Though Ellis’ current album, State of Mind, reflects a distinct direction in his music, he doesn’t necessarily want to be labeled by it. "You know, I have to say, to play with Mulgrew Miller and Christian McBride and all the guys that are on my current record is such an inspiration, that it opened my mind up to other possibilities. And certainly it makes me comfortable to play at that level of musicality." Ellis also notes, though, that the CD was originally recorded in 2001. "In a sense I’ve moved beyond it," Ellis told me as we talked on the phone last week. "It was a wonderful opportunity and I’ve been spoiled rotten by the caliber of players Orrin Keepnews surrounded me with. But right now I’m focused on gathering the appropriate people for my group with my head pointed more ‘just ahead,’ forward beyond the material that is on this record, into new music that I’m working on and the new band I’m configuring."
Dave Ellis has a very diverse musical background. From ska to jazz, to being a road musician for Bob Weir’s Ratdog project and with Bruce Hornsby, Dave finally got tired of "merely making music." His desire to enjoy playing music again, something that was missing when he was on the road, brought him back to jazz. The birth of his daughter Isabella also brought things into perspective. "I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life on the road in pursuit of something ephemeral when my daughter was at home changing every minute. And I was missing it," Ellis says. "It certainly has been a transformation for me, but it’s a very positive one."
JazzReview: You have a very diverse background in music. When did you take the turn towards jazz?
Davis Ellis: Fifth grade. Phil Hardyman had installed a jazz curriculum in the entire K-12 system in Berkeley. So by the time you were in the 4th or 5th grade, you had already heard your peers doing jazz tunes that were written by him. And I’m fond of telling the story of sitting in an assembly when the Berkley High Jazz Ensemble came to do an assembly for the 4th through 6th graders and it completely blew me away. And I can pretty much pinpoint it to that moment. You know, and aside from the fact that it was extremely cool. And then I had a teacher, Jessica Jones, who’s a saxophone player living in New York. She’s still active and had just graduated from Berkeley High at that time. She was a real inspiration and turned me on to all kinds of things, like Lester Young. And at home, my father is a great music appreciator, but not a lot of jazz. So we had a lot of music going on in our house, except for jazz. And it may be that was an available space for me. But I’ve always thought that perhaps I was born too late because the stuff, particularly older stuff, 40s, 50s, 60s jazz, really speaks to me. I have a natural ability in this arena, but then again, not jazz. No question about it, the latest CD State of Mind is a jazz record. But if you listen to my vocabulary as a player, it’s not crafted from jazz alone. There are a lot of other influences on my playing. I think that "jazz" is a very broad term, so the improvisational form is maybe more what I’m into. . .at least music that allows for some spontaneous creation. And that element is common to the Charlie Hunter Trio and to the Grateful Dead and to all the other things that I’ve done. So in that sense, that’s the common thread. I think that’s what I’m interested in.
JazzReview: Who’s playing with you right now?
Dave Ellis: Right now the core group is a drummer named Darrell Green, a young guy from out here (the San Francisco Bay Area) who’s really good and full of energy; a keyboard player named Peter Horvath; and I have a bass player named Troy Lampkins, a six-string electric player, and he’s a super talent. He’s along the lines of a Charlie Hunter. He can be a lead guitar soloist on bass or just play bass, or play all kinds of things-real versatile. He will be a key element in whatever I’m doing now. So right now that’s the core group and as we go through this summer and into the fall, it will be with an eye towards (this year’s) Monterey Jazz Festival. We have a number of gigs right now, but I’m taking it slow because the last time I "pressed" to do some kind of creative endeavor because I "had to," it had a negative effect, and [for that reason] I’m in no hurry.
JazzReview: In all honesty, when I listen to your new CD, the three cuts that really come out for me are the three originals: Not That You Asked, Isabella Blue, and Soul-Leo. Those three really stand out.
Dave Ellis: Yeah. You know, I get that comment a lot about all three of my records from people who are close to me. And I have not done a record of my own design yet. That’s been a point of frustration, but in some ways you have to go with what’s in front of you. But that’s where I’m headed-something that is actually me, something that actually represents me musically. Of course there are stepping stones to get to this place, but those are my favorites too.
JazzReview: On the covers, Grand Central is incredible. I think that is a great cut as well.
Dave Ellis: [Laughing] That’s a lot to tackle. (Doing that cut) was my suggestion, and I think for better or worse, it’s pretty old to do Coltrane and Cannonball. I’m playing with the guys who are the most capable of doing that and also bringing something new to it. It was all I could do to just keep the horn in my mouth and not take it out and listen in the middle of recording.
JazzReview: On that particular cut, it sounds to me that is where your heart's at. Something about that particular cut stood out. I could sense that as well in your original cuts.
