JJ 06/23: Don Ellis – New Ideas

Sixty years ago, Jeremy French complained that the atonality in Ellis's 'American rubbish' left the listener with no point of reference. First published in Jazz Journal June 1963


An album of American rubbish by five highly competent musicians who ought to know better. To dabble with atonality and free-form while at other times retaining strong links with the past smacks of charlatanism, and the Don Ellis Quintet are at pains to prove that they can still play in the conventional manner, “Natural H” being the second thinly-disguised “Sweet Georgia Brown” we have had this month.

“Despair to Hope”, which follows it, is sheer musical anarchy, lacking shape, form, tonality, and rhythm, and the ques­tion which arises is really whether this sort of thing can be classed as music at all. Maybe there is a future for it as “applied” music in the cinema or theatre, but for serious listening it is bound to give rise to utter confusion since the listener has absolutely no point of reference – tonally or rhythmically – and any moments of enjoyment are likely to be purely fortuitous.

Don Ellis is a fine trumpet-player – a sort of cross between Miles Davis and Clifford Brown – and the proficiency of his colleagues is never in question. “Natural H”, “Uh-Huh” and “Four and Three” are thoroughly unobjectionable, indeed completely convincing, modern jazz performances, and “Solo” is an in­teresting piece of public trumpet practice.

Otherwise I believe the quintet are digging their own musical graves. If this is the jazz of the future, include me out. I’d sooner grow cauliflowers.

Natural H (1, 2, 3, 4): Despair To Hope (1); Uh-Huh (1, 2, 3, 4); Four And Three (1, 3) (22 min) – Imitation (1, 2, 3, 4); Solo; Cock And Bull (1, 2, 3, 4); Tragedy (1, 3, 4, 5) (21½ min)
Don Ellis (tpt) (p-5); Al Francis (vbs)-1: Jaki Byard (p)-2; Ron Carter (bs)-3; Charlie Persip (d)-4. 11th May, 1961.
(Esquire 32-183 12inLP 35s. 1d.)