Don Ellis ‘Soaring’ LP/CD/DIG (MPS) 4/5

The MPS label out of Bavaria has a legendary status among specialist European jazz record companies and one that is very much deserved. It is simply the case that the quality of the studio recordings was equally matched by the outstanding visual content of the vinyl packaging and some of the greatest of all American and European musicians and beyond have graced this label. A brand new comprehensive re-issue programme is thankfully now underway and, as part of this series, comes a wonderful slice of progressive big band jazz that has been championed by DJ’s in the know including Gilles Peterson. The funk-inflected, ‘Whiplash’ with frenetic trumpet playing from the leader, has become a real radio favourite (with an intro that sounds similar to Edwin Starr’s, ‘War’) and serves to showcase the album as a whole. In fact, this is not necessarily even the strongest track on the album, with another contender in the lavishly layered piece, ‘Sladka’, composed by pianist Milcho Leviev, and featuring a string quartet, which is a stunning number. Trumpeter, arranger and band leader Don Ellis is famed for his unusual time signatures and exploration of world roots beats, and here he develops on from his 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival performance that catapulted him to international prominence. The sheer diversity of approaches is exemplified on the piece, ‘The devil made me write this piece’, which includes a lengthy Brazilian samba passage, clarinet and strings, and a large horn ensemble, all operating in tandem, and in harmony with one another. The heavyweight percussion is especially impressive.

Indian ragas, Balkan metric and Latin flavours are all to be heard with call and response horns and guitar, funky bass lines and drums, and this is a musical project that demands repeated listening where all manner of things are happening just beneath the surface. Exemplary gatefold sleeve with an iconic cover photo and the original sleeve notes are supplemented by new bi-lingual notes in English and German that rightly place the recording in a wider historical context. Available on CD only, this is a terrific example of how the MPS label not only moved with the times, but dictated major shifts in the jazz stratosphere. Other re-issues will be forthcoming in these columns.

Tim Stenhouse