about finding another home for it. Orrin's long association with Fantasy Records provided the outlet, and of course it's a little easier these days to sell a completed master tape than to ask a company to fund one, so it worked out very well [the record was released in 2003 by Milestone, an imprint of Fantasy].

AAJ: That was a pretty long gestation period; how much of your original vision made it into the final record?

DE: It's better than we originally anticipated, actually. Of course, Orrin is just one degree — or half a degree, really — away from everyone in the world of jazz. In fact he may be at ground zero! I don't think I would have been quite prepared to play with the guys I wound up playing with on State of Mind at the time we started. It was very helpful to have that extra time to progress and think about the record. Between 1999 and 2001 when it was actually completed, it grew into something bigger and better than what we originally thought of.

Orrin has always been very open with me about sharing in the production process, choosing music, talking about players, tempos, keys, all those wonderful things. We had the time to really craft this thing, and that's why I think it's better than it would have been otherwise.

AAJ: You've said in previous interviews that you believe an album should be a cohesive whole, something that you can listen to from start to finish. How do you achieve that?

DE: By paying close attention to what's needed at what time, during the course of an hour's worth of music. A lot like you might script a performance, but the advantage of recording is that you can be fine in your detail.

Things that we considered were not just key and tempo, but who are the players? What are the consistent elements? You know, this was two recording sessions with essentially two different sets of people. But we thought about what the common threads would be. One was me of course, the other was to use Mulgrew [Miller, on piano] throughout the whole thing. Also type and era of the tunes were considered. So you've got a couple from me, which are new and represent me at the time. And Orrin said, "I want a '40s ballad, maybe an Ellington thing, maybe something that isn't well known," so the tune "Something to Live For" came out of that.

So we didn't just pull together a couple of good tunes and a bunch of filler — which nobody goes into the studio thinking they're going to do, but you know how often that winds up being the result. What was so nice about hanging out with Orrin was it meant going over to his house and looking at his Grammys [laughs] — hey, that didn't hurt — and listening to music, saying, "Okay, what've we got here? What's needed?" He wanted to do something a little more contemporary, more like a Woody Shaw or Joe Henderson kind of thing, and "Sunshowers" came out of that. There's a tune that nobody ever thought of doing.

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