True multi-instrumentalist Ellen Weller doesn't perform often in San Diego. She may actually be best-known as a member of the incredibly talented Weller Family Band. Her husband Bob is a triple-threat composer, pianist and drummer and her eldest son Danny is a prodigiously talented double bassist who has made his way to NYC for the expanded career opportunities. Rounding out the family, her youngest son Charlie is making a name for himself in the SD jazz scene as a drummer following his graduation from the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Weller keeps a busy schedule as a professor at Palomar College, where she teaches jazz, ethnomusicology and conducts the Symphony Orchestra.
There is another side of the musician, though, that rarely gets mentioned: Mrs. Weller is one of the most accomplished free-jazz instrumentalists on the West Coast. She is fluent on an astonishing number of instruments -- primarily woodwinds. Flutes, the saxophone and clarinet families and a slew of ethnic instruments make up most of the weapons in her arsenal, although she's also a classically trained pianist and recently learned the violin to inform her conducting instructions in the Symphony.
In 2004, she released Spirits, Little Dreams and Improvisations, on the Circumvention record label, a document so bold and inventive that I couldn't take it out of my CD player for several months -- even after more than 100 listens.
Weller got the music bug early, when she began playing the family piano around the age of three. After years of classical piano lessons, she took up the flute at 11 and, inspired by hearing the jazz band from Patrick Henry HS, dove into big-band playing.
"Arne Christiansen let me play flute in the big band, but I had to transpose the lead alto-sax part by sight. I played baritone sax in the marching band, then switched to lead alto," Weller said. She was checking out music programs at universities when, "I heard the 'A' band at CSU Northridge on a visit and had to go there. I also heard this killer drummer in that band: didn't know at that time I was going to marry him."
Her band director in college is directly responsible for her virtuosity on so many different instruments.
"Ladd McIntosh expected me to learn clarinet, bass clarinet, contra-alto bass clarinet and to bring them and set them up for every rehearsal and gig. I bought my first station wagon for this purpose."
In the middle of her extensive musical education, before her migration to NYC -- Weller completed her B.A. in music and her Master's in Composition at Queens College and her Doctorate in Ethnomusicology from UCSD -- she was recruited for a critically acclaimed all-female jazz ensemble, Maiden Voyage.
"I was quite young, about 19, in Los Angeles, 1979, when I was asked to play saxophone with this group led by the great alto player Ann Patterson and drummer Bonnie Janofsky," said Weller. "Unfortunately, I was unable to juggle my academic work with the touring the band was starting to do, so I reluctantly let it go. Or they let me go, I can't remember which. I did do the Tonight Show gig, which was a gas, and received tiny residual checks for many years afterward."
After eight roller-coaster years in NYC, the Wellers returned to San Diego with young Danny and Charlie in tow. Doctoral studies at UCSD introduced her to the world of free improvisation, and a new passion was born.
"I've always improvised, but did not know there was a scene, which was really sad because I was in NYC at the birth of it all. I didn't know it was a recognized genre," Weller said. "When I got to UCSD, I hooked up with George Lewis right off the bat, and from there the cats in Trummerflora drew me in and the rest is history."
Her debut CD featured some of the giants of free jazz, including trombonist Lewis and multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia.
"Ellen's session was one of the coolest things I have ever been involved with," Golia said. She had us bring all of our instruments and she selected from our woodwinds and then devised these groupings to get the most orchestral colorations she could. Very smoothly and efficiently run. The music really flowed effortlessly."
Legendary contrabassist Bertram Turetzky was also on that session.
"Ellen is a person of incredible intelligence -- and exceptional artistic intelligence. