March 30, 2010

Herb Ellis (1921–2010)

Master jazz guitarist Herb Ellis has died. He grew up outside of Dallas, Texas, and first became serious about the guitar after hearing Charlie Christian play. He attended North Texas State University as a music major before having to drop out because of money issues. In the 1940s, he toured with the Jimmy Dorsey band before starting his own trio group, the Soft Winds. But it was when Ellis became part of the Oscar Peterson Trio (along with bassist Ray Brown) that he really hit the big time. This trio recorded a string of classics in the mid-1950s, including a number of songbook LPs (George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen). The trio also served as basically the house band for Verve recordings. A tacit tribute to Ellis’s greatness came when he left the Oscar Peterson group in 1958 – he was replaced not with another guitarist but with drummer Ed Thigpen.
Nothing But the Blues/Meets Jimmy Giuffre     One of my favorite albums is a Herb Ellis leader date, Nothing But the Blues (Verve, 1957). It includes an all-star line-up of Roy Eldridge on trumpet and Stan Getz on sax, along with a rhythm section of Ray Brown and Stan Levey. It’s a lot more Texas blues than we’d heard from Ellis elsewhere, and even some rocking boogie woogie ("Big Red's Boogie Woogie"). All the players are at the top of their game, with extended solos for everyone. Ellis keeps things swinging throughout, a nearly constant presence on every song, with several blues-saturated solos.
     He produced a number of terrific albums at this time, including Ellis in Wonderland, Herb Ellis Meets Jimmy Guiffre, and Thank You, Charlie Christian. Ellis then toured with Ella Fitzgerald and also was in the house band for the Steve Allen Show in the 1960s. He continued playing and recording into the 1990s, notably with the Great Guitars, where he was joined by Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and Charlie Byrd. Guitarist Les Paul once said of Ellis, “If you’re not swinging, he’s gonna make you swing.” With his recorded legacy, we’ll do just that.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article.

    Met Herb Ellis in Berlin, some years ago. He was a fine gentleman, and indeed a master. "Nothing But The Blues" is a great album, but no Oscar Peterson playing a single note, because it's piano-less.