Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

AUGUST 31, 1998:  This is a story about fusion, a tale of its early days, and its current state. Our protagonist is one guitarist named John McLaughlin.

Our story begins in 1968, when drummer Tony Williams left Miles Davis and formed Lifetime with McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. Their 1969 debut album, Emergency!, was as raw and powerful as fusion could be, with thick, dense guitar and organ chords crunching over Williams’ thunderous drumming. It was dark and furious, with nary a delicate bone in its body. The next year bassist Jack Bruce (the former member of Cream) joined the band for Turn It Over, and the results were much the same: potent, intense, loud, and urgent.

After these LPs, McLaughlin joined Miles Davis, later forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra. (An early, previously unreleased version of McLaughlin’s devotional “One Word” appears here, with vocals by Bruce.)

Now flash to the present, with The Heart Of Things, McLaughlin’s new fusion disc. What a difference three decades make! Much of the pattern McLaughlin used in Mahavishnu is still intact: fast, fluid guitar runs from McLaughlin, sparking measure by measure of traded solos between band members. Although there are similarities to McLaughlin’s early days as a Hindu guitar wizard, much is different. Whereas Mahavishnu was loud and intense, this new disc is quiet and somewhat unassuming in comparison. The band’s chops are exemplary, especially drummer Dennis Chambers and reedman Gary Thomas. But things seem a bit sterile and overly polished, as if the experimental rage that fueled Lifetime and the spiritual intensity that drove Mahavishnu Orchestra have been replaced by a quiet, unassuming complacency. The licks are impressive, but seem, well, polite. For all its virtuosity, The Heart Of Things never becomes more exciting than a quiet parlor game. – Gene Hyde

Tony Ellis, Quaker Girl (Country)

On the roster of artists who recorded for Memphis’ Stax Records, Tony Ellis stands out as unique. Granted, he only recorded one record for the legendary Southern soul label, his 1977 solo debut Sunshine, released two years after the original Stax closed by a reprise operation backed by Fantasy Records and headed by songwriter David Porter. Still, there he is: Stax’s one and only bluegrass artist.

Today, Ellis is probably best known to Memphians as the father of The Commercial Appeal’s music writer, Bill Ellis, himself an accomplished guitarist who frequently accompanies Dad. But as a young man, Tony Ellis studied banjo with legendary pickers Swanson Walker and Don Reno. Then, in 1960, he got one of the most coveted gigs in all of bluegrass, playing with the genre’s “father,” Bill Monroe. Ellis stayed with Monroe for two years before leaving to raise a family in Bristol, Tennessee. Though technically in retirement, Ellis became a fixture of local jams. And since his solo debut in 1977, he has made a leisurely pursuit of his recording career, turning out four records since.

His new release, Quaker Girl, completes a return to the traditional music spotlight that began last year with his well-received appearance on the “Masters of Banjo” tour, which also featured J. D. Crowe and Ralph Stanley. But while that tour placed Ellis at the forefront of contemporary bluegrass pickers, Quaker Girl reveals a well-rounded composer and musician. Though the album features fine turns by organist Louise Adkins and harpist Debbie Norris on select tracks and son Bill throughout, their playing is always deferential to the elder Ellis, who instills each track with a haunting presence and a lively, lovely sense of melody.

To call Ellis’ music bluegrass – while not an inaccurate statement – may be misleading to newcomers to the genre, those who were introduced to it through the likes of Bela Fleck and David Grisman, and who perhaps aren’t aware of its deep roots in 19th-century American and European folk music.

The tunes on Quaker Girl come at a clipped, economical pace. There are no lengthy, drawn-out improvisational bits like those associated with so much of today’s bluegrass. Ellis is as much a smart and eloquent composer as he is a practiced instrumentalist. He knows what he wants to do with each piece of music and he sets out to do it – no messing about.

Despite their brevity, however, Ellis’ compositions (as well as the three traditional tunes arranged by him) manage to do what all good folk music does – evoke a particular time and place. In Ellis’ case, this is the eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania plains of the 18th and 19th centuries. Ellis calls the region home today, and one senses he feels a deep connection to the time as well. On tunes like the lovely ballad “When I Think Of You,” about a woman whose husband has gone off to fight in the Civil War, the grim fiddle reel “Malvern Hill,” about a particularly brutal Revolutionary War battle, or the final track, “My Freedom Home,” featuring a deep and soulful vocal (mostly hummed) by Ron Smith, he transports the listener completely, albeit briefly, to his world. – Mark Jordan

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