Dave Ellis Talks About Everything
This has surely been a year that will stand out in Dave Ellis’ life. Before 1998, Dave was most known for his work with the outstanding Charlie Hunter Trio, and more recently as a member of Bob Weir’s Ratdog. However in 1998, as Dave continued work with Ratdog, he also toured with most of the remaining members of The Grateful Dead as a member of “The Other Ones,” he took his wedding vows, and he recorded and released his second album, In The Long Run, which is available on Monarch Records. Orrin Keepnews produced Dave’s new release, and they have spawned a real gem. Keepnews started as a jazz journalist some forty years ago, and went on to produce some of the most groundbreaking jazz artists of all time. He is not only a pillar in the world of Jazz, but also someone who has nurtured and influenced musicians of many genre. The fact that Keepnews was eager to work with Ellis is indicative of Dave’s rapidly increasing status in the jazz community.
In The Long Run is a brilliant album that has a live feel even though it was recorded in the studio. Not only does Dave work with his own solid quartet, but he also performs a few tracks with some young jazz studs. For example Eric Reed, an outstanding pianist on the Impulse label, lent his considerable talent and two compositions to this release, and seven other top-notch jazz musicians also perform on In The Long Run. Dave’s first CD, Raven, while successful, did not represent him as well as it could have, as it is more of a collection of songs, and Dave seems to be searching for his identity on it. On In The Long Run Dave works with two bands, yet the CD somehow maintains a consistent, not to mention mature and heartfelt, sound. His own compositions (and co-compositions with Jeff Chimenti) are refreshing, and he tackles the material of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, and the modern day legend to be, Peter Apfelbaum with a vengeance. As a jazz fan, I’m excited about Dave’s future as a frontman.
As a Deadhead, I’m thankful for his fresh take on the material that so many of us cherish dearly. Thanks to Dennis McNally and Dean Budnick, I was set up to interview Dave after Ratdog’s recent Boston Orpheum show. Ratdog, having proven that they can deliver ferocious versions of the Grateful Dead’s material, seems poised to move into more original material and a freer approach to jamming. 1999 could be a very exciting year for this constantly improving band. They were one show short of completing an extensive, cross-country tour on this night. Dave was in good spirits, but he seemed very tired. He was very generous with his time nonetheless, and we huddled in a corner room in the bowels of the same Orpheum that I had seen my first Bob Weir show (with the Midnites) close to seventeen years ago.
Rob: First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on your new album.
Dave: Thank you very much!
Rob: I enjoy it very much, all the way through…
Dave: Really!? You’ve listened to it?
Rob: Oh yeah, I’ve listened to it, I find it very interesting that you’re working essentially with two bands, yet making it sound like one cohesive unit. How did you pull that off, do you just trust your ears?
Dave: I had a lot of lunches with Orrin Keepnews, talking about ideas, trying to weed things out, solidify what the idea is, what the title and concept will be. Is it gonna be big band, is it gunna be a quartet record, which this mostly is? Are we going to have any guest artists? Are we gonna use your band or get a band full of ringers, you know, Orrin had some ideas and I had some ideas and we just worked, as friends, to get it done. This record was recorded after the Ratdog spring tour of ’98, and then I got married in May…
Dave: Thank you. And then I went on tour with The Other Ones this year. Actually we recorded the session with the LA guys who Orrin knew before The Other Ones tour. Eric Reed and-
Rob: Rob Hurst
Dave: Yeah, and Tootie Heath man (author’s note – Dave reflectively rolls his eyes in amazement here, obviously this was a killer session) sigh Shit! (laughs) And then I went on tour for the summer with The Other Ones, so it’s just been an intense year. This record is something I’m very proud of, I can’t believe we got it done, and I really became friends with Orrin Keepnews and met some extraordinary musicians who were very kind to help me sight unseen, they had not heard me play. They had only heard of me. And Bob Hurst, Tootie Heath, and Eric Reed all just took Orrin Keepnews’ word for it. They said “OK if you got a guy you think can play, then…
Rob: Bring ‘em on
Dave: we’ll play with him,” yeah! And they did, and Monarch Records is not a big label. It wasn’t like big dollars. It was, you know, just because Orrin wants to get his feet wet again. He’s been doing mostly reissues for the last bunch of years. He had sold his portion of Fantasy records in 1972, which is in Berkeley, California, John Fogerty and all those folks came out of that building in Berkeley, and Orrin’s been living in the Bay Area ever since. He had been doing mostly reissues, he’s 75, I guess. But he’s still got his production job, so this is the second or third record that he’s done from scratch recently. You know, it’s not a reissue, it’s really produced, so I was just sort of following along if you know what I mean. He’s such a legendary man and producer, and he’s been around some of the greats, just that he shows some interest in me was really flattering.
Rob: Tell me more about the significance of Orrin, and why it’s a great source of pride for you to have worked with him?
Dave: Orrin Keepnews has been part of many different record companies. He’s produced and worked with artists like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane He actually never produced, but knew and worked with Sonny Rollins. He’s probably most remembered for (producing) Cannonball Adderly’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy record which was probably the first hit jazz record, it went gold which is, I think that’s 500,000 copies sold, I’m not quite sure about that. He was part of Riverside records as well as Fantasy records. He signed and produced a lot of the very significant jazz artists from the beginning back in New York in the fifties. So, when I’m working with Orrin I’m working with a guy who has facilitated the recordings for all of the guys who I grew up worshipping, some of whom were dead before I was even born. Orrin is basically a living legend, so to be working with him and have him be all psyched and choose to be doing new projects and stuff is just spectacular. So I kind of went along for the ride, in a way. You know, I went to Berkeley College of Music and got a production engineering degree, I’ve got all of my knob-twisting skills together. And I had a whole lot of ideas about how I wanted this record to go. This is a quartet record, basically, that’s done in the studio with no isolation, really, very little. No overdubs. And it’s just how they used to do it in the old days, you know, how Orrin wanted it to get done. So, it was a little nerve-wracking on my part, but I’m really, really proud of the accomplishment.