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Don Ellis: Essence

Michael McCaw By

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Essence is a gem of an album that warranted reissue long before now. Originally pressed for Pacific in 1962, it's firmly rooted in a lot of the sounds developed during the sixties—one foot steeped in the tradition and the other lunging towards new ideas. And like the best music, it retains its excitement some forty years later.

Don Ellis' early recordings usually featured trumpet-led ensembles full of the angles that permeate his more recognized big band work that emerged less than five years later, but they differed greatly in velocity. Ellis keeps good company here, to say the least, including a vibrant Paul Bley on piano, who proves to be an exceptional foil. The always interactive Gary Peacock holds the bass chair and is served beautifully in this remaster with a strong resonant tone throughout. Following the OJC album New Ideas with Jaki Byard that tried to encompass every modern idea at the time, Essence is a more focused affair that breathes with creativity in a more structured vein.

Also contributing half of the tunes, Ellis plays with a full and robust tone. The spatial setting allows you to really hear his articulation, and it is interesting to hear his ideas develop here, in contrast to the big band setting in which he worked later in his career. His fleet adjustments to his surroundings shed new light on him as a player, especially as he is constantly provoked by Bley.

Opening with a hard-swinging version of Ellington and Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately, the sound is immediate in both performance and audio quality. The musicians keep close to the song's melody but still manage to play with a looseness without losing the rhythm of the song. "Slow Space, the following track, stands in stark contrast to the opener. Penned by Ellis specifically for this recording, it's a meandering ballad for the trumpet; the rest of the parts are almost entirely through-composed and provide a minimal backdrop for his probing instrument.

In the original liner notes Ellis notes that he structured the album to provide a taste of both the familiar and the unknown. And when one hears the ballad "Angel Eyes, featuring some exquisite playing from Ellis, immediately followed by the fairly free improvisations of "Irony, the album seems more coherent than it was initially perceived to be.

The music ranges from the propulsive "Ostinato, where Ellis really moves all over the map in tone and solo techniques, to the Carla Bley-penned blues-form "Donkey, written specifically for Paul Bley and later renamed "Wrong Key Donkey. In the end, it's not a mish-mash of genres. Rather, these are the forms and techniques of the time being worked out first-hand. As the album closes with the Rodgers and Hart song "Lover, you sense that these men are playing within the musical possibilities of the era, from straight hard bop to loft-esque explorations. And it sounds as crisp as ever.

Track Listing: Johnny Come Lately; Slow Space; Ostinato; Donkey; Form; Angel Eyes; Irony; Lover.

Personnel: Don Ellis: trumpet; Paul Bley: piano; Gary Peacock: acoustic bass; Gene Stone: drums (1-3,6-8); Nick Martinis: drums (3,5).

Title: Essence | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Mighty Quinn Productions

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