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Dave Ellis: Of Jams and Jazz

By Published: January 4, 2005
AAJ: Ah, I was going to ask about "Sunshowers." That's a great tune that doesn't get covered very often. State of Mind has a lot of really interesting selections like that; what is it that attracts you to a particular composition?

DE: Oh, man! That intangible thing that you cannot describe. That transcendent thing in a tune that speaks to you from some other place. That. The indescribable thing that makes art worthwhile. It just speaks to you.

Now, I'm a Woody Shaw fan too, because he's one of the guys I heard growing up, and I saw him a lot at the Keystone Korner. The funny thing about that is that he was often with Joe Henderson who I didn't really like in my younger days; I was not a Joe fan then as I am now. I was way more into Woody, which is a trip now that I think of it! Anyway, I've always felt like outside of my ability to play the instrument, I have a good understanding of that intangible something. To reproduce it is another thing, but I think I have a good understanding of what valuable music is.

I know that's completely subjective. Obviously I can't sit here and say, "I know what's good." Maybe I should say I know what's not good! I think Orrin recognized that, and he's certainly a master of it. On the other hand, Orrin is fond of saying he's made one of every kind of record, except one that's sold! But he has never been into it for that reason.

AAJ: You close the album with a very unusual, almost inverted version of "Summertime." That arrangement was byone of our local legends, saxophonist Noel Jewkes...

DE: Yes!

AAJ: ...What's your relationship with Noel?

DE: He was my teacher. He was one of four important teachers who I've had through my career, and I studied on and off with him between the ages of about eleven and fourteen or fifteen, and then there was a brief stint a few years later. That tune was on his Dr. Legato Express record in 1978, retitled "Winterlude."

Noel is just completely creative. I remember going to see him one time and he had his recording gear set up in his garage, which consisted of a couple of reel-to-reel decks running simultaneously, and he had a piece of plastic PVC tubing that he was sort of whacking on, and he said, "play over this!" And I'm like twelve or thirteen! Talk about lessons on how to be creative... And he can play piano and bass— he's a multi-instrumentalist — and he's always reworking everything. I was a little hesitant to put this tune on the record, because I know Noel, and he probably thought it was inadequate about five seconds after he originally recorded it in 1978. So to regurgitate that may not have made him so happy.

But that song, "Winterlude," just became a part of my life, and I wanted to share that with people. I've been playing it with my current group, and it gets a lot of positive response from the audience, but also from the band. They're just like, "man, that is killer!" People ask to see the music. It was a septet or octet tune when Noel did it, and I just broke it down to a quartet tune, so it's missing a lot of the elements that I really enjoyed. But when we were rehearsing in New York and those guys were looking at the changes — Mulgrew, Peter Washington, and Carl Allen — I'll never forget how they approached it. I've been around a lot of different musicians, and in some ways top level guys can have top level egos. But it was completely different here. Those guys said, "wow, this is a trip; why don't we slow it down so that the changes can really be heard," and they had all kinds of suggestions about how to help craft this tune into what I wanted it to be. I played them the original so that they could get a feel for it. And with their help, it turned into one fine record. Those guys are just about music.

AAJ: Last question: what's in your CD player right now?

DE: Well, I have a two year old daughter, so oftentimes it's The Wiggles. But right now, it's Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Volume 2: Mission Eternal , and also Free For All , so I guess I'm in an Art Blakey mode right now. And Eric Benet. How about you? What's in your CD player?

AAJ: Why, your disc, of course!

DE: Good, that's the right answer!

Visit Dave Ellis on the web.

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Dave Ellis: Talented Tenor on the March

Photo Credit
B&W by Henry Benson

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