Dave Ellis: Of Jams and Jazz

Forrest Dylan Bryant By

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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.


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