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Don Ellis: The Lost Tapes, Vol. 2 (Sleepy Night)

Review of live archival release by the late trumpeter

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Cover of Don Ellis: The Lost Tapes, Vol. 2
Cover of Don Ellis: The Lost Tapes, Vol. 2

As a 1960s and ’70s trumpeter, Don Ellis is practically without parallel. Possessed of a clear, powerful tone, he wrote challenging compositions for his sophisticated big band that frequently employed odd meters. Ellis’ soundtrack for The French Connection took home a Grammy. Eight more soundtracks, including The Seven-Ups and French Connection II, further documented his unique sound, equal parts musical experimentalism and mournful trumpet within often atmospheric arrangements. Where it all would have led no one can say; he suffered a fatal heart attack on December 1, 1978, at the age of 44.

Ellis’ 20-plus albums span stylistically from avant-garde to jazz-rock. Highlights include Live in 3⅔/4 Time, Don Ellis Live at Montreux, and Soaring (featuring “Whiplash,” recently heard in the film of the same name). The Lost Tapes, Vol. 2 adds to his canon, including live recordings that feature the equally brilliant pianist, Milcho Leviev.

“A Rock Odyssey” opens the program with Ellis and orchestra exploring one of his trademark moody, dissonant pieces. His large-scale works sometimes reach bombastic levels of jazz-rock grandeur, but their vibrance, dynamic breadth, and groove are undeniable. “Without Joan” is one such groover, pounded out to a Wesleyan University audience in 1972.  “Cross Currents” is announced as being in 12/4, 6/4, 5/4, and 6/2; the intro to “Head Quarters” conjures a flock of crazed seagulls; “Theme from French Connection II” is a tense revelation, while “Go Back Home” is brooding and powerful. The Lost Tapes, Vol. 2 helps solidify Ellis’ place as a composer, musician, arranger, and American treasure.

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Originally Published