The most common time signatures in music are 4/4, 3/4, and 2/4. Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond famously recorded Take Five in 5/4 time, but another jazz icon named Don Ellis took time signature experiments to a new level.
Don Ellis was a part of the New York jazz scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s, playing trumpet on Charles Mingus’ album Mingus Dynasty for example. He left to study music at UCLA and got a taste for experimentation, particularly by using unorthodox Indian and Arabian time signatures. He formed a jazz sextet with his mentor from UCLA, Harihar Rao; it included music played on sitar and vibraphone.
I know him best from the Don Ellis Orchestra. It was with this big-band-style group that he played the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, with a custom trumpet that could play quarter tones and ambitions to do something unique.
His first piece at the festival was in 19/4 time. In fact, the subdivision in that time signature is also the title of the piece: 3 222 1 222. As Ellis joked, it’s “just the area code.” You can hear it below.
Ellis went on to do the soundtrack to The French Connection (for which he won a Grammy Award) but never really hit mainstream success. He died of a heart attack at 44 years old.
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