DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Electric Heart – Documentary on trumpeter Don Ellis (2009)

Hopefully this documentary will correct some of the misconceptions about Don Ellis and his music and generate more interest in his many unique recordings. His motto was “Experimentation before Entertainment” and he made music from not a commercial viewpoint but a creative one.

Published on February 10, 2009

Electric Heart – Documentary on trumpeter Don Ellis (2009)

Electric Heart – Documentary on trumpeter Don Ellis (2009)

“The Man, His Times, His Music”
Director: John Vizzusi
Studio: Sights and Sounds Film
Video: 1.44:1 for 16:9 color (shot on video)
Audio: PCM Stereo
Extras: Extra Ellis footage, Don Ellis Band Reunion, Complete video of Turkish Bath, Gary Gilles Tribute Track
Length: Feature – 73 min.; with extras – 220 min.
Rating: *****

Don Ellis was a unique musical genius in jazz who died of a heart attack very prematurely in 1978. The filmmaker decided to do a documentary on Ellis because he loved his path-breaking music and was shocked to find that most of the gatekeepers in music either knew nothing about him or no longer played his music because he was thought to be a failure. Ellis made more than a dozen albums which are still available on CD but he was often misrepresented and underproduced. The record companies considered him an artist who could not make hits yet when he performed on stage as at several electric appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival (one of which I attended), his incredible music wowed the crowds.

The documentary uses existing footage of performances by Ellis’ band as well as acclaim for his musical experiments from such people as Gunther Schuller, Milcho Leviev, the Bulgarian pianist who worked with Ellis in transcribing Bulgarian folk music into a World Jazz concept and the late Maynard Ferguson in whose band – along with Stan Kenton’s – he got his start. Pulitzer-winning composer Schuller explains about his coining of the term “third stream music” to refer to an amalgam of classical and jazz which he spearheaded in the 60s and 70s. But he admits that the experimentation with offbeat time signatures, quarter tones and other new paths in music almost required a new word to describe Don Ellis’ achievements. The musician moved from his interest in bringing Bulgarian music into his compositions to an interest in East Indian music, and in spite of heart problems made a trip to India against the advice of his doctor and girlfriend, and had a fatal heart attack sometime after his return.

Hopefully this documentary will correct some of the misconceptions about Don Ellis and his music and generate more interest in his many unique recordings.  His motto was “Experimentation before Entertainment” and he made music not from a commercial viewpoint but a creative one. The extras are mostly rather poor video quality but worth watching to gain a more complete picture of Ellis’ music. There is a complete video of one of his big hits in wild time signature - A Turkish Bath – which should be seen although the image quality is extremely blurry. There are also two musical performances by Gary Gilles of Ellis ballads accompanied by still photos  from Ellis’ life and career.

[This has now been reissued in 2014 and reformatted for 16:9, but they dropped the blurry A Turkish Bath video.]

- John Sunier




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