on “Don Ellis at Fillmore,” 1970, Columbia Records (vinyl); available on CD (Wounded Bird Records, 2005); selected for the day Sigmund Freud was born in 1856.*
I sit in the tiny orchestra pit in the cocktail lounge of the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. It’s curtain time for a topless review. As the lights dim and the bandstand rises toward the stage, the conductor glowers at his small ensemble. “Play like hell or I’ll kill ya.”
The bandstand shudders to a hydraulic halt halfway between the pit and the dancers’ feet. From then on, all I can see above us is the occasional female forearm, breast, or nipple (animated, self-possessed, each would have been described as “perky” at the time) peek over the lip of the stage. Every time I look up, the man standing crushed against me, a Cuban bass player who speaks no English, plays his note and winks conspiratorially at me in the gloaming.
I was sixteen then, special guest of my mother’s brother, my Uncle Gene Smookler, who played saxophone in the house bands at the Frontier and Caesar’s Palace, where as a young teenager I previously had been mortified to find myself face to bosom – dozens of bosoms, on women wearing feathered tiaras and more make-up than a parish of Avon ladies – in the dressing room for a headliner topless dinner show (yes, recalling that old headline: Headless Man Found in Topless Bar). Talk about casual nudity! Then again, I was self-conscious enough for the room – for The Strip, drowning in sweaty mortification instead of, uh, going with the flow in those heydays of the sexual revolution, Playboy, and the nascent women’s liberation movement. My beloved uncle didn’t bother to hide his amused sympathy, leavening the boredom of what for him was just another day at the office.
He was twelve when I was born and my best buddy during my early childhood, when my parents rented the apartment next door to my grandparents’, which Grampa happened to own. When just a young adult himself, Uncle Gene played sax, clarinet, and flute with the band at the University of Denver hockey and basketball games, which eventually led him to travel the planet with the NORAD stage band, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman’s road outfit (sans its deceased namesake). He would sneak me into the D.U. games via a shortcut through the back of Canino’s Pizza Parlor. Post-game at Canino’s I was introduced to pepperoni, Coors beer, and my first Canadian: a student down from Windsor, Ontario, attending D.U. on a hockey scholarship.
And during a trip to Vegas, before university, my uncle introduced me to “Don Ellis at Fillmore.” I think we were at the apartment of Chuck and Vicki Dennis, Uncle Gene’s friends from university and among the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met. Chuck, a public school music teacher, was a trumpet player and to my mind the coolest, most together guy on the planet – slim, handsome, partnered with a gorgeous and vibrant woman, smoked a pipe like Hefner, drove a forest green Austin-Healey 3000 with leather seats… He now tells me that, to the best of his memory, my uncle had schmoozed with Don Switzer, the bass trombone player in Ellis’s band on the Fillmore album. Apparently Switzer told my uncle, “Everybody was so stoned, it’s amazing [the album] turned out so well.” So Chuck went out and bought it.
After probably several hundred listenings over four decades, what’s left of my hair still stands ovationally when Bill Graham announces, at the beginning of the first cut, “A warm welcome, please, for the Don Ellis Orchestra,” and the band roars into “Final Analysis” like a night train on the prairies. It’s very likely the most exciting piece of music I know, with Ellis’s “The Great Divide” (on disk two of the set) a close second.
The chart: The part counterpoint and brass choruses are conventional big band, but then again they’re like nothing you’ve heard before or since. The transitions can bring you to tears: the arrangement just drives and drives and drives, an unstoppable force. Ellis’s trumpet solo through a ring modulator verges on sci-fi horror movie soundtrack at first (you can hear him use the device more inventively on the DVD, “Don Ellis: Electric Heart”), but then it cruises and lands brilliantly, and somehow the drums, holding firm to Ellis’s trademark shifting arrhythmia and time signatures, make the whole thing coherent. Then there’s John Graydon playing his guitar through a Talk Box before Peter Frampton had heard of the thing. Note that Ellis saw the potential of a solid-body electric in jazz; as Ed Bickert proved even more convincingly, there’s no reason the music has to confine itself to the soft-edge tone of hollow-body archtops. Go Fender! Glenn Ferris’s solo proves that winners actually sometimes play ’bone, though it might well be easier to improvise on a chainsaw. Ellis’s novice part on the drum exchanges is perhaps weaker than the others, but more nuanced than what many drummers achieve in a whole career. (The story goes that he took up the drum kit largely so that he could demonstrate his complex rhythmical schemes to his bands.) And where extended drum solos can kill a tune, these work coherently with, and build, the musical locomotion. Then there’s that hilarious baritone chorus of the penultimate chord, in “the reductio ad absurdum” ending, “stolen,” Ellis says in his liner notes, “from classical composers (who should have known better).”
Ironically, unconventional rhythm killed this extraordinary man: Ellis died of heart arrhythmia in 1978, when he was 44. Restless and driven, he long since had made a name for himself as a musician, band-leader, arranger, and composer; he had written the scores for the “French Connection” movies and, even as jazz grew less popular, some said he looked to be the next Stan Kenton – except more dynamic: a true pioneer, bold, committed to music as a life force, and more likely to be appreciated in the future. Because of their easy-listening mass appeal, Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears sold more albums, but Ellis was the avant-garde genius – a multi-culturalist decades before the rest of the world caught up. He understood that jazz, too, is classical.
This straight-ahead tune is far from his most sophisticated composition or arrangement, just an appetizer to his pioneering work with rhythms, voices, electronics, fusions (jazz, rock, blues, r&b, Indian, Balkan, classical: he was doing world music before it was “a thing” and long since had played with Mingus, Dolphy, Maynard Ferguson, and the New York Philharmonic)… But note for note, it flies you, too, to a better world. And here’s a tonic for the next time you have to hear that Neil Young or Kanye West is a genius: at this writing there are nineteen reviews of this album on Amazon.com. Every one rates it a five out of five.
* Bits and bobs of the first paragraphs here appeared, in a different form and different life, in my column in The Lawyers Weekly. The “Play like hell” line shows up early on in my novel, Murder’s Out of Tune.