Today, we remember Texas jazz guitarist Herb Ellis, who has passed at 88 in his Los Angeles home after a long bout with Alzheimer's. Over a career that spanned six decades, Ellis worked with a number of legends, including Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong and in the classic line-up of the acclaimed Oscar Peterson Trio. Here's one of our favorite Ellis recordings, from off the beaten path:
NICK DERISO: When you think of Herb Ellis, it's bound to be in a head-wagging, and very rhythmic, jazz mode.
After all, Ellis was justly famous for longtime associations with Peterson and Fitzgerald. He sizzles (see embedded track below) on his own, too.
But Ellis had something else in mind on Texas Swings" (Justice Records), a tribute to the sounds of his home-state roots. Growing up, he had a deep admiration for the flawless lone-star boogies of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. Members of that great old group appear -- adding historical weight to a date that also includes simmering pianist Floyd Domino and country legend Willie Nelson in a rare sideman role on guitar.
That's why Texas Swings," well played and inspired in its concept, remained in no small way shocking.
Ellis' groundbreaking path was eased here by a song list that features several tracks from his mainstream jazz past, including Bird's Billie's Bounce," Earl Hines' Rosetta," the standard It Had to Be You." Others are American songbook favorites or Western tunes cast in a whole new, highly detailed light -- including Sweet Georgia Brown," That Old Rugged Cross" and America the Beautiful."
Turns out, though it may have at first seemed like an odd detour, Texas Swings" was a memorable, vital recording in the Ellis catalog -- at once surprising and then redolent of everything that he had already become so well known for.
The album underscores the notion that Ellis' career was about building on the foundation of single-note southwest-inspired riffs of his youth. There is just the right amount of glowing Western swing on this one to update Ellis' bebop slang.