Herb Ellis died last night at home in Los Angeles. He was 88 years old and had Alzheimer’s disease. Ellis was most celebrated for his guitar playing with the Oscar Peterson Trio that also included bassist Ray Brown. For more than half a century, he was one of a handful of guitarists recognized as masters of the instrument. Musicians of several generations cherished him as a colleague. A few of them were fellow guitarists Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida; trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Harry “Sweets” Edison; saxophonists Ben Webster, Plas Johnson and Stan Getz; and Ella Fitzgerald.
In the notes for one of Ellis’s last recordings as a leader, I wrote:
In the 24 bars of his unaccompanied introduction to “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” Herb Ellis sketches the elements of his musicality.
• Harmonic sophistication
• Fleet execution
• Expression of abstract ideas in earthy language
• Bred-in-the-bone familiarity with the blues
• Distinctive Southwest twang
• Perfect time
When Peterson modeled his trio on Nat Cole’s in 1950, he at first had Brown on bass and Cole’s former guitarist irving Ashby. Then Barney Kessel signed on for a year. Ellis replaced Kessel and spent five years with Peterson. The trio became one of the most celebrated groups in jazz. Their concert recordings contain some of the most exciting music ever captured on record. Peterson, Ellis and Brown agreed that the album from the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival in 1956 caught them at their peak. They may not have again quite reached that apogee during their time together, but they came close in this 1958 performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Ellis simulates bongos, solos with all of the facets listed above, and demonstrates his skill as a rhythm guitarist.
As far as Peterson was concerned, Ellis was irreplaceable. When Herb left the trio in 1958, Peterson did not consider hiring another guitatist. He brought in drummer Ed Thigpen. That was a great trio, too, but the electricity and empathy of Peterson, Ellis and Brown was unique.
You will find a trove of Ellis albums here.
Herb Ellis, RIP.