Dave Ellis: Talented Tenor on the March
There were other factors. “Lots of Latin stuff. Salsa, the large Escovedo family is from that area and also Bill Sommers and those folks were in that area when I was growing up. R&B. There were two things working: what was going on in the house, which was everything Beatles and Stevie Wonder all the way down to Calls of the Humpback Whale. But in the community, all of my influences were with my peers and the people ahead of me. There was me as a fifth grader and Benny Green as a 12th grader and a professional-level player. So that’s what you aspire to. You don’t know that that’s out of the norm. A lot of the people who inspired me were teachers and players in the system at that time. So jazz was a real part of my schooling growing up and I was introduced to it really early and had lots of resources, so that made it a little easier.
“It was records like Saxophone Colossus and the Clifford Brown memorial album that were inspiring me at age 9 and 10. You’re not conscious of what’s getting to you, you just know it’s getting to you. I would consider myself a jazz guy in that way,” he said. “I sometimes think I was born 40 years too late. My interests and saxophone style comes from a much older school.”
Ellis was paying drums as a youngster and by 9 was playing sax after a mandatory semester of clarinet at Berkley. In high school, he gigged in dance bands, including The Uptones, a ska and that at times opened for the likes of Billy Idol and the Go Gos. And after high school, he waited a few years before going east to Berklee, sound decision, he said, because “then I was really ready.”
“The most important thing about that place is the community of people that coalesce there. You can bring a lot of knowledge, but you have to go in there and work on it on your own. The folks there are great. I was very lucky. When I went to Berklee, Roy Hargrove was there, Antonio Hart was there and Josh Redman was at Harvard, so he was coming down and visiting. Chris Cheek and Chris Speed and Mark Turner were there, so as far as the land of tenor players, it was very fertile.
“I had my degrees in production and engineering because, number one, I wanted to stay and graduate, which is rare for an instrumentalist. I also didn’t see where a performance degree would go any further with getting me a gig. I can’t imagine showing up to the rehearsal with a diploma and saying, “Look, I really can play.” I’ve always had an interest in the engineering and production side of it, which I still do.”
After Berklee, it was back to the Bay and playing with guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer named Jay Lane. The playing got good, and the three got serious. Recording for the Charlie Hunter Trio started to come. And steady work, even though Ellis had his production degree at the ready.
“Every time I put my sax down, it seems to have a way of picking itself up and putting itself back in my mouth again,” he quipped.
There were three records with Hunter , Charlie Hunter Trio and Bing, Bing Bing and Ready, Set, Shango. Lane left after the second and ended up with Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead spin-off, Ratdog. It was the link with Lane that got him the gig with the jam band folks.
Playing in front of the illustrious Deadheads was “a very different experience...a positive one,” said Ellis. He said the audiences were patient, and were used to the spirit of improvisation and exploring that is so akin to jazz, even if the music was not as sophisticated. In fact, Ellis said he feels good about being intertwined with two distinct parts of Americana – the Dead and jazz – distinctly American-made and an imbedded part of the nation’s culture.
A tenure with Bruce Hornsby came a short time later and was a good learning experience, said Ellis. He thought Hornsby a “very talented and down to earth” guy who plays music with no thought toward the commercial. The music was straight out of Hornsby himself, who is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get, no-nonsense nice guy, and an outstanding musician.
In each scenario, Ellis fits his sound so that it becomes part of the plan, molding itself where and how it’s needed.