The Don Ellis Orchestra recorded “Tears of Joy” on May 20-23, 1971 at Basin Street West, a nightclub in San Francisco, CA. It came at the end of a three-month tour of the US.
In the liner notes, Don Ellis speaks of having a number of bands within the band: a string quartet which he had added a few months earlier, a woodwind quartet, and a brass quintet.
Perhaps of some interest to Denverites (or at least those that frequented Vartan’s Jazz Club in the 1990s), the piano chair in the band was anchored by Milcho Leviev. In the late 1960s, he sent a letter to Don from his home in Bulgaria after hearing the band featured on Voice of America broadcasts hosted by Willis Conover. The non-traditional time signatures (5/4, 7/8, 11/4, 13/8, etc.) used in the music of the Ellis band may have seemed a bit strange to American jazz fans at the time but “it’s just like 4/4 to Milcho” according to Don Ellis in the liner notes. Milcho contributed “Bulgarian Bulge” to the recording. It’s in some derivation of 33 with an occasional bar of 36.
While we’ll be playing tracks from the album all evening long, at around 9:30 pm we’ll feature “Strawberry Soup” which clocks in at 17 minutes and 31 seconds. It’s been the subject of a few doctoral dissertations and has been performed by a number of Drum and Bugle Corps over the past couple of decades. It’s written in 9/4 time with two 9/8 bars laid on top of the 9/4 and some occasional bars of 9/2. And if you want more geek music-speak, the bars of nine are subdivided 3+2+2+2.
October 2021 is also notable as it marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie “The French Connection.” Don Ellis composed the score earning him a Best Film Soundtrack Grammy the following year. Don always hinted at the use of Microtonality (a simple way to think of this is to play the notes between the notes on a guitar, trombone or something that isn’t a piano) with his quarter-tone trumpet. The soundtrack delves far deeper into the concept by what he wrote for the string players. Unlike many movie scores of the era, the music for “The French Connection” sounds contemporary 50 years later.
After scoring “The French Connection”, he composed music for a number of films including the sequels “The French Connection II” in 1975 and “The Seven-Ups” in 1973. I mention “The Seven-Ups” last as the original score was composed by Johnny Mandel. The producers tossed out Mandel’s score and brought in Ellis as a last-minute replacement.
Trivia: Despite the countless Grammys, Oscars, etc. that were bestowed on Johnny Mandel during his career, it would not be the last time a film score he wrote was jettisoned. In 1979, his score for “The China Syndrome” was discarded and not replaced. The only music heard and written for the film appears in the opening credits, composed and sung by Stephen Bishop.
Ellis recorded one more album for Columbia Records before being shown the door in 1972 as part of the label’s purge of its jazz roster including Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman. “Connection” contains a definitive version of Hank Levy’s “Chain Reaction” but much of the rest of the album features tongue-in-cheek renditions of pop music of the day.
Ellis began experiencing heart problems in 1974, suffering his first heart attack in 1975 while in the hospital after being given incorrect medication.
Don Ellis and his band made a glorious return to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July of 1977 which was recorded and released by Atlantic Records. But after his final public performance in April 1978, his doctor strongly advised him to give up touring and playing due to the strain on his heart. Shortly after attending a concert by Jon Hendricks in December 1978, Ellis suffered a fatal heart attack at his North Hollywood home, passing away at the age of 44.
Join host Doug Crane for the Wednesday Night Beat on October 20, at 8 pm. For some jazz beyond category.
Stay connected to KUVO’s programs and our community’s activities: Sign up for the station’s Oasis Online E-newsletter today!