Cult Classic: Don Ellis-Autumn.

Bandleader, composer and trumpeter Don Ellis’ life was changed forevermore in 1974, when he was diagnosed with an abnormal heart condition. Just a year later, in 1975, he suffered his first heart attack which very nearly cost him his life. Fortunately, Don Ellis recovered and by 1977 signed to Atlantic Records.

Later in 1977, Don Ellis released his Atlantic Records’ debut Music From Other Galaxies and Planets, which was his first album in three years. Don Ellis was back, and his comeback was complete after playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland on July the ‘8th’ 1977. That concert was recorded and was released in 1978 as Don Ellis Live At Montreux and was a poignant release.

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.

Nearly forty years after his death, Don Ellis’ music is often overlooked by the majority of jazz fans, and sadly only a small but appreciative audience remember a man who was one of the great jazz trumpeters. A reminder of this talented and innovative bandleader, composer and trumpeter is Don Ellis and His Orchestra’s album Autumn, which was released in 1969. That was all in the future.

As 1968 dawned, Don Ellis was already regarded as an innovative bandleader, composer and trumpeter 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 since he released his debut album How Time Passes in 1960. Eight years later, and Don Ellis was preparing to record Shock Treatment which was his ninth album and second for Columbia Records.

Shock Treatment.

Don Ellis had signed to Columbia after leaving Pacific Jazz, and in 1967, released the critically acclaimed album Electric Bath, which was nominated for a Grammy Award and won the Down Beat Reader’s Poll. Electric Bath was produced by John Hammond and saw Don Ellis’ band incorporate the use of electronics and was influenced by rock music. This was a first for Don Ellis, and the perfect way to start his career at Columbia.

Just like many artists before him, the problem that Don Ellis was faced with after releasing such a groundbreaking album as Electric Bath, was following it up. While Don Ellis knew that wasn’t going to be easy, he was keen to build on the success of Electric Bath, and began work on his ninth album Shock Treatment. 

Don Ellis wrote five new tracks Homecoming, Star Children, Beat Me Daddy, Seven To The Bar, Milo’s Theme and The Tihai. He also joined forces with Kelly MacFadden to write Night City.  John Magruder a member of Don Ellis’ band wrote Zim, which was joined by four cover versions. This included Hank Levy’s A New Kind Of Country and Mercy Maybe Mercy and Howlett Smith’s Opus 5 and Seven Up. These eleven tracks would eventually become Shock Treatment, which was produced by John Hammond.

It took just two days to record Shock Treatment, with Don Ellis and his twenty-four piece orchestra recording the eleven tracks on the album on February the ’14th’ and ’15th’ 1968. It was an impressive sight and sound with the rhythm and horn sections combining with keyboards, percussion and Eastern instruments as bandleader Don Ellis played a starring role and  unleashed a series of trumpet solos. Once again, John Hammond took charge of production on Shock Treatment, which was the much-anticipated followup to Electric Bath.

Shock Treatment opens with A New Kind Of Country, which becomes funky, energetic and vibrant in the hands of Don Ellis and his orchestra who play part of a composition in 7/4 time. Briefly, the tempo drops on Night City, but soon builds and reveals its secrets as lysergic soulful harmonies combine with Don Ellis and his orchestra, and play their part in the sound and success of this genre-melting track. Straight away, the soulful blues Homecoming takes on a late-night sound, and is played in 3/4 time, before  bandleader Don Ellis seamlessly changes to 7/4 time on Mercy Maybe Mercy, where drummer Steve Bohannon provides the heartbeat as horns and Hammond organ play leading roles. Very different is Zim, which is a more ruminative piece, while Opus 5 finds Don Ellis and his orchestra showcase their versatility and talent by switching to 5/4 time during this nine minute modal jazz epic.

Star Children could only have been recorded during the late-sixties, with its captivating mixture of cosmic sounds, Eastern influences, drama and the Don Ellis’ Hispanic-tinged trumpet interjections. Don Ellis then switches to 7/4 time on Beat Me Daddy, Seven To The Bar and takes centre-stage for the first thirty-seconds, before he and his orchestra combine jazz and Latin influences during this six-minute propulsive opus which eventually reaches an explosive crescendo. Milo’s Theme offers the opportunity for experimentation as Don Ellis plays electric trumpet and effects are deployed during this ambitious and innovative piece. Seven Up finds Don Ellis returning to 7/4 time during this dazzling, jaunty and lively composition. Closing Shock Treatment is The Tihai which is played in 9/4 time and initially is mellow before becoming exuberant and ultimately a complex rhythmic piece that allows Don Ellis and orchestra to showcase their considerable skills while combining elements of jazz and Latin.

