Dave Ellis: Of Jams and Jazz


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I started playing jazz when I was ten, and I can go 'til I'm eighty and in a sense, I'll never be in style but I'll never be out of style.
Tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis has been a stalwart of the Bay Area jazz scene for years. An East Bay native, he honed his craft in the famed Berkeley High School jazz program and, appropriately enough, the Berklee school of Music in Boston. After returning to the Bay Area, he spent time in the original version Charlie Hunter Trio as well as several other groups, and began recording a series of critically acclaimed albums. The most recent of these, 2003's State of Mind , won the Outstanding Jazz Album honor at the 2004 California Music Awards. He has since joined forces with his sister, r&b vocalist Zoë Ellis, in a new project named Zadell .

This interview was conducted in the summer of 2003, shortly after the release of State of Mind. It is presented for the first time here.

All About Jazz: What's the last book you read?

Dave Ellis: I'm reading two books right now. One is a copy of the Upanishads [a series of sacred Hindu works], that I got from Peter Russell, and the other is a book called The Elegant Universe , by Brian Greene, which is about string theory.

AAJ: Is that an interest of yours?

DE: Yes. Both things are strangely connected, so I've been into that pretty recently. The Elegant Universe takes a minute. It's in layperson's language, but it's still pretty complicated.

AAJ: So these are both the sort of things that you read regularly, spirituality and science?

DE: Yeah, the whole Tao of Physics type of thing, which is another book that I've read recently. That's really fascinating to me, both ends of it. The interesting thing about books like the Upanishads relative to string theory is that knowledge that's 8,000 or more years old, and was clearly understood then, is being borne out in very advanced scientific theory today. I can't get enough of that.

AAJ: Is it possible to draw a connection between that and your own philosophy of music?

DE: I think so. Just from a purely practical, scientific point of view, if you check into string theory, the current idea that the smallest piece of stuff is basically a vibrating string, and the notion that vibration creates everything that we observe.

I've always felt that — and I have no idea where it came from, but we're talking about back to single-digit age here — that I have a real difficult time doing things that I don't think are worthwhile. It's sometimes hard to say what's worthwhile, but music has always felt like a worthwhile endeavor, even back when I couldn't necessarily figure out why. But when you make this sort of connection... I have a degree in production and engineering from Berklee, and we had to take classes in math and science for recording, which was my first introduction to the connection between math and sound — you're graphing sine waves and then you realize that these are the components that make up sound.

And then there the whole sort of notion of "vibrations" in the air... there's so many similarities between science, metaphysics, and philosophy. It's absolutely part and parcel of my music. I don't write tunes with titles like "The Tao of Physics" — it's not that specific or upfront in the music, but certainly my state of mind infers this course that I'm on.

AAJ: Do you do a lot of writing?

DE: No. I've got a lot of tune titles, but nothing to go with them! I used to do a lot of writing in college, and later in the Charlie Hunter Trio we did a lot of group writing. And I've done some writing for each of the three records that I've put out, but a lot of that writing had deadlines to force me to do it. It's a difficult process, I'm sure, for every composer. But for me, I've always focused more on playing.

That's changing, because I'm really trying to figure out at this point in my career if there is such a thing as a "Dave Ellis song" — what my sound is, compositionally. Most of what I wrote in college was more r&b oriented — computer music with synthesizers and drum machines and stuff. I still enjoy that, and my music at home still winds up being full of samples and loops. It's like my "under a rock" type stuff. I enjoy that, and I do it, but I have not yet really incorporated it into what I do in public, so that's sort of what's coming up.

AAJ: So you're interested in incorporating the r&b flavor and the samples with the jazz?

DE: Yes, I always have been. The interesting thing about the Charlie Hunter Trio was that we always had that vibe right at the top. Jay Lane, the drummer in the trio at that time, is a real home-recording composer. He's crankin' jams all the time, as we say. And I have a lot of friends who do that; we've been doing that since 4-track cassettes were first made available to us after high school, in the mid-'80s. And we're still doing it. That vibe was always up front. The Charlie Hunter Trio was an improvisational format, but always with funky beats. Charlie still does that; he's really good at that, working it into an acoustically-based jazz format.

AAJ: Was that the trio's secret of success?

DE: Yeah. Coupled with the fact that initially we played and practiced and rehearsed for the pure joy of doing that; the gigs were a side benefit, and something for us to rehearse for. We didn't intend what eventually happened with it; it was a very organic thing, just for the joy of music. People tended to put something in front of the word "jazz" to classify us, like "acid jazz" or whatever. "Testosterone jazz." That mix of danceable beat, high-energy music, was a key to that group's success, and I think it remains a large part of what Charlie's crowd comes to see.

