Don Ellis Orchestra
Review by David Bowling
Don Ellis, 1934-1978, was an avant-garde jazz big band leader/drummer/trombone player/composer who found mainstream commercial success with the rock audience of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. His 1970 live release, Live At The Fillmore, was the apex of his career. It set the stage for further experimentation within a big band setting before his untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 44.
Ellis began his career with the reconstituted Glenn Miller Orchestra, followed by stints with The United States Army Band, and Maynard Ferguson. His first group was the Hindustan Jazz Sextet, which incorporated a sitar into a jazz setting. By 1968 he was leading a big band and was signed to the Columbia record label.
While his live albums were always spontaneous and inventive and in many ways the best of his career; his 1973 release Soaring was perhaps his most innovative and adventurous studio release.
Soaring was recorded with 22 musicians including a 12 man horn section, three percussionists, a four string quartet, and Bulgarian jazz piano virtuoso Milcho Laviev. Somehow it all came together and resulted in one of the unique jazz releases of the era.
Recording within a jazz context; he incorporates funk, classical elements, and European folk traditions to produce an eclectic fusion of sounds.
The music is relaxed, introspective, and some of the most intricate ever recoded. “Go Back Home” is an upbeat tune with a brilliant tenor sax solo by Sam Falzone. “Sladka Pitka” harps backs to his early jazz experimentations with old world folk music. “The Devil Made Me Write This Piece” is Ellis’ last known recording as a drummer.
“Invincible” is Ellis’ crowning achievement in the studio. It builds upon itself with constant tempo and chord changes and finally soars away.
Don Ellis’ death at a young age due to heart problems ended a career that explored music from unique perspectives. Soaring is an important chapter in his legacy.