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The 18-piece Don Ellis reunion band, consisting of former sidemen and younger enthusiasts, was led by keyboardist Milcho Leviev, a close associate whose roots in metrically complex Bulgarian music gave him a leg up on the offbeat time signatures Ellis favored. But Leviev, like Ellis, knows how to present demanding music in communicative fashion, and his humorous between-songs comments, combined with his encouragement to the crowd to occasionally clap along in five- and seven-beat rhythms, added a warm, participatory element.
Given the relatively short time span of a nightclub set, there wasn't a lot of time to dip deeply into the vast archive of Ellis' music. But Leviev highlighted the program with three classics: the quirky juxtaposition of New Orleans music and funk in the 7/4 "Pussy Wiggle Stomp," the klezmer-tinged (before klezmer became a familiar style) "Bulgarian Bulge" in 33/16 meter and the ever-appealing, 5/4 "Indian Lady."
Each was a sterling display of Ellis' almost casual mastery of big-band writing, framed within complex rhythms that nonetheless emerged in foot-tapping fashion. And the demands on the players, especially given limited rehearsal time, were significant.
To their credit, they responded with great facility, and even greater enthusiasm. The soloists -- especially drummer Dave Crigger, handling the difficult task of propelling a large ensemble through shifting arrays of rhythm; saxophonists Fred Selden, Ann Patterson and Gary Herbig; trumpeter John Daversa; and the ever-inventive Leviev -- were as commendable for their articulation as for their imagination.
The missing element, of course, was Ellis, whose sets were enlivened as much by his extraordinary trumpet playing as by his music. But that music is still very much alive, very worthy of repeated hearing.
And one couldn't help but wonder why a major Ellis revival still hasn't taken place -- beyond rare events such as this one. Even a brief exposure to Ellis' music reveals the fascination of its technical demands, its timeless musical appeal and his as-yet-unacknowledged importance as a jazz innovator.
Don Ellis Band
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Oct. 15th, 2007