Saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis is one of the funkiest horn players in music history. In fact, Ellis was instrumental in the creation of funk music while serving as James Brown’s musical director in the 1960s. His name is right alongside Brown’s in the songwriting credits of some of the era’s most influential and enduring hits, including “Cold Sweat” and “Mother Popcorn.” As a writer, arranger, and of course member of the horn section, Ellis helped Brown craft his signature late-’60s sound.
If that weren’t enough innovation for one artist, Ellis later collaborated with Van Morrison as his musical director beginning in 1979 and carryied that job into the mid-’80s. He re-teamed with Morrison in the ’90s, playing saxophone and arranging the charts for several albums. Ellis has recorded fairly regularly as a solo artist for the last 20 years. Having recently turned 70 years old, Pee Wee Ellis is back with his first new album in over five years, the double-disc Tenoration.
The first disc is subtitled from jazz to funk… and features deep, relaxed grooves in a funky vein. Ellis fronts a quintet that includes Dan Moore on keyboards, Tony Remy on guitar, Patrick Scales on bass, and Guido May on drums. Ellis commands the opening track, “Slanky P,” with all the authority one might expect from a veteran with more than 50 years of experience. He gives his tenor a thorough workout, aided greatly by slinky, fuzzy guitar lines from Remy. Dipping back to his days with the Godfather of Soul, Ellis blows the dust off “Gittin’ a Little Hipper” for a brief nostalgia trip. Jazz great Cannonball Adderley’s “Sticks” gets a 10 minute plus exploration. Ellis’ own “Bon Bonn” and “Zig Zag” are indicative of the subtle, smoothed-out rhythms that dominate the disc.
Disc two changes things up with a significantly different sound and mostly different musicians. Subtitled …and back to jazz, another half dozen tunes explore the jazz side of Ellis’ style. Rejoining Ellis from the funk disc is drummer Guido May. The rest of the quartet consists of Gareth Williams on piano and Laurence Cottle on bass. A rich reading of an old standard, “You’ve Changed,” kicks things off. Ellis produces a big, fat sound on his tenor, milking the classic melody for all it’s worth. The only tune carried over from disc one is Adderley’s “Sticks,” which surprisingly kicks harder here than on the funk disc.
Make no mistake, the music on this disc is distinctly funky, only with jazzier leanings. Ellis contributes two originals; the first, “Parlayin’,” swings gently, while the second, “Now Go On,” finds Ellis mining a gloriously funky groove.
Tenoration provides ample proof that at age 70, Pee Wee Ellis is still blowing one of the funkiest horns anywhere. With strong backing by two different groups, these 12 tracks allow Ellis to stretch out and demonstrate why he has been in demand for decades by some of the biggest names in the business.