Points on a Line

Two new CD's and an array of musical relationships keep sax legend-in-the-making Dave Ellis having fun on the run with new and different music

By Lee Abraham

It's 6:42 am in Las Vegas. Less than 24 hours ago I shared a point on the line with Dave Ellis. It was the 4th time our wavelengths entrained. The first came on the 4th of July last year, when we spoke over the phone for an article in the October '98 issue of Relix. At that time the Other Ones were on tour. We talked about that ensemble, his metamorphosis from playing jazz in the Charlie Hunter Trio to rocking with the Dead's extended family, as well as his perspective on the ongoing evolution of the post Garcia era.

My next encounter with Ellis was in Aurora, Colorado, when he sat in with Wise Monkey Orchestra earlier this year and completely blew the roof off that incredible little rocky mountain club! Then came a mind blowing recording session in San Diego with WMO just a few weeks ago. In the studio, Ellis' professionalism is impressive and his chops are extraordinary. In a one-day session, he blew through full horn section charts on three tunes he had never played before and then scorched solos on two more!

Yesterday's chat was a pleasure as always. In addition to discussing the new albums from his quartet and the Other Ones, Ellis spoke of his new friends in Wise Monkey Orchestra as well as his old buddies Ratdog and the Other Ones.  

LA- I've been listened to your new CD, "In the Long Run," several times over the past few days, and also your debut album, "Raven." What's your perspective on how the two albums relate to each other?

DE- Well, the stage that I was in as a player, and in life here, you know, really factors in. I was asked by Monarch records to do a record when I was just leaving the Charlie Hunter Trio. I had spent the last four years concentrating my efforts on that. That was -our- band, it was definitely a -band-, and all my musical energy was focused on that as far as writing, touring, and everything else. It was a little bit of a shock that I left as abruptly as I did and it happened to coincide exactly with Monarch asking me to do a solo record.

So I really didn't have a band, or a really an idea at the time I was offered to do Raven. I asked Bud Spangler to produce it. He's not only a local DJ here in the bay area but also a great drummer and someone who's well respected, an older guy, and I felt that he would help me quite a bit. So by putting our heads together and coming up with ideas, we managed to put the record together. I mean the idea is kind of grand on it.

There's three different bands. I've got Charlie Hunter on there with Mike Clark from the Headhunters. We had been on tour in Europe together after Jay left the band, so I thought it would be a nice idea to document that trio because that was really cool, we had a good time but didn't get to record. Then I had these other sort of funk, electric bass tunes I wanted to put on it, and then some acoustic.

We somehow managed to put together this sort of all-star local record, but it really was built sort of as a production and not something that a working band would do. It was very hard to tour behind. Through the process of '96 to '98 I spent a lot of time playing with different guys in different configurations and trying to do the bandleader thing.

Out of that two years grew the relationships with the other three band members that are on the current record. Orrin Keepnews (producer) and I had been talking after doing Dmitri Matheny's (flugelhorn) record which Orrin produced, and we thought it would be nice to work together. So we had been talking about it for a while and it just so happened that we went ahead and did the next option for Monarch and Orrin produced it and I had the quartet together. We had done a lot of gigs and been together for about a year and a half. We were able to produce some writing and it was a much more solidified idea… much more of an overall statement.

LA- Let's talk a little about your original compositions on the new CD, how did they come about? DE-

When I first started writing for this album. "Ced & Dunn" was the tune that came first. I just sort of came up with the idea, you can see it in the way I wrote it, sort of a cute idea about the fact that you've got to get busy you know? It's one thing to talk about doing it, but you really have to start writing at some point, (laughs), so that was a tune that sort of got me started writing -for- the record. Then I had a couple of sketches.

The two tunes, "In the Long Run," and "Meltdown" are very different. I wrote the basic structure for meltdown, the melody, and brought it to Jeff because it seemed like, and was designed to be kind of Jeff Chimenti style tune. Sure enough, Jeff instantly had a lot of ideas and basically flushed out the chords for that. So that was a real combined effort.

"In the Long Run," I had the idea for that song, I had that beat in mind for a long time, that Deszon (Clairborne) is playing. We actually worked on a little bit of it in rehearsal, Peter (Barshay) messin' around with the bass lines and got that goin'. Same thing again, I had the melody and sort of corralled Jeff into some of the more, I guess you could say, -smooth jazz- kind of chords, and obviously, as you can see, I used Jeff for the flush-the-chords-out kind of thing! (laughs again) He's a tremendous keyboard player and I definitely wanted to have his flavor in it too.

LA- What's up with the "Long Run" theme? On the cover your in full stride, apparently running on a track somewhere. How does that imagery relate?

DE- Two things. One is that my dad was a track star, an All-American at UCLA and those track shows on the inside cover are his original Adidas track shoes. The other thing is "In the Long Run" being, you know, I'm not in this for the short haul, this is just one notch on what will hopefully be a long career… so the cover is kind of an "out of the starting gate" kind of thing.

