Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week: Electric Bath by The Don Ellis Orchestra

I've been thinking a lot this week about new music, about hearing things for the first time and about seeking out new things. It therefore seemed appropriate to do my first Album of the Week in a while and, more specifically, to pick out a disc first released over forty years ago and whose praises I've been meaning to sing for quite some while now.


At first glance, if you're not familiar with Electric Bath this may seem a little odd, but actually it makes perfect sense. I first heard the album a decade or so again when my brother, having heard a song on the radio, gave it to me for my birthday. I had never heard anything quite like it. Today, four decades after it was made, it still sounds fresh and new, its five tracks still seem to overflow with invention. It is also toe-tappingly good.

It opens with Indian Lady, a rich wall of sound and a rising, wailing brass call. Then comes main theme and one of the keys to what makes the album tick. It is so rhythmically fresh, doubtless a factor of being in 5/4. That, incidentally, being probably the most conventional time signature on the album, the others are 7/4, 13/4, 19/4 and 15/16 - something that is doubly impressive to someone like me who struggles to play anything that has a time change from three to four crotchet beats in each bar. All credit then to drummer Steve Bohannon for his contributions throughout the album, invaluable in helping drive it along. There is too the rich colour added by Mike Lang's fender piano. The track is also a frenzy of activity, with a vast amount going on, perhaps in part why I hear new things on repeated listens, and yet this is accomplished without it feeling cluttered. There is a crazy passion and a somewhat psychedelic, even kaleidoscopic feel. Much like the opening of Mahler's 8th symphony it leaves you feeling like you've been hit by a train, in a good way, if such a thing is possible. That's not to say it sounds anything like Mahler, it doesn't, but it has a similar sort of effect.

The difficult task of following that falls to Alone, somewhat calmer and allowing a pause for breath. Well, relatively speaking anyway, since my toes carry on tapping throughout and arguably it is one long increase in intensity. It is also notable for Ellis's superb solo work, starting in an understated manner and building to some impressively virtuosic fireworks.

Turkish Bath is different again. It continues the progression of more exotic tones and rhythms: witness the sitar. There are some wonderful effects, such as the plaintive wailing of the winds, or the glorious falling brass line about three minutes in. It is possibly a less easy listen than what has come before, yet it still leaves me wanting more and remains as visually evocative as the rest of the album, another of its many strengths.

It's more of the same with Open Beauty, by which I mean it's now time for something else completely different. The twinkling and mystical opening seems to fit the title aptly. This may feel like the album's calm track, and, for the most part it is, yet lest you are lulled into too much of a sense of false security, it is punctuated both by those jarring solo calls that are one of the album's common threads and some pretty intense climaxes. Yet generally there is a tranquil beauty in those shimmering backgrounds.

Finally, from the screeching brass at the outset onwards, New Horizons is a burst of hyperactivity. And though it is not without its moments of (relative) calm, not to mention some nice solo work therein, if one were hunting for a word to describe it, frantic would probably spring to mind. There is a fantastic, whirling energy to the ending which seems to contain every bit as much vibrancy and novelty as the opening of Indian Lady.

Other factors contribute to the album's exotic feel, such as the presence of the fourth valve on Ellis's trumpet, enabling him to play quarter tones, and his use of electric effects on Open Beauty. His twenty-one piece ensemble has been drilled to perfection, no mean feat given the demands the music places upon them. It is, in short, a masterpiece. But don't just take my word for it, have a listen. Which, indeed, is the whole point of these posts - the Spotify playlist.

Don Ellis sadly died in 1978 at the age of just 44. Who knows what other new ground he might have gone on to plough, and indeed have still been ploughing today had he lived. Certainly Electric Bath sounds as fresh to me as when I first heard it, and doubtless as it did when it was first released.

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