I have a new thing," Pee Wee Ellis, the legendary sax man and bandleader of James Brown's JBs for much of the '60s, rasps over the phone from his home in England, where he works with fellow legends like Van Morrison and Oumou Sangare. "It's called 'smunk,'" he says. "It's funk how I play it. Smooth funk."
In these groove-challenged times, when every jazz and funk artist seems to castrate his sound and make diet bleats you can tap your toe to in an office building, those are ominous words. It's twice as dangerous for a decorated music veteran such as Ellis, the self-described "jazz player who happens to play funk" who, in addition to revolutionizing popular music with Brown, studied under bebop tenor-sax king Sonny Rollins. Isn't he afraid of falling into the tofu wok and getting his musical nuts cut up for mass consumption? Isn't it a little too easy to have your band fake the smunk?
"I'll take responsibility!" Ellis laughs. "It's not like smooth jazz, because that's watered down. It's smunk because I'm putting jazz into it. It's not the smack-in-the-face funk. Funk can be mellow, you know. It just needs to have a groove."
Sure enough, the seven-song "smunk" sampler Ellis e-mailed to this writer has the groove. Imagine Miles Davis' Bitches Brew stripped of its look-ma-I-can-play overindulgence. Nary a note is wasted. Every sax phrase is exact, and the rhythm section is on point, fighting off elevator jazz whitewash like a nun in an opium den. It's almost as if Ellis' old boss is hovering over his former bandleader and yelling, "Don't bore us -- get to the chorus!" Even beaten-to-death standards such as Marvin Gaye's classic "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "On a Slow Boat to China," a Frank Loesser-penned jazz tune that everyone from Diana Krall to Jimmy Buffett has weighed in on, are given new life.
"That's an old song," Ellis says of the latter. "We recorded the record in four days in Bremen, Germany. Part of the deal was that we had to do a live concert afterward. So at the concert, we did 'Slow Boat to China.' It's a classic ballad. I remember it from my childhood."
Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis' childhood took a turn at age 9 when he found a tenor sax in the bottom drawer of his grandmother's bureau. "I pulled the thing out, and there was a lot of mold on it. It must've been there a long time," he says. "It fascinated me. I got it together and learned how to make a sound out of it.
"You see, music was always in my heart. I had taken piano lessons with an old lady named Miss Sharp. It was 50 cents a lesson. She hit me on the knuckles with a ruler, and I never went back." And after Ellis' stepfather was stabbed in the stomach at a nightclub he managed for dancing with a white woman and bled to death in the hallway of a hospital that refused to help him because he was black, Ellis never went back to Lubbock either.
Instead, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where Ellis' professional career began to take off. "I had an aunt in New York City, and I was walking down the street with my horn and I saw someone else walking the other way with his horn who happened to be Sonny Rollins," he says. "I was bold enough to stop him and ask if I could study with him. He said yes. So I would fly from Rochester once a week on a Wednesday and spend an hour or two with him. Sonny charged me $7. The flight from Rochester was $25 each way, and I was making $90 a week."
In 1965, Ellis got the call from James Brown to join the JBs, and the music world has never been the same. A collaboration with Brown, "Cold Sweat," is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest funk jams ever. "He is a hard task master," Ellis says of Brown. "He's a man of perfection. He's so musical. He's so funky. And he's intuitive. He's just got it."
One thing Brown had, according to Ellis, was a madman's timing. "Most of the songs I wrote with him, like 'The Chicken' and all that instrumental stuff, was done after a gig in Dallas," he recalls. "After the gig, he said: 'Stay on-stage. We're gonna record after the gig. '" The result, 1969's Popcorn, is an oft-sampled masterwork.
A perfectionist about his recordings, Ellis doesn't welcome people bootlegging his live performances. "In Japan, people got high-tech recording stuff: the cameras and the mics and the buttonholes," Ellis says. "Before you leave the hall, the stuff's on the radio! It's hard to stop it. I've had occasions to jump off the stage and take people's cameras from them. That's like an insult, man. I'll go pretty far into the rows to do it too. In London, there was a guy filming, and I chased him out the door," he chortles. "I never did catch him. I'm still looking for him."
When he's not hunting down bootleggers, Ellis is hard at work in the laboratory, making smunk. "The smunk can go as far as I'm able to take it," he says. "I'm just trying it out. When I get to Florida, I'm gonna test it." He's also courting the possibility of a reunion record with Brown and his fellow JB horns Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. "James and I talk on the phone once or twice a year. There's a rumor that he's gonna do a record in L.A. with us." He pauses and chuckles. "But there are many rumors. Hopefully, this one will happen. The time is right."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.