Don Ellis-Tears Of Joy and Connection.

Label: BGO Records.

As 1971 dawned, drummer, trumpeter, composer and bandleader Don Ellis was regarded as an innovative musician within jazz circles due to his use of willingness to experiment, and particularly due to his use of different time signatures. That had been the case as his career took shape during the sixties, which was when he released his first live album Don Ellis Orchestra ‘Live’ at Monterey! in 1967, and two years later dipped his toe into the world of soundtracks. 

This came in 1969 when Don Ellis wrote and recorded the soundtrack to Moon Zero Two a sci-fi film that was released by Hammer Films. Now just two years later, and Don Ellis was writing and recording the soundtrack to The French Connection, which was released on October the ‘9th’ 1971, and would win Don Ellis a Grammy Award. Before that, Don Ellis recorded a classic live album, Tears Of Joy.

The recording of Tears Of Joy took place between the ‘20th’ and ’23rd’ of May 1971, at Basin Street West, in San Francisco. Over the four nights, Don Ellis and his ensemble recorded the eleven tracks that became Tears Of Joy, which was recently reissued and remastered by BGO Records as part of a two CD set. Tears Of Joy is joined by Connection which Don Ellis recorded in 1972 and shows another side to this maverick musician. However, in May 1971 Don Ellis made the journey to San Francisco to record his fourth live album Tears Of Joy.

Tears Of Joy.

Don Ellis was no stranger to live albums, and by 1971, had already released three live albums, ‘Live’ at Monterey! in 1967, The New Don Ellis Band Goes Underground in 1969 and Don Ellis At Fillmore in 1970. These three albums showcased different sides of Don Ellis, and so would Tears Of Joy which he planned to record in San Francisco over four nights.

Don Ellis had been booked to play four nights at Basin Street West in San Francisco, between the ‘20th’ and ’23rd’ of May 1971, and Columbia planned to record each show. This would allow them to pick the best performances for Don Ellis’ fourth live album, Tears Of Joy.

When Don Ellis arrived in San Francisco, he brought with a band whose lineup was much changed since the recording of Don Ellis At Fillmore. It was essentially a new and extended band which Don Ellis would lead and play drums, trumpet and flugelhorn. Twenty musicians would join Don Ellis on the stage at Basin Street West.

This included a rhythm section that featured drummers Ralph Humphrey and Ron Dunn, bassist Dennis Parker and pianist Milcho Leviev who also played pianet and clavinet. They were joined by a 

horn section that included alto saxophonist and soprano saxophonist and flautist Fred Selden who also played alto flute and piccolo; tenor saxophonist, flautist and clarinettist Sam Falzone; bass trombonist Ken Sawhill; trombonist Jim Sawyers; Doug Bixby on contrabass trombone and tuba; Kenneth Nelson on French horn and trumpeters, Paul Bogosian, Jack Caudill and Bruce Mackay. The string section featured cellist Christine Ermacoff; violist Ellen Smith; violinists Earle Corry and Alfredo Ebat, while Jon Clarke and Lonnie Shetter were part of the woodwind section. Rounding off Don Ellis’ band was conga player Lee Pastora. Taking charge of production was Phil Macy at Basin Street West.

Over the four nights at Basin Street West, Don Ellis and his latest band worked their way through a set list that would feature the eleven songs that would eventually feature on Tears Of Joy. This included eight penned by Don Ellis, including Tears Of Joy, 5/4 Getaway, Bulgarian Bulge, Quiet Longing, Blues In Elf, Loss, How’s This for Openers? and Strawberry Soup. They were by Sam Falzone’s Get It Together, Hank Levy’s Samba Bajada and Fred Seldon’s Euphoric Acid. The set list had picked with the utmost care by Don Ellis to bring out the best not just in him, but the rest of his big band.

When Don Ellis took to the stage, he was backed by what was one of the best bands of his fifteen year career. They were the perfect foil, and accompaniment for him, as he unleashed a series of breathtaking performances. Don Ellis by then, was incorporating disparate time signatures, and continued to do so as he pushed musical boundaries to their limits during Tears Of Joy. With his hand-picked band of musical adventurers they create an album where the music veers between memorable and melodic to joyous and uplifting, especially on Tears Of Joy where jazz meets Samba, and on 5/4 Getaway that hints at the early days of jazz. Always though, the music is inventive and innovative, with Don Ellis continuing to embrace technology and especially electronics which he puts to good use on Tears Of Joy. However, like any good bandleader, Don Ellis doesn’t hog the limelight.

