Herb Ellis, April 1978

September 1, 2009
<img style="width: 350px; height: 295px; float: left; margin-right: 5px; margin-bottom: 5px; border: 1px solid #000000;" src="/Portals/0/Ellis_herb_nr.jpg" alt="img" />BORN IN MCKINNEY, TEXAS, IN 1921, Herb Ellis&rsquo; first influence was the late Charlie Christian&mdash;the pioneer of electric jazz guitar. After graduating from Texas State College in 1941, Ellis joined the Glen Gray Orchestra. Herb&rsquo;s guitar was subsequently featured with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra on several hits, such as &ldquo;Perdido&rdquo; and &ldquo;J.D.&rsquo;s Jump.&rdquo; From 1953 to 1958, Herb performed in pianist Oscar Peterson&rsquo;s trio (with bassist Ray Brown), and, after a year on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, he settled down to a career as a Los Angeles session player. For six years, he was a familiar face on the set of The Merv Griffin Show as a member of the Mort Lindsey Orchestra.<br /> <br /> <strong>What would you say are the differences between playing with Joe Pass and playing with Barney Kessel?</strong> <p>Joe and I come from different places, so we can put a little more emphasis on interplay&mdash;the involvement, the harmonization, the counterpoint. With Barney, because we&rsquo;re both from the same background, we can start out playing lines that are parallel or counter or crossing, and we&rsquo;ll wind up playing almost the same phrase! It&rsquo;s unreal. So the parts Barney and I play together are more arranged than when Joe and I play.</p> <strong>When you&rsquo;re soloing, what are you thinking of?</strong> <p>I think of melodic content. I have no formulas worked out&mdash;I just play from the knowledge I have. Like, when you play a Gb chord over a C chord, it&rsquo;s two triads&mdash; a Gb triad on top of a C triad. That&rsquo;s where we get the two tonics, and if you voice it right, it&rsquo;ll sound very pretty. But I never think about that when I play. It&rsquo;s all done intuitively. All I think about is trying to create a melody. I try not to think about what scale I&rsquo;m going to play for a G7 chord.</p> <strong>If you were backing a soloist in a tune where the I chord is being played for four measures, would you play inversions of the chord, or would you play a variety of different chords?</strong> <p>I do both, but if the guy improvising is going pretty good&mdash;and is playing a pretty involved line&mdash;I would just play on the I chord using inversions. I would play sparsely, and the lines he&rsquo;s playing would sound good against the I chord because of the tension caused by four bars of the I chord. Now, if he&rsquo;s playing very few notes, and there are lots of spaces in there, then I&rsquo;d comp with different chord patterns to fill it up and get a little spark going. Playing background is an art, and I think it&rsquo;s sorely neglected. I see groups on the stand, and I get the distinct feeling that everybody is in business for themselves. When they get a solo, boy, that&rsquo;s their time. After that, they may play a lot of stuff behind the next soloist, but they&rsquo;re really not listening to what the soloist is doing, and that irritates me. I think that when you&rsquo;re playing background to someone, you should do your best to help the guy who is soloing.</p> <strong>Do you think jazz improvisation can be taught?</strong> <p>Well, the crafts and the tools&mdash;the intellectual part of it&mdash;can certainly be taught, and your technical ability can be improved. But if you can&rsquo;t move people, then all that other stuff doesn&rsquo;t count.<br /> <br /> <em>Excerpted from Arnie Berle&rsquo;s piece in the April 1978 Guitar Player</em></p> <h3>More in this GP Flashback series...</h3> <ul> <li><a href="http://www.guitarplayer.com/article/gp-flashback-byrd-kessel-and-ellis---unbeatable-jazz-trio-october-1974/4268" target="_blank">GP Flashback: Byrd, Kessel and Ellis - Unbeatable Jazz Trio, October 1974</a></li> <li><a href="http://www.guitarplayer.com/article/ask-barney-kessel-/4269" target="_blank">Ask Barney Kessel!<em></em></a><em><br /> </em></li> </ul>
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