Don Ellis – Invincible

In the mid-80s I made a couple mix tapes of my favorite songs. I still occasionally listen to them today. One of my selections was Invincible, by Don Ellis. The album containing it, “Soaring” from 1973, has never been released on CD. I own a copy on vinyl, but a guy named Lionel Ballet has made it available as part of his Don Ellis site.

The tune is basically a solo vehicle for Vince Denham on alto saxophone, who I otherwise don’t know anything about. The ensemble is a big band augmented with a string quartet, french horn, tuba, and extra rhythm.

[edit: Hmm, the embedded mp3 widget thing doesn’t seem to be working. Listen to the tune by clicking here, if your browser is set up for it. Or save the file and listen to it from outside your browser.]

Here are my thoughts as you listen along via the embedded mp3 widget thing.

Soloist plays the theme at ballad tempo, accompanied by string quartet.
Soloist restates theme, but the string accompaniment is more complex. The tempo is steadier, but still rubato.
String quartet plays the theme pizzicato at a brisk tempo while the soloist noodles subtone sixteenths. It’s almost flight-of-the-bumblebee-esque. It’s not until here that it becomes apparent that the tune is in 7.
Sax section soli. It lasts only 20 seconds, but it’s glorious. The bari is really honking along with the lead alto. This is my favorite part of the piece.
Brass section takes the theme, softly, with some nice organ fills. This is the only time the brass get to do anything besides section hits and whole notes. Sometimes the clam in the trumpet bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t.
This section builds tension by diatonically ascending the F minor scale, one step every two measures. It’s asking a lot of the soloist to keep our attention here while nothing else happens for an entire minute, and he doesn’t completely succeed. I wonder if it might have been better to run through the scale only once instead of twice.
Reaching the top of the scale, the accompaniment now plays the same two-bar figure over and over. To continue building tension through to the cadenza, the soloist delves into the altissimo and expels wild growling lines. I’m not a huge fan of these techniques, but they are effective here.
This is the climax of the piece and the beginning of the unaccompanied cadenza. I like how the soloist uses the entire range of the horn. He does a good job making the transition from wild ferment to calm restraint.
Reprise of the beginning, with only soloist and strings, but with more of an 8+7 feel.
The strings have been laying down a heavy F minor feel, so it’s a delightful surprise when the soloist ends the tune with an embellished F major 7th arpeggio. The final note in the bass is a nice touch.

It’s a nice tune, eh?

10 thoughts on “Don Ellis – Invincible

  1. lionel March 31, 2007 / 7:09am

    very good choice you made among all Don Ellis tunes!
    Invincible can be considered as my very favourite piece from Don, even if trumpet is not so present, but saxes….
    This piece is simply beautiful. A lot of Don’s fan consider Strawberry Soup as THE major piece, of course it’s an incredible piece of art, as Final Analysis also, but Invincible….just DO listen again!!

  2. Syd Polk April 17, 2007 / 11:17pm

    I went to a clinic run by Don Ellis when I was in eighth grade. He taught the entire audience how to count in odd time signatures (me included); it was one of the only clinics at a jazz band festival that I ever learned anything. He also had a four-valved pocket trumpet, with the fourth valve making the tone a quarter step lower. It was painful.

  3. Gabriel Navarro May 31, 2008 / 11:25pm

    I saw The Don Ellis Orchestra ‘Live’ in San Francisco in 1971. It was the taping of the album ‘Tears Of Joy.’ My best friend (Kirt Moret) from our high school band and jazz band (Jefferson-Daly City) took me there as a birthday present. It was great. Most of the members of our jazz band were familiar with Don’s misic from the ‘Live At The Fillmore’ album (also in San Francisco). He was nice enough to talk with us a few minutes and sign the napkins from the coasters. I still have the napkin. Don was very cool, and his orchestra was really ‘cooking’ that night.

    I used to practice playing this number along with the record, after I had transcribed it. Vince Denham was a monster on this chart.

    • Doug Hamilton December 30, 2010 / 11:40am

      I’m in the same boat with everyone else here. I grew up listening to and playing Don Ellis charts in high school and college jazz bands. As a sax player, “Invincible” was the holy grail of alto works. Vince Denham went on to play with Loggins & Messina, Kenny Loggins, Al Jarreau, Les McCann, John Tesh, and has been the sax player in Michael McDonald’s band for 20 years. He was also in a modern smooth jazz band called “Above the Clouds” and released two CD’s, “A Brighter Day” in 2002 and “Fahrenheit” in 2000.

      I would love to have a transcription of “Invincible” if you still have it. Not sure about procedure for sending via email without posting address here. Please let me know by reply to this comment which will send me an email.

      • bitguru December 30, 2010 / 3:26pm

        Not only don’t I have a transcriptions but, alas, I have never had one.
        I wasn’t aware they had ever been available.

        Thanks for the information on Denham.

      • Doug Hamilton December 30, 2010 / 7:35pm

        Sorry, I thought your original post said you used to play along with the song after you transcribed it. The Don Ellis “Soaring” recording was released on CD earlier this year and it is one of my favorites (available on Amazon). I have recently started a transcription of the alto part in Invincible, but I am still looking for an existing chart that has been previously transcribed. I found another recording Vince Denham played on in 2008 – Donna Greene & the Roadhouse Daddies out of Santa Barbara, CA, called “A Girl’s Gotta Have a Little Fun.” Vince does some very tasty horn backing parts and a few stinging solos. I have been unable to contact Mr. Denham to inquire about the existence of charts for “Invincible” from the Don Ellis era. I shall continue my endeavor to finish my own transcription. Thanks for your reply.

  4. Jim Hurt May 5, 2009 / 3:37pm

    I loved this tune so much, I kept the Soaring albulm even after I sold all my others and switched to CD just incase I needed to hear it again. (I lost my turntable in a divorce) 🙂

  5. hans van wagensveld April 27, 2010 / 6:39pm

    yes “invincible”, it is special written for Vince by Don!!!!I have a live-performance of this number with Don’s orchestra….it is even FAR more STUNNING !!!!!!!

  6. Doug Hamilton December 30, 2010 / 7:40pm

    If anyone out there has a chart or transcription of Don Ellis’ “Invincible” featuring Vince Denham on alto, I would love to have it. Thanks.

  7. Curtis Perry December 1, 2012 / 10:08am

    Vince Denham is nice. The title of the piece is appropriate.

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