Don Ellis: How Time Passes

Gunther Schuller invented the term 'Third Stream' but later said 'Third Stream Jazz' was a logical impossibility. Don Ellis was undeterred


Composer Gunther Schuller first coined the term “Third Stream” in a lecture at Brandeis University in 1957. In 1961 he defined it as “a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music”, but later insisted that “by definition there is no such thing as third stream jazz”.

However, the debut record by innovative trumpeter and composer Don Ellis had emblazoned on its front cover the words “Third Stream Jazz”. Schuller may have been slightly miffed by this subheading since he wrote the record’s extensive liner notes containing highly detailed, descriptive analyses of the pieces.

Born in Los Angeles on 25 July 1934, Ellis first became interested in jazz after witnessing a Tommy Dorsey big band concert. Also inspired by trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, he graduated from Boston University in 1956 with a degree in music composition. Following his time with the Army Symphony Orchestra, where he had the opportunity to compose and arrange for a big band, he moved to Greenwich Village. He toured briefly in 1959 with Charlie Barnet and Maynard Ferguson and became involved in the avant-garde scene, recording with the likes of Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and, notably, George Russell.

The centrepiece of How Time Passes is the 22-minute Improvisational Suite #1 which took up the whole of the record’s B side. The suite employs 12-tone rows but only as a point of departure and there are variations within the piece where it oscillates between atonality and a more recognisable tonal structure. In 1960 it must have seemed “out there” to many in terms of jazz but 60 years on it sounds engaging. The other numbers on the album are far less unconventional in structure whilst retaining Ellis’ trademark outré compositional style. From the bebop-inflected A Simplex One to the trumpet-muted ballad Sallie there’s an inherent warmth but the playful accelerando to decelerando device employed on the title track anticipates Ellis’s future role as the doyen of tricky time signatures.

… How Time Passes…; Sallie; A Simplex One; Waste; Improvisational Suite #1 (45.18)
Ellis (t); Jaki Byard (p, as); Ron Carter (b); Charlie Persip (d). New York City, 4-5 October, 1960.
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