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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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Electric Heart. A Film by John Vizzusi
Sound Format PCM Stereo.
Audio English. Subtitles German.
Picture Format 16:9.
Region Code 0.




It's characteristic that this DVD should start, as it were, in media res. Don Ellis might well have approved, given as he was to the unconventional and surprising. Non-chronological and non-linear it approaches its subject in a vaguely schematic way, and certainly not in a more streamlined Third Stream theme and variations way. Haphazard? I wouldn't necessarily disagree but then this approach brings its own unusual, unexpected rewards.

The trumpeter - I first heard his name not in connection with his own playing but because he so extravagantly (and rightly) praised the old time maverick genius Red Allen - was himself a fascinating character who pursued an eclectic array of music, both American and European. A short-lived innovator - dead at 44 - he drew strains from jazz, classical, rock and Balkan music and was noted for his introduction of electronica to the jazz arena.

Despite the brevity of his life we are fortunate that some of those who worked closely with him and understood him - such as Gunther Schuller, Maynard Ferguson and Milcho Leviev - were on hand to give interviews. Furthermore, Ellis played in the trumpet section in music Schuller wrote that was conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and footage exists.

There are lots of stills of Ellis and above all, of course, concert footage. He was a man who had the courage to follow his inner voice, as one of the contributors puts it, and whose big band plus strings utilised very unusual time signatures. Questing, unsatisfied, he constantly sought out novelties. It's hardly surprising that he himself sported a four-valve trumpet: there was nothing conventional about Ellis.

Shots from the Concord Festival of 1969 reveal the band in full pyroclastic flow as well as sporting outfits one could characterise as groovy. His spoken introductions were droll - indeed downright funny. He also wrote for movies - for The French Connection, for example - and things seemed to be set for a glorious mid-period. But severe heart problems struck in c. 1975 and he had a near-death experience. He returned playing a 'superbore' instrument designed by Ferguson - it was in effect a kind of slide trumpet. It was if he had to play, had to challenge the Reaper. The end duly came in 1978, a heart attack felling him.

The bonus features last just shy of an hour and feature in-concert footage of the band called 'Music at San Francisco'. The pieces played are not captioned and the booklet, whilst helpful biographically, is not going to help you here. So, just enjoy the three basses playing arco, the flute section, plethora of percussionists, the sitar player and the leader, driving his troops ever onward - full of drama, full of energy.

A brief footnote: a previous DVD release ran for 220 minutes and includes extras not present in this Arthaus disc, which runs 130 minutes in total.

Jonathan Woolf

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