When critics heard Shock Treatment, they realised that it was an ambitious and innovative album, where Don Ellis incorporated elements of blues, experimental, funk, Indian Latin, psychedelia  and rock into his ninth album of jazz. Shock Treatment which was Don Ellis’ much-anticipated followup to Electric Bath, was the album that he hoped would transform his fortunes.

While Don Ellis was a popular live draw by the time Shock Treatment, was released in 1968, his albums never sold in huge quantities. Sadly, that was the case with Shock Treatment which failed to trouble the US Billboard 200. That was despite Shock Treatment being another ambitious and innovative album. After nine albums, Don Ellis had still to make a commercial breakthrough. Maybe Don Ellis’ next album would result in a change in fortune for the thirty-four year old?


In August 1968, Don Ellis and His Orchestra were preparing to enter the studio to record their next album Autumn. This time, there was no sign of producer John Hammond, who had been replaced by Al Kooper, of Blood, Sweat and Tears and it was hoped that he would transform the fortune of Don Ellis and His Orchestra.

Autumn featured five pieces penned by bandleader Don Ellis, including Variations For Trumpet, Scratt and Fluggs, Pussy Wiggle Stomp, Child Of Ecstasy and Indian Lady which like the cover of Charlie Parker’s K.C. Blues, had been recorded live at Stanford University. The rest of Autumn was recorded by Don Ellis and His Orchestra in the studio with producer Al Kooper.

The mind-blowing Magnus Opus Variations For Trumpet opens Autumn, and is a six-piece movement that is essentially a showcase for Don Ellis’ trumpet. He delivers a musical masterclass as his playing veers between to dark and wistful to explosive, powerful, urgent and always inventive as he plays with a freedom. Meanwhile, his orchestra switch seamlessly between 9/4 to 7/4 and incorporate elements of fusion, avant-garde and Latin music as bandleader Don Ellis continually throws curveballs during what’s now regarded as one of his finest hours. Very different is Scratt and Fluggs which bursts into life with Don Ellis and His Orchestra playing with urgency and in 5/4 time while an enthusiastic studio audience whoop and holler and encourage them to create what sounds like a coke-fuelled soundtrack to an old-time barn dance. The swinging and joyous Pussy Wiggle Stomp is played in 7/4 time and incorporates elements of gospel and jazz, and when the solos arrive, Don Ellis allows his members of his band to take centre-stage and showcase their considerable skills. 

It’s a similar case on the live version of Charlie Parker’s KC Blues, which was recorded by a big band and reaches a dramatic ending. Trumpeter Glenn Stuart plays a starring role on Child Of Ecstasy, and unleashes a breathtaking performance and latterly, plays with power and control. This is a performance that bandleader Don Ellis would be proud of. Closing Autumn is the second live track Indian Lady, which originally featured on the 1967 album Electric Lady. Here it’s extended to eighteen minutes during what’s an urgent, frenetic and innovative reworking that closes a future genre classic.

What at the time must have seemed like a gamble replacing John Hammond with Al Kooper as producer turned out to be a masterstroke, when critics haled Autumn as a genre classic. However, the big question was would Don Ellis and His Orchestra’s genre classic Autumn be a commercial success and transform their fortunes?

When Autumn was released in 1969, Don Ellis and His Orchestra’s latest album wasn’t the commercial success that they had hoped. Just like many jazz artists before him, Don Ellis had released a classic that slipped under the musical radar and never came close to troubling the charts.

Just nine years after the release of his genre classic Autumn, Don Ellis passed away on December the ’17th’ 1978 aged just forty-four. That day, jazz lost one of its great bandleader, composer and trumpeter.

Sadly, nearly forty years after Don Ellis’ tragic death, his music is almost forgotten amongst jazz fans. His recording career began in 1960 and continued right up until his death in December 1978. During that period, Don Ellis released eighteen albums and composed nine soundtracks, including his Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to The French Connection in 1971. It’s a reminder of a truly talented bandleader, composer and musician.

So is the cult classic Don Ellis and His Orchestra’s 1969 genre classic Autumn which features the bandleader, composer and trumpete at the peak of his powers. Sadly, this oft-overlooked jazz musician whose music sadly never reached the wider audience that it so richly deserved, and is still one of jazz music’s best kept secrets.

That is a great shame as Don Ellis was a talented, imaginative, inventive and innovative compeer and musician, but never enjoyed the success his talent deserved. Incredibly, even winning a Grammy Award didn’t transform Don Ellis’ fortunes, and although he was a popular live draw, his albums weren’t huge sellers and sadly slipped under the radar. This includes Autumn, which nowadays is regarded as a cult classic, and is the perfect introduction to Don Ellis, who had the potential to become one of the giants of jazz.

Cult Classic: Don Ellis-Autumn.

1 Comment

  1. Must drag it out for another listen. After all, it’s almost Autumn down here.

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