He’s content to let band members take centre-stage when the solos come round. Milcho Leviev steals the show on Bulgarian Bulge, and then returns on Get It Together where tenor saxophonist play leading roles. Don Ellis encourages the soloists to stretch out their solos and reach new heights as complicated rhythms and their counterpoint soar high into the night air. Sometimes, it’s as if the various sections of the band are pushing to reach new heights in this search for sonic perfection and innovation at Basin. This works on Get It Together which sounds as if it belongs on a soundtrack, which gives way to the beautiful, wistful sounding Quiet Longing, before Blues In Elf reveals a late-night, smokey bluesy sound. Loss is a beautiful ballad played in 7/8 time which is full of hurt and sorrow. 

How´s This For Openers? showcases the strength in-depth of Don Elli’s band during a track that features three drummers who play their part during this musical game of parcel. Meanwhile Jim Sawyer’s trombone and woodwind player Lonnie Shetter play starring roles when the solos come round. It’s all change on Samba Bajada where Don Ellis delivers a breathtaking trumpet solo, before allowing the rest of the trumpet section enjoy their moment in the sun. Strawberry Soup is a near eighteen-minute epic, where there’s several changes in time signature, during this ambitious and innovative track that pushes Don Ellis and his band to their limit. However, they pass the test with flying colours and close the set with the feel-good sound of Euphoric Acid.

After the four shows at Basin Street West, Don Ellis and executives at Columbia began compiling the double album that would become Tears Of Joy. They were able to choose the best recordings of each track which had been produced by. Eventually, eleven tracks lasting just over eighty-minutes were chosen and were spread across four sides of vinyl that became Tears Of Joy.

When Tears Of Joy was released later in 1971, critics hailed Don Ellis’ fourth live album a classic, that showcased a maverick musician at the peak of his powers. He incorporated disparate time signatures and used an array of effects on Tears Of Joy, where he was backed by one of the best bands of his career. They play their part on what was a groundbreaking album where the music was variously innovative, inventive, melodic, memorable, quirky, complex and beautiful. However, Don Ellis left his mark on each and every one of the eleven tracks on Tears Of Joy which was one of the best albums his career.

Despite having recorded an album that sadly, Don Ellis would never get the opportunity to better, Tears Of Joy wasn’t a hugely successful album. It was popular within the jazz community who appreciated and understood the music on Tears Of Joy. However, it didn’t find favour within the wider record buying public. Maybe that was why Don Ellis changed tack for Connection?


By the time Connection was released, Don Ellis had won a Grammy Award for his soundtrack to the French Connection, and maybe, he was hoping that the album would find a much wider audience. If that was going to be the case, Don Ellis realised he had to change his music to make it more accessible. 

To do this, Don Ellis decided to record an album that featured mostly cover version. His only composition was Theme from The French Connection. It was joined by Joe Sample’s Put It Where You Want, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (Naturally), Carole King’s I Feel the Earth Move, Hank Levy’s Chain Reaction, Bill Withers’ Lean On Me and Richard Halligan’s Train To Get There. They were joined by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Superstar, Gary Brooker and Keith Reid’s Conquistador, Joh Anderson and Steve Howe’s Roundabout and Goodbye To Love which was penned by John Bettis and Richard Carpenter. Don Ellis had chosen an eclectic selection of songs, ranging from psychedelia, soul, progressive rock and AOR, which became Connection, the album he hoped would introduce his music to a new and wider audience.

When recording began in 1972, Teo Macero, who had worked with Miles Davis on his fusion albums was taking charge of production. The band featured many of the same musicians that featured on Tears Of Joy, and they were augmented by some new faces in an ensemble that featured twenty-three top musicians. 