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.

AAJ: The "tradition?"

DE: Yeah, but people have a really limited view I think, when you say "tradition." It brings about the idea that current jazz artists are trying to re-create something that happened in the past, but I don't necessarily see it that way. Anyway, there are certainly differences between jazz and jam bands, but the similarities allowed me to bridge the gap.

One of the things that was spectacular, and I know I was very fortunate, is that I was like a rookie playing in the Super Bowl working with The Other Ones. The fans were so devastated by Jerry's death, and they hadn't had their fix of the Dead in years — and these people were used to monthly fixes, you know? But now years went by and they were losing it. So to be there in that real estate between Bob Weir and Bruce Hornsby, surrounded by that and the audience... I got a really unique perspective on what the whole thing was about.

For me, I grew up in Berkeley, and I honestly avoided the Dead like the plague when I was growing up. For somebody who was interested in jazz, that scene did not work, you know? The party was not something I was interested in. And to some extent, the Dead was an excuse to have a party. And the musical end of it was something I thought of as kind of lightweight. But there were a couple of times on tour — I don't remember where we were, but there were about 35,000 people out there, in a good mood, and picking up on the slightest swell in energy and creativity from the band. That is just a fascinating thing; it's a real phenomenon. You would look out on a sea of people, but it was all very friendly and calm, and positive. Man, I took my camera out on stage and started taking pictures of the audience!

And then a couple of those nights, Bruce Hornsby rendered a few of the Garcia and Robert Hunter tunes in a way that was more familiar to me, and I understood the value of those compositions. They're real songs, whether you play them acoustically or orchestrate them or whatever. I realized that although most of them didn't focus on being virtuosic on their instruments, these songs are timeless. I didn't understand that before. But it's an element in jazz that I find completely true. For me, that's great. I started playing jazz when I was ten, and I can go 'til I'm eighty and in a sense, I'll never be in style but I'll never be out of style. And in a way, the Dead is like that too. You either like it or you don't, but you can't deny it.

AAJ: You went to Berkeley High School, which has an almost legendary status in the jazz community. Was it like that when you were there? Did the reputation of the place have an impact on you?

DE: Yeah. I came there at a very interesting time. Phil Hardymon was the person who implemented the initial program; by "program" I mean his students started in fourth grade and by the time they finished high school, they were essentially pros. But Phil was a very special person. He knew how to recognize talent, he knew how to suggest instruments, he composed pieces for elementary school bands to introduce them to jazz and improvisation. He was kind and friendly to the fourth graders, but as they got older it got a little more intense and serious! But he was doing it all simultaneously.

I grew up — myself and Joshua Redman and our generation of guys — watching Benny Green, Craig Handy, Paul Hanson and these guys. When we were in elementary school, they were seniors. Their status was — and I still believe this, 'cause I have the tapes — the peak of the Berkeley High band. '77-'78-'79. The band was just ridiculous, especially relative to other groups. I mean, the lead trumpet player's hitting C above high G, and Bennie Green's like two years old and sounding Oscar Peterson already. You know, it's just not normal! But young guys and girls grow up seeing that — they came to Franklin elementary where we all were — and it blew us away, but we didn't realize that that's not a normal level to be at when you're a senior in high school! So that's what we aspired to.

Now, right when I got to Berkeley High, Phil Hardymon left because of health issues. That was a devastating thing for me, because this was my goal growing up. It wasn't football or anything else, just being in that jazz ensemble. At that time it would have represented an entire school career of practicing in anticipation of getting in this group. But then Charles Hamilton took over. And because of the legends of the past, my peers were as responsible as Charles was for remembering that tradition and continuing it. Because Charles was not Phil Hardymon, especially at that time. And so over the last 20 years, he and the students have had to re-establish Berkeley as a great place. I think the key to their success since Charles has taken over is building on the tradtion, and realizing that it's the students who must understand the level that is expected at the school. The quality mirrors the level of understanding by the students. Charles provides the atmosphere.

The growth has been incredible. I judged the high school competition at Monterey this year, which Berkeley High won for the first time in about 12 years. They're always in the finals but rarely win. This year it was unanimous, but this is the year that Berkeley High was not expected to win: they didn't have any virtuoso super-soloists, but the band came together as a unit. And Charles was just fantastic as a leader. I had a tear in my eye. It's come a long way. There have been a number of phases; some bands are much better than others over the course of a generation, but the focus on jazz as something that kids in school aspire to be good at has remained the same. You know, reputation carries its own weight, Sometimes the band was not so good, but that didn't hurt the reputation. Just look at how many professional musicians have come out of there.

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.

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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