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JAZZ REVIEW

Convincing Improvisation From Versatile Dave Ellis

October 10, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can take the boy out of rock, but can you take the rock out of the boy? In the case of tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, who is best known for his forays with Grateful Deadsters Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart and jazz-grunge guitarist Charlie Hunter, the answer is: without a doubt.

Opening a four-night run at the Jazz Bakery Thursday, Ellis demonstrated that the impressive straight-ahead playing on "In the Long Run," his new Monarch CD, is no accident. Although Ellis' playing with Hunter and Dead survivors has had a pop/rock/funk authenticity, it in no way has diminished his ability to improvise effectively in a demanding jazz environment. Like Joshua Redman before him, he is the product of a Bay Area jazz scene that encourages players to move freely and creatively between genres.

Working with two regular associates--pianist Jeff Chimenti and bassist Peter Barshay--as well as the veteran Tootie Heath on drums, Ellis cruised through a mixed program of tunes from his new album, with a few standards thrown in for good measure. His most attractive quality--perhaps a residue of his pop experience--is an ability to build solos out of attractive melodic fragments. And on tunes by Wayne Shorter and Woody Shaw, he carved out phrases that were as melodically compelling as they were rhythmically propulsive.

Ellis' most absorbing effort, however, was a laid-back, mellow rendering of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." Starting slowly, sticking close to the theme, he played with a warm sensitivity, delivering a compelling solo that managed to survive his only misstep of the evening, a too-energetic closing flurry that pushed too far beyond the intimate mood he had established for the piece.

But there was never any doubt that Ellis has a voice well worth hearing, and that he has to be considered an important entry in the list of stylistically diverse new jazz players emerging in the late '90s.

*

* The Dave Ellis Quartet at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. (310) 271-9039. $17 admission tonight at 8:30 and 10. $17 admission Sunday at 7 and 9 p.m.

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