This time, the rhythm section that featured drummers Ralph Humphrey and Ron Dunn, bassist Dave McDaniel, guitarist Jay Graydon and pianist Milcho Leviev who also played pianet and clavinet. They were joined by a horn section that included alto saxophonist and soprano saxophonist and flautist Fred Selden who also played alto flute and piccolo; Vince Denham played alto, soprano and tenor saxophone, alto flute and piccolo; while Sam Falzone switched between tenor saxophonist, flute and clarinet. Gary Herbig who played clarinet, flute and oboe and was joined by trombonist Glenn Ferris,  bass trombonist Ken Sawhill; tubaist Doug Bixby and Sidney Muldrow on French horn. Just like Don Ellis, Paul Bogosian, Bruce Mackay, Gil Rathel, Glenn Stuart switched between trumpet and flugelhorn. Meanwhile, the string section that featured violinists Earle Corry and Joel Quivey; violist Renita Koven and cellist Pat Kudzia had plugged in. The final member of the band that recorded the eleven tracks that became Connection was conga player Lee Pastora. 

When Connection was released later in 1972, it was apparent that  Don Ellis was trying to make his music much more accessible and appeal to a wider audience. Still Don Ellis and his all-star band playing was imaginative and inventive, on an album where they had plugged in. The rhythm section featured an electric guitar and bass, which both play a more prominent role. They’re  augmented by keyboards and electric strings which add to the sonic scenery on an album where the music was sassy and tinged with humour. Sometimes, it was as if Don Ellis wasn’t taking himself too seriously on Connection, which featured familiar and melodic songs. This was quite different to previous albums. One thing didn’t change was the way that Don Ellis played. One minute he plays his trumpet with power, passion and speed on Superstar before switching to flugelhorn and playing with a thoughtfully and with a tenderness on Alone Again (Naturally. In doing so, this showcased Don Ellis’ versatility.

Equally versatile were the ensemble when the solos came round. Just like on Tears Of Joy, they were encouraged to enjoy their moment in the sun, but this time, to ensure that the music flows. This was very different from Tears Of Joy, and was part of Don Ellis’ plan to attract a wider audience.

If he had released another album like Tears Of Joy, there was little chance that it would find wider audience, as the majority of record buyers didn’t understand the music with its constant time changes. It was to complex and innovative, and went over the head of most record buyers. What Don Ellis had to do was make his music more accessible to hook the wider audience that he felt his music deserved. The only problem was by doing this, some of Don Ellis loyal fans felt he had dumbed down his music. However, that was an exaggeration as still, Don Ellis’ music was inventive and innovative on Connection, the album he hoped would transform his recording career.

While Don Ellis was a popular live draw, and his albums were popular within the jazz community, his music hadn’t been discovered by the wider record buying public. Don Ellis had watched as fusion transformed the fortunes of many of his contemporaries. However, although Don Ellis’ band had plugged in on Connection, it wasn’t a fusion album. Nor was Connection a commercial success when it was released later in 1972. However, that pales into insignificance compared to what happened in 1978.

By 1978, all the years of touring were taking a toll on Don Ellis. After what was his final concert on April the ’21st’ 1978, Don Ellis’ doctor advised him to stop touring and playing the trumpet, as the strain on his heart was proving too great. Sadly, just under eight month later, on December the ’17th’ 1978, Don Ellis returned from a Jon Hendricks concert and suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack at his North Hollywood home. Don Ellis was just forty-four and that day, jazz lost one of its great trumpeters and an innovator.

A reminder of that is the music on Tears Of Joy which was Don Ellis’ fourth live album, which nowadays, is regarded as a jazz classic. Tears Of Joy is regarded by many as Don Ellis’ finest hour, and an album that he would never surpass. Tears Of Joy was recently reissued and remastered by BGO Records as part of a two CD set, which also features Connection. 

It was the first album Don Ellis released after winning a Grammy Award for his soundtrack to The French Connection. Connection which featured covers of familiar songs was a much more accessible album, which Don Ellis hoped would introduce his music to a wider audience. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.

While Don Ellis remained a popular live draw, and his albums were popular within the jazz community, his music never reached the audience it deserved. In many ways, Don Ellis who was a talented, imaginative, inventive and innovative musician never enjoyed the success his talent deserved, and even thought he won a Grammy Award, is still one of music’s best kept secrets. Proof of that is Tears Of Joy, and the followup to Don Ellis’ finest hour Connection. 

Don Ellis-Tears Of Joy and Connection.

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating on the time signatures. I’m wondering if many music forms that are endangered have that issue. I know flamenco does. Classical Indian music like the sitar does as well. Totally fascinating and yes, a lot for the untrained musical mind to grasp or groove with…

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