A revolution in big band playing
Ellis Concert review by Ron Simmonds in 1968
Photo: Ron Simmonds
Well now I’ve really lived it all! Nothing will ever be the same again. I’ve just got back home, straight from the Berlin Philharmonie and the noise of the audience cheering, shouting and applauding is still ringing in my ears. That and the sound of a most wonderful musical experience.
It was like this: Joachim Berendt had booked the jazz stars for his mammoth Berliner Jazz Tage here in the first week of November, but couldn’t get the new American sensation Don Ellis to bring his big band from Los Angeles with him. Impracticable, he said. So, greatly daring, Jo booked twenty of the best musicians in the town, ten from each radio station, and hoped for the best. He needn’t have worried; expertly coached, nursed and coaxed by Don Ellis, the band turned out a tremendous, shouting performance that he privately admitted had taken his own band a year to achieve. We managed it in four days.
If you’ve never heard anything by Don Ellis (he’s made two LPs so far, “Don Ellis At The Monterey Jazz Festival” and “Live In 3/4 Time”), then you have a pleasant shock coming. He has completely revolutionised big band jazz playing. Gone are the 4/4s and 3/4s—and even 5/4s of conventional jazz. Gone, too, are the ordinary major and minor scales, the jazz harmonies and chord sequences.
So, you ask, what’s left then? I’ll tell you—nothing’s left. He has completely started again. After an exhaustive study of Indian melody construction and rhythms, Don Ellis has (and he is the first one to do this) successfully managed to combine jazz and Indian music and score it all for a big band. He constructs his own scales, uses modes, tihais, cross rhythms and special effects to create the most fascinating music you have ever heard.
Don’t get me wrong now: you can’t compare it with anything you’ve ever heard from Stan Kenton, for instance, or from any of these avant garde monstrosities; there is no musical yardstick.
The time signatures are not written in 7/4 and 15/8, and so on, just to be clever and different. Ellis constructs the melodies and rhythms the way he wants them to be, and the time signature emerges automatically.
Actually, there is no real problem for the experienced musician to adapt himself to the new rhythms, there is a natural pulse going on that pulls one along to such an extent that counting is no longer necessary—any more than usual, that is; one feels the music. But the most wonderful thing is, the swing of some of these rhythms is well–nigh incredible.
The soloists say that there’s a new, hitherto unobtainable freedom of expression in playing jazz in these new metres. Certainly, I’ve never heard Leo Wright stretching out to such an extent as he did in this band.
The pieces were constructed so that whole sections could be utilised for individual jazz solos, the climaxes building up behind them each time to such a degree that I could swear I saw some of the spectators’ hair standing on end.
The numbers we played, four in all, were all in 7/4; one further piece we tried was in 4/4 7/8, worked out rhythmically at four quarter–notes, three eighth–notes, and two quarter–notes to each bar.
Easy isn’t it? Bom, Bom, Bom, Bom, Ba–Ba–Ba, Bom, Bom! Now try it for twenty minutes. It’s got “Bolero” knocked into a cocked hat! On the show we played an adaptation of “Milestones” which had the front line playing the melody like this:
Which innovation, you can take from me, is very refreshing indeed. In fact, after this, the one in 4/4 sounds very out–dated. Ellis used this piece because it is in fact one of the first examples of modal music in jazz ever written. Miles Davis was a pioneer.
Then, as an added surprise and attraction, Karin Krogh sang “Angel Eyes”. Don and Karin have been closely associated for a long time now, ever since he met her in her native Oslo some years ago. Ellis even went so far recently as to fly her to Los Angeles especially for one concert.
The arrangement behind her was very far out, the accompaniment being written to fit in all dimensions, both for the melody and the words. In places the whole band would hiss softly, or gently rattle the music paper, according to the mood of the singer. The playing was hellish hard, very critical, very quiet mostly, and with some interval leaps that would have done any trumpet teacher’s heart good.
Karin was a sensation. Some Berlin critics went so far as to say that they liked her better than Sarah Vaughan, whom we followed. But the big shock, for us in the band at least, was the reception the band received. After the end of the first number there was a sort of stunned silence—then all hell broke loose! After that we couldn’t do anything wrong : the whole concert was a gasser.
Ellis himself is a fantastic trumpet player, has a tremendous range and (as they say) a tongue like a rattlesnake. Playing on his special four–valved trumpet, sometimes plugged into an amplifier, he achieved effects that were part hair–raising, part soul–stirring.
Just to work with the man is an inspiration; he seems to know just how to draw the very best out of everyone with whom he comes into contact. He certainly got the best out of this band —although, for our part, I doubt whether he could have got such a good band anywhere else this side of the Atlantic.
Lineup: Ron Simmonds, Ack van Rooyen, Harry Samp, Carmel Jones (trumpets); Ake Persson, Siegfried Schmidt, Henry Masnik, Horst Schonbier (trombones): Leo Wright, Klaus Marmulla, Stefan von Dobrynski, Lothar Noack, Helmut Brandt (saxes); Hajo Lange, Jurgen Ehlers, Hans Rettenbacher (basses); Eugen Cicero (piano); Heinz Niemeyer, Dave Hildinger, Werner Windler, Kurt Giese (percussion). The basses played for the most part in pizzicato harmony, and the percussion utilised drums, timbali, congo, bongo, tympani, tambourine, electronic piano, vibes, glocks, and all that sort of stuff.
To say that Niemeyer on drums was the star of the show is to be unfair to all the other rhythm players—they were all stars. What a rhythm section! At the end of the show the Philharmonie audience rose as a man to its feet and gave us a sustained applause for ten minutes. As I said, it’s still ringing in my ears. I’ll never be the same again.
Copyright © 1968, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.