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Dave Ellis: Talented Tenor on the March

By Published: October 16, 2003
Why Not?

So many jazz musicians have been heralded as the next “big thing” since the 80s it’s hard to keep track. It can cause one, after a while, to cast a sideways glance at the next pronouncement. But when a saxophonist creeps up on you with a lively, burnished tone and a swagger begat from the likes of Dexter... maybe it’s time not to ask why, but to say why not.

Dave Ellis isn’t a “young lion” at 35, but he’s not a name that’s out there in the jazz world. He’s enough of a tenor saxophonist that Orrin Keepnews took on the task of producing his first major-label CD, State of Mind released April 22 on Fantasy’s Milestones label. Listen to it and ask why he shouldn’t be put in the category with some of the other fine players on the scene. His voice on the instrument is still developing, he admits, but he speaks the right language; the lingo of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson and others he has been influenced by.

He’s enough of a player to be a major voice for the Charlie Hunter Trio when first formed and has a wide enough palette to have spent time with Grateful Dead offshoots Ratdog and The Other Ones. He’s also provided a valuable presence for some of Bruce Hornsby’s musical projects.

He likely won’t be saddled with that “next big thing” label, but Ellis is the goods, worth hearing, and worthy of having doors opened for him – even in a period that is getting difficult in the clubs for so many players, and tough in the arid world of recording. This Bay Area west coast cat is fun to hear. Educated at the famous Berkley High music program in California and later the famous Berklee School of Music on the east coast, he comes equipped. He’s erudite and unassuming. He’s talented, yet speaks of his desire to continue to grow and learn.

The new CD is a jazz record, but mainstream isn’t his only turf and it’s not his only goal.

“This is about as straight-ahead a record as I could ever do because I have so many other influences, but I do consider myself a jazz guy,” said the saxophonist. “Since about the age of 9, that’s what my focus was. Of course, you’re assuming a particular meaning of the word jazz. I spent my formative years learning how to improvise and emulating different players that I like – Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Trane and others.”

Ellis is diverse, all right, but the spirit of improvisation is utmost in his playing. The venerable Mr. Keepnews expresses in the liner notes that he thinks Ellis is an excellent talent who has come through the waters forged by Coleman Hawkins and Prez and Henderson and Rollins. He doesn’t burn through music like Johnny Griffin or create the wild abandon of James Carter; his strut is more like Long Tall Dex and Henderson. A robust sound. He has almost an understated sense of swing on bop tunes and a thoughtful ballad style. He’s a good story teller and he’s weaved a good series of tales, from start to finish, on State of Mind.

“He’s one of a kind, and I’m very fortunate to be working with him,” Ellis said of the 80-year-old Keepnews. “There’s a pretty giant generation gap between he and I, except he maintains the childlike attitude that I think it takes to survive in jazz for 50 years, so for me to be around and partake of all his many stories and at the same time be involved in the production of a record that he’s producing was just super informative.”

“He and I had worked on In the Long Run (the second of Ellis’ two previous recordings under his own name) together and had this album planned as the followup to that on Monarch Records, but Monarch went south and did other things. So this record is just the manifestation of something we’d been working on since late in 1999. But he’s fantastic. I was in New York with him doing it and got to know him quite a bit better. We’d been friendly for quite some time, but I got to see what his real place is. When we went to New York, doors were opened and food was laid out and all the cats were always very happy to see Orrin. Eyes brightened up quite a lot. Just to be around that was very fortunate.”

The musicians on the CD, jazz stalwarts all, had not performed with Ellis before, though he knew some of them. Pianist Mulgrew Miller is revered among musicians and his playing is one of the glues to the new music. Carl Allen, Lewis Nash, Vincent Herring, Peter Washington and Christian McBride are all strong throughout.

“I’ve known Christian through Josh Redman, we grew up together here in Berkley [CA], so I’d known him on and off from when he was with Josh. Vincent Herring I’d spent some time with when we were both very young at Casadero Music and Arts Camp in the late 70s. He remembered me from then, so we had a great relationship harkening back to long ago. But I had not played with any of these guys.”

“There were so many things going on with me at the time. It was inspiring, first. I wouldn’t say paralyzing, and I wouldn’t say intimidating either, because any intimidation feeling would have come from my own mind – they were not giving me that in person at all. In fact they were so helpful and so musical, it was such a high level for me that I tell them that I’m spoiled now. Where do you go from there?”

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