Fifty Year Friday: The Don Ellis Orchestra “Electric Bath”
Is it possible that the first truly progressive rock album was not a rock album, but a jazz album? For those that adamantly insist that the most adventurous and exploratory rock music of 1967 and early 1968 is really not progressive rock but “proto-prog, such prog fundamentalists often require that any music to be considered true progressive rock must display a relatively high level of musicianship and deploy mixed meter or unusual time signatures, 20th century instruments, a wide range of dynamics and instrumental combinations, effects such as tape loops or use of quarter tones, and extended length tracks painting a colorful, sonically rich landscape. If we buy into such requirements, then perhaps we should consider this modern big-band jazz album recorded in September 1967 and released either in late 1967 or early 1968, to validly qualify as the first progressive rock album.
In terms of quality and excitement, The Don Ellis Orchestra’s “Electric Bath” should please any “Close to the Edge”, “In the Court of the Crimson King”, “Thick as A Brick”, “Selling England By the Pound”, “Brain Salad Surgery”. or “Power and the Glory” fan.
A progressive rock album has to start with a fervently vigorous or otherwise bigger-than-life immersive track such as King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, Genesis’s “Watcher of the Skies”, or the opening to ELP’s Tarkus. “Indian Lady” is just that with its fanfare opening, a meter of alternating 3 and 2, and a strong distinct theme running relentlessly forward, swinging ferociously with a indisputably bluesy orientation. We also have sitar, electric piano, and most notably, Don Ellis on a four-valve quarter-tone enabled trumpet.
The second track, “Alone”, by far the shortest at less than six minutes, is a basically a samba, a musical form from Brazil that became so popular in the mid sixties, but in 5/4 time without any sense of awkwardness, but just the opposite, fully liberated and unconstrained.
Ending the first side is the brilliant “Turkish Bath” with sitar and a exotically distorted reeds sounding not so much like instruments from Turkey, but from an even more exotic location, probably from another planet in some remote solar system. Sitar and quarter-tones contribute to the appropriate balance of spices.
“Open Beauty” open side two of the original LP, and provides appropriate contrast and musical reflection. Elegantly executed by the band, this composition is haunting, surreal and evocative, with ebbs and flows of intensity until a little over two-thirds of the way in when we get a tape-delay Don Ellis solo which initially echoes with layered fifths and then more adventurously explores into more expressive and polyphonically combative territory.
The last track, “New Horizons” is the strongest, longest and most remarkably inventive of the album with relentless energy driven by a 17/8 5-5-7 pattern with amazing ensemble and solo trumpet passages. The work unfolds like a story with contrast and subplots ending with explosive energy winding down into an emphatic, punctuated coda.
This album should appeal to anyone that loves adventurous and well-written, arranged and performed music whether their preference is classical, progressive rock, progressive heavy metal, be-bop or big band jazz.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
All compositions by Don Ellis except as indicated
- “Indian Lady” – 8:06
- “Alone” (Hank Levy) – 5:32
- “Turkish Bath” (Ron Myers) – 10:16
- “Open Beauty” – 8:29
- “New Horizons” – 12:20
- “Turkish Bath” [Single] (Myers) – 2:52 Bonus track on CD reissue
- “Indian Lady” [Single] – 2:58 Bonus track on CD reissue
- Don Ellis – trumpet, arranger
- Alan Weight, Ed Warren, Glenn Stuart, Bob Harmon – trumpet
- Ron Myers, Dave Sanchez – trombone
- Terry Woodson – bass trombone
- Ruben Leon, Joe Roccisano – alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute
- Ira Shulman – tenor saxophone, flute, piccolo flute, clarinet
- Ron Starr – tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet
- John Magruder – baritone saxophone, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet
- Mike Lang – piano, electric piano, clavinet
- Frank DeLaRosa, Dave Parlato – bass
- Ray Neapolitan – bass, sitar
- Alan Estes – vibraphone, percussion
- Steve Bohannon – drums
- Chino Valdes – bongos, congas
- Mark Stevens – timbales, percussion, vibraphone