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by Lee Tomboulian
"About time for some blues now," Herb Ellis said, about four tunes into his first set at the Arkansas Arts Center's Take 5 Series. It seemed surprising, because he really had been playing the blues feeling, if not the 12-bar blues form, the whole time.
Equal parts Texas bluesman and Charlie Parker acolyte, Herb Ellis is a wonderful player, one of the last of the original hard-core swing players such as former band-mates, pianist Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, players who won't rock unless it swings. These players have a vast firsthand knowledge of a zillion Tin-Pan-Alley tunes and the cream of the great songwriters, Porter, Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, et al., plus a blues-drenched approach to improvising. True to form, Herb played one non-swing tune all night (Jobim's classic bossa-nova "Wave"). To Herb and the others, jazz is swing. Who are we younger folks to disagree? Even Herb's cranky-old-man imitation couldn't dissolve the exuberance in the room.
Herb, unlike some other older players, doesn't even pretend to like rock music. Early the night before at the Oyster Bar, he thanked the crowd for choosing his music over his friend's-- guitarist John McGlaughlin. (He thought erroneously that John was playing on the same night.) "He may play a lot more notes a lot faster than I do, but I play the meaningful ones."
I dare say you won't hear John McGlaughlin putting down Herb Ellis.
Yet Herb's music is, indeed, a complete system, nothing is wasted. Even when he and pianist Charles Thomas edged into some uptempo duet segments, all those double-time passages meant something (he can actually play pretty darn fast).
Age has unfortunately dealt a certain rigidity, a squareness to his time feel, and sometimes impatience pushes him ahead of the band, but God loves us when Herb plays his unaccompanied solo intros, beautifully wise, harmonic life stories. Charlie Price, local sax guy, had tears in his eyes at the time and he was not alone.
Dave Rogers and Joe Vick played tastefully and well. Joe played some of his most melodic bass solos in a decade, and Dave was faultless, except for an occasional sluggishness at the ends of his solo breaks. Terry Holmes, Herb's agent-manager, personified the selfless, supportive second guitarist role, lovingly punctuating Herb's statements with little to-the-point fills.
One highlight of the evening, beside the aforementioned exhilarating bebop duels between him and Charles, was the down-and-dirty version of "Easter Parade," the Irving Berlin chestnut. Now, this tune has never been a favorite of mine, but Herb made an insinuating gospel-blues sermon out of it that put all memories of the original out to pasture.
Herb lives in Fairfield Bay, Arkansas, his retirement home, far away from his old L.A. studio grind. I hope since he lives here now people will do themselves the favor of hearing him, one of the last of the old guard. It's a pure pleasure.
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