DON ELLIS — Live at Monterrey (review)

DON ELLIS — Live at Monterrey album cover Live album · 1966 · Progressive Big Band Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Released in mid 1966, is 'Don Ellis Orchestra Live at Monterey' the first progressive jazz-rock fusion album? Could be. After laying dormant as a recording artist for four years, Don Ellis turned the jazz world upside down with this very left coast concert that fused rock energy, odd-metered time signatures from around the world, and a unique take on big band orchestration that threw tradition out the window. Throughout this album/concert we are treated to sounds and genre combinations that will become common place under the guiding hands of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, The Soft Machine, Miles Davis and others, but this was all brand new when Don Ellis took the stage in Monterrey and unleashed his unique musical vision on the world. The album opens with heavy bowed strings playing an odd-metered grinding diminished scale riff, it's that 'crime-jazz' sound that will be used to great effect by Robert Fripp on tunes like '21st Century Schizoid Man' and 'Pictures of a City'. As the horns, percussion and drums build the intensity we are treated to blistering solos on saxophone and trumpet. The second half of side one is taken up by 'Concerto for Trumpe't, a complicated brassy jazz arrangement that enters into proto-psychedelic territory in the middle section when the band drops out and the bass strings play an ominous drone behind a spacey trumpet soliloquy.

Side two opens with 'Passacaglia and Fugue', a mixture of classical forms with big band swing. Despite the classical pretensions and complicated fugal sections, the band swings hard on this one and features more hot solos on sax and trumpet. This track is probably the closest to big band jazz as it was known at the time. On the other hand, album closer 'New Nine' is probably the furthest. This one is a wild experimental number with many contrasting sections including tense crime-jazz horn build-ups, crazy psychedelic B3 solos, and odd- metered rhythmic breakdowns in which congas and tablas drive frenetic trumpet solos. Very modern and intense, this is a great way to close out this revolutionary concert.

I used to think Don Ellis' old school 'big bandisms' would be a turn off to young folks, but as I notice the rise in popularity of artists such as Mr Bungle and Diablo Swing Orchestra, It seems the lexicon of big band jazz has found a permanent niche in youth culture, and not just in an ironic or kitsch way either. If you like big band progressive rock fusion such as early 70s Frank Zappa, then you will probably enjoy this. Although this was released in 1966, it is one of Ellis' most modern and progressive works, and probably one of the most accessible to a fusion fan.
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