1. Johnny Come Lately
2. Slow Space
6. Angel Eyes
Don Ellis - Trumpet
Paul Bley - Piano
Gary Peacock -Bass
Gene Stone - Drums (tracks 1-3, 6-8)
Nick Martinis - Drums (tracks 3-5)
Don Ellis is best known for the big band which he led in the sixties and seventies and which was notable for its rich instrumentation, its use of unusual time signatures (from 5/4 to 32/8), and Ellis's virtuosic trumpet which could play quarter-tones. Essence was recorded in 1962, before the big band became famous, and it uses a simple quartet - except that Ostinato employs two drummers. The album is a mixture of jazz standards and four originals by Ellis.
Like Maynard Ferguson, Don Ellis was a high-note specialist, although he was interested in the notes between the notes, often bending notes to explore different tones. The Ellingtonian Johnny Come Lately has the trumpeter playing a great deal in the upper register. Ellis's composition Slow Space sounds very like a modern "serious" piece or even a totally improvised track.
Ostinato begins with the two drummers playing what might be African rhythms, while the trumpet and piano play fragmentary phrases, before pianist Paul Bley contributes a fairly comprehensible solo and Don adds a solo which stretches up to the stratosphere. This track includes sections in 7/8, 5/8 and 11/8. The drummers' rhythm holds this track together and makes it exciting. Donkey is an invention by Carla Bley (the pianist's wife at the time), stated by piano and bass, with disjointed interpolations from Don Ellis.
Form is another Don Ellis piece which sounds like free improvisation. In fact the most successful tracks on this album are the jazz standards, since the listener can hear what basis the musicians are improvising on, however far out they go. This is certainly true of Angel Eyes, where the melody is easily discerned. Irony is very different, being based (according to Don's sleeve-notes) on "five non-triadic sounds on which we improvised as if they were actual chords". Don't ask me.
The album ends with Rodgers & Hart's Lover, taken at a hectic pace. Don sets off plenty of fireworks in his solo, proving what a virtuoso he was. All four members of the quartet display their brilliance. Although this CD lasts for less than 45 minutes, it displays Don Ellis's talent before he became famous with his orchestra. For those of us who only know albums like Electric Bath, it is educative to hear him at this stage in his career, although his adventurous spirit makes some of his music difficult to unravel.