Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Ellis, David, saxophonist, composer; b. Fontana, CA, 1 December 1967. At age three, his mother (born Judith Fairston, 1938 from London, England) and father (born William Russell Ellis, Jr., 1935 from Los Angeles, California) and baby sister (born Zoe Lynne Ellis, 1970) moved to Berkeley, California.
Dave grew up in a home filled with music and in the Bay Area's rich multicultural environment, where he could listen to all kinds of music. He was exposed to many different kinds of music, including funk, R&B, and rock, while learning to play jazz in the renowned Berkeley schools music programs.
At age ten, after dabbling with the clarinet in grade school, he took up the saxophone at Cazadero Music & Arts Camp. He was a musical prodigy. He was already a precocious player by the time he got to high school and came under the tutelage of jazz ensemble director Phil Hardymon and his successor, Charles Hamilton. Among the players to come out of that milieu have been saxophonists Craig Handy and Peter Apfelbaum, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and pianist Benny Green. Graduating in 1985, one year ahead of future star Joshua Redman, Ellis moved on to the Berklee College of Music, where he focused on his composing and arranging skills on all sorts of instruments, in all sorts of styles, and graduated with a degree in music production and engineering. At school and in the rich performing scene around the Boston/Cambridge area, his peers included such leading lights of new generation jazz as Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Kenny Brooks, Donny Mcaslin, Seamus Blake, and Chris Cheek.
Upon returning to the Bay Area in 1992, Ellis became a pioneer in the region's nascent "new jazz" movement, teaming up with eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Jay Lane to form the immensely popular Charlie Hunter Trio. After recording for Les Claypool's Prawn Song label, the trio signed to Blue Note, which brought national attention to the new sounds taking shape in such neighborhood venues as the Elbo Room and the Up & Down Club.
While establishing his solo recording career, Ellis was playing live for tens of thousands of Deadheads in arenas and stadiums around the country. He could write a book about his road travels with Bob Weir's Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends, and the Other Ones --sharing the stage with Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones, sitting in with the Black Crowes, performing at Bill Clinton's 1996 inaugural ball -- but what Ellis valued most from the experience was playing alongside smart and inspirational musicians like pianist/singer Bruce Hornsby, and continuing to cultivate what he calls an aesthetic of "democracy with leadership." That notion was crucial to the musical coherence of the Charlie Hunter Trio, he says, and it continues to shape his approach to music today.
Ellis was named Best New Talent (along with Diana Krall) in the 1997 Jazziz magazine Readers Poll. He scooped up two 1999 California Music Awards -- for Outstanding Jazz Album and Outstanding Jazz Artist in Northern California, and jazz critics hailed his mature saxophone style for its "enveloping sound and emphatic attack" (Bob Blumenthal, Atlantic Monthly) and its "alternately earthy, probing, and lyrical" sound (Mike Joyce, Washington Post). As legendary record producer Orrin Keepnews writes in his liner notes to the first new Ellis recording in five years, "even on the shifting and difficult terrain of early 21st century jazz, a talent as formidable as his should and will be recognized."
Keepnews, who has worked with many of the all-time tenor greats, including Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and John Coltrane, served as both producer and mentor for Ellis on In The Long Run and State of Mind.
Dave continues to teach, perform live, and promote new recordings. He is married to Lauren Rivera (now Ellis). He has a daughter (Isabella Grace Ellis, born October 22, 2000). He continues to live in Northern California.
Raven (1996), In The Long Run (1998), State of Mind (2003)
Charlie Hunter Trio: Charlie Hunter Trio (1993), bing, bing, bing! (1995), Ready Set Shango! (1996); Dmitri Matheny: Red Reflections (1994) Penumbra-Moon Sessions; Various: Something Blue Sampler (1995), Up & Down Club Sessions Vol. 1 (1995), San Francisco Jazz Festival Sampler (1996), Ultimate Ellington (1999); Boz Scaggs: Come On Home (1997)