LA- I know you've been crossing paths with Wise Monkey Orchestra recently, another group of musicians that are in it for the long run. I was in Quixote's in Aurora, Colorado that night in late January when you sat in with them. It was an amazing jam! How did that come about?

DE- Yeah, that's a new relationship! The quartet was playing at the Bluebird in Denver and their engineer/producer Rich Maloney (Ratdog, Furthur Tour, Dave Mathews Band), called me. He said come down, check this band out. So I came down and sat in. I had such a great time, they flew me down to San Diego to do some work on their next record! I had a blast, it was really fun. I really dig them. 

LA-  How was it working with them in a spontaneous jam live setting as opposed to then going into the studio recording?

DE- The studio is always the studio, everything is under a microscope. I have no problem working in the studio, but I guess the real joy of working with the Wise Monkey Orchestra was jamming with them live. One of the things which was incredibly impressive to me, which unfortunately is rare in California (laughs), on the west coast, which so far remains true, is that guys tend to be a little bit more lazy than they would be anywhere else. I found that AG (WMO's trombonist) had the horn charts dialed in man, he had the stuff written out perfectly. Phrasing, dynamics… it made the job so easy, that in itself was just a joy! To go down there and whip through this stuff. They were just so prepared and had their act so together. You know, (laughs), anytime you want me man, if you got your act together like that, I'm there!

LA- Let's talk a little about another relationship that your involved with, it goes back a little furthur (no pun intended), what's up with the Other Ones? Everybody on the net has read the post from Phil saying he's doing his Phil and Friends shows, but not the Other Ones…

DE-  Well, what I know now is that guys have agreed to disagree and that the Other Ones will not be touring this summer. That is not to say that it won't happen again in the future… it's obviously very disappointing to me. Personally, as sort of the rookie, I don't really have much say in regard to whether or not we get to go out again or not. I'm very disappointed. But I believe it will just facilitate more music in the future. I think my main thing is that I'm happy to see that Phil is well. He's up and interested in making music.

You know, these kinds of things are not easy to put together. As long as everybody's around and making music I think we're in good shape. I certainly hope that the Other Ones can pull together again. I think personally, it's a bit of a shame, especially with this album out, and interest heightened as it is. I would love to go out and just be able to do it again, it's just so much fun and such a joy. For me it's tough to see a reason not to do it. But then again, there's a whole lot of background that I am not privy to and not involved with.

LA- Let's talk about the new Other Ones record, "Only the Strange Remain." How does it sound to your ear? 

DE- I got a chance to be around a little bit for the mixing and see how it was done. It was done on the fat "Studer" digital 48-track machine and it was just a new thing. Purely on an audio basis, I've never heard anything like that. Some of it is clearer, listening back to it on CD, than it actually was in our monitors on stage. So some of the stuff is brand new, it's like, "Golly, listen to what's goin' on there!" (laughs) You can hear a lot of the interactions between other players that you may not have been concentrating on or something, so I'm finding a lot of good stuff in it.

I know that it may in some sense have a little bit more testosterone perhaps than a Dead record might otherwise have. It's pretty powerful and John Molo is really pushing the thing. I believe the combination of players by the end of the tour was really fantastic. Honestly, there are times I find it a little dense, and a little bit cluttered and I think that was part of the reason we're not going out this summer.

It happened so quickly and there are so many players on stage that I think the next time around guys would like to design it a little more carefully. I think they picked the stuff for the record very well. They picked some of the moments I remember being just a lot of fun. They captured some of the nice interaction that went on among all the players… I am personally extremely proud of it and I would hate to think it was a one-time thing.

One of the nice things that I've seen if you can get any kind of positive out of what's going on right now is that the guys are really inspired to make music. Sometimes you can butt heads about what you want to do, how you want to do it and who you want to do it with. But even though that can be a negative vibe in the short run, in the long run (laughs), a rising tide lift all boats.

LA- How about the Ratdog front, any news there?

DE- Yep, this is one of two very exciting things going on for me right now. The new Ratdog record is really shaping up into something. Something perhaps above and beyond what we had expected. It's going to be a challenge for us, and a challenge for the listeners… it's going to be a good record! I don't want to go too far into it, but we've got a real all-star set of people helping us with this record and working with us lyrically, musically, so there should be some real surprises.

We've got a lot of new material. It's just like Ratdog blew up in the studio all of a sudden and we just went to work. There's perhaps a sense of urgency a little bit, but we are going to have a solid record and we are going to have it sooner than later, and that's very encouraging. We're looking for a late fall release… and to be touring behind this album before the end of the year. The other thing is that Orrin and I start work on my third record in May, so I've got a busy year ahead of me. There's going to be a lot of different combinations of players, a lot of new and different music.