In the liner notes Leonard Feather called Don Ellis "the Stan Kenton of the 1970s." After earning a degree in music composition at Boston University, the trumpeter interned with several big bands, Latin jazz bands, Charles Mingus, and George Russell. Expanding his study of ethnomusicology at UCLA, Ellis formulated ideas about innovative ways to "break the rules" of rhythm and harmony in jazz. Espousing third stream and free jazz, the trumpeter played a specially made four-valve model that enabled him to produce quarter tones that were somewhat accurate; however, the idea never caught on because it's possible to do the same just by "lipping" or "bending" desired notes. That he was six feet tall, blonde, bearded and personable added to the bandleader's popularity, but it was Ellis' focus on complex time signatures that made his work unique.
His big band was founded in 1963 in Hollywood. The band members on this reissue include bassists Frank De La Rosa, Chuck Domanico, pianist Ray Neapolitan, two drummers, and sections of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones. Recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Pacific Jazz Festival of 1966, this CD adds three pieces that were not included on the original LP: "Crete Idea," "27/16," and "Beat Me Daddy, 7 to the Bar." Ellis wrote and arranged each piece on the session except for Hank Levy's "Passacaglia and Fugue."
At the peak of his career Don Ellis suffered a fatal heart attack on December 17, 1978 in Hollywood, leaving behind his wife and two sons, Brav and Tran. The jazz world lost an innovator, but much of his recorded work and his lasting influences remain.
"33 222 1 222" starts off the session with obvious Mingus influences in the quasi-6/8 driving rhythmic pulse. Unison handclaps and three percussion players back up his stirring trumpet solo. Ellis' clear tone and polished technique made him the perfect small ensemble trumpet player. On "Concerto for Trumpet" he works with a looseness and comfortable ease while fronting the ensemble. Then, on the cadenza, with dramatic bass tremolos providing his backdrop, Ellis pours out expressive modal messages that demonstrate use of the quarter tone and dedication to the melody. Tom Scott's alto saxophone stands in the solo spotlight for three tracks; at that time he was only 18 years old. Organist Dave Mackay is featured on "27/16," an eerie piece which reflects the composer's "far out" reputation and his risk-taking approach. From startling organ chords to an unsettling alto saxophone trio by Tom Scott, Ira Schulman and Reuben Leon, the piece borrows from Gothic art and yet manages to supply a fair amount of free jazz within boundaries.
The whole band works out on "Passacaglia and Fugue," building up to the leader's trumpet solo with a very loud dynamic level. Like several of his other arrangements, this one ends with a powerful full-orchestra climax. Ron Meyers is featured on "Crete Idea," whose exotic harmonies, dissonant pitch combinations and 20/8 time signature make it an ideal supporting arrangement for his vocal-like tenor trombone sound. The up-tempo boogie-woogie "Beat Me Daddy, 7 to the Bar" begins with the leader's ripping trumpet solo and passes the spotlight around. Baritone saxophonist John Magruder and tenor saxophonist Ron Starr each take turns, then Tom Scott introduces the saxello to the audience. Similar in pitch to the soprano saxophone, it drew wild applause from the Monterey audience as Scott wound his way up and down the instrument. Steve Bohannon and Alan Estes, each sitting behind a drum set, join conguero Chino Valdes in a percussion frenzy to bring the festival session to a close. The encore, "New Nine" summarizes Don Ellis' 1966 approach to big band arranging with: An unusual meter, full band climaxes, several creative jazz soloists, a team of three bowed basses gaining access to the microphone, spunky organ riffs, another powerful percussion furor, and a loose trumpet cadenza that reflects his enthusiasm for freedom and innovation. Highly recommended.