Pee Wee Ellis


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Although best known for the funk he provided as James Brown's co-writer and musical director for a spell during one of the Godfather of Soul's most creative periods, saxist Pee Wee Ellis is a jazzman at heart. Perhaps that's why Van Morrison tapped him as his go-to reed guy for so many years in the early '80s when Morrison's muse led him in that direction. Here Ellis uses a two-disc format (both could have fit on a single) to explore his funk and jazz leanings, with an emphasis on the latter. The all-instrumental album is appropriately subtitled "From Jazz to Funk and Back" and opens with five tunes that display Ellis' R&B side, leading a tight four-piece ensemble through the paces. The playing is tough, uncompromising, and filled with substantial jazzy improvisation while keeping the backbeat rugged, especially on a lean but sizzling ten-minute take of Cannonball Adderley's "Sticks." This combination has been done before, particularly by the Crusaders, although Ellis' muscular lines add more heft to the approach. The group whips through a rather obscure, old Brown-Ellis composition, "Gittin' a Little Hipper," where the tone shifts to jazz yet returns to funk, all within three minutes, similar to the original. The closing ballad on the first half is a sweet, slinky, smoky version of "At Last," a jazz/soul interpretation of the Etta James signature tune that sets up disc two's predominantly straight-ahead style. Here Ellis displays his sax chops admirably during a short (just over 30 minutes) six-song program that runs from standards such as "You've Changed" through to Eddie Harris' classic "Freedom Jazz Dance." Only the drummer remains from the funk disc and the backing band is slimmed down to a trio. "Sticks" gets another, much shorter, but no less intense workout with an eight-minute Sonny Rollins' "Sunnymoon for Two" and Ellis' upbeat, bump and shake "Now Go On" both riding their grooves. "Freedom Jazz Dance" nimbly combines both styles into one fiery performance to close out this impressive set and prove that Ellis is equally adept at either jazz or funk, but perhaps best when he joins the two.

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