Dave Ellis: Yeah, I think you’re right. I chose Grand Central and I’ve liked that tune for a long time. I actually made Charlie Hunter play it with the Trio. Wow, if you can hear that stuff, then your ears are finely tuned. You’ve hit on the four songs that probably mean the most and that were the closest to me. Therefore, I brought the most to them.
JazzReview: I get a strong sense that in your next record if you can compile a lot of your original cuts, it’s probably going to be phenomenal. I have a lot to say about your new CD-it’s just an excellent piece of work and even though it’s two years old, there’s a lot of passion there. People do their work and play their music best when they are passionate. In those four cuts, in particular, I could hear that.
Dave Ellis: Yeah, I agree with you. And in fact I’ve sort of resolved not to do the music PERIOD otherwise, you know? I really got to a point around that time, or slightly before, which coincided with the birth of my daughter, which made me check within myself for the reasons that I was doing music. I’ve been charging forward along this path with my head down since age 10. So about four years into the Grateful Dead experience, I sort of looked up and said ‘Whoa, wait a minute. If you don’t take stock of what’s happening, you’ll wind up exactly where you are for the next twenty years,’ like some of the poor folks I was surrounded by, and I didn’t want to do that. I think those are the two words that are most important to me-passion and inspiration. And I feel that if any music has that, any kind, then it’s audible and it transmits those things to other people. Which then gives it a real, solid value. And I mean any style. Having grown up in Berkeley, I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to about every kind of artistic endeavor and all kinds of things musically. Those are the common elements-inspiration and passion-that speaks to me.
JazzReview: What is it like working with Orrin Keepnews?
Dave Ellis: Orrin makes things look easy-coming from over forty years of experience. To be around him, and he’s been so kind to me and involved me in the production of both In The Long Run and State of Mind, that this experience has been invaluable for me. I can’t even relate really how important it has been for my development. And I’ll tell you the truth, right now I really have to honestly say I owe Orrin. Orrin is responsible for dragging me out from the depths of wherever it was I sunk to, and putting me back in front of the saxophone. He told me "I’m really sorry things are rough for you but you’re going to do this." And that may be one of his greatest abilities. . .something that came across when he and I went to New York to do the first session for State of Mind. We flew in, got to the hotel, the doorman knew his name, food was waiting for us in his room, and we were immediately off to the [Village] Vanguard backstage, and in the midst of Jimmy Heath and Tootie Heath, Tommy Flanagan and all of these guys, eyes just light up when they see Orrin. For somebody who from the time period that he comes from, from the era he comes from, and the fact that he’s not actually a "player"-to see the response and respect that he garners from people like that, that was a real eye-opener for me. He’s an amazing person, really.
JazzReview: How did you meet him?
Dave Ellis: I did a session with Dimitry Metheny, the flugelhorn player-The Penumbra Sessions, and Dimitry knew Orrin. I was playing on that session and he asked Orrin to produce it. So Orrin and I hooked up. We were introduced there and I had another record to do for my Monarch deal. And we talked about doing that together, and that’s the genesis of that.
When really you look at his history (Riverside, Landmark, and Milestone). . .and I told him the other day, ‘It’s a good thing I didn’t know who you were when we started working together or else I would have been paralyzed.’ [laughing]. There’s security and fear knowing he’s literally a legend. His legend is one of direction and production, and facilitating environments for all these guys to make their music in. He’s not the kind of producer who comes in and suggests keys or key changes or anything like that. Musicians do what they do and he helps them craft their thing. Which is also why there are a couple of Cannonball Adderley records, for example, saying "Produced by Orrin Keepnews in association with Cannonball Adderley." For someone especially at the time in a position of production was not, you don’t let the inmates run the asylum. Orrin was the exception.
JazzReview: As we completed the interview, I asked Dave how he feels about the different progressions an artist takes in "discovering" the music. Dave had this to say about his current efforts:
Dave Ellis: There’s so much music that I would like to do. It’s hard to know where to begin [laughing]. I’ve been a jazz player and jazz fan and as a kid, I had an image of doing just this-playing with the top level cats in New York City, within the studio with an excellent producer, for a major label like Milestone, you know. And this record IS a "milestone," for me. It gives me a platform from which I feel like I can dive in a number of different directions, which simply would not have been possible really without getting to this point-without doing the work and paying the dues to get here.
I feel as though I’m preparing for something coming up. I feel like I do have a role to play and also some responsibility now, having the opportunity to be mentored by Orrin. I have a responsibility to jazz music in particular, and I really want to honor that, but I don’t want to be unprepared.
JazzReview: As Dave says, "Right now I’m focused on what Dave Ellis’ thing is going to be, and what the next opportunity will be." He’s preparing for this next opportunity, ready to record when the time comes. He’s also interested in working on the sounds that have, as he says, ‘laid dormant for a few years.’ Getting the right group of artists together will be one of the keys to this forward direction. Another will be the steady mentorship of Orrin Keepnews. With the success of State of Mind, one can look forward to the future of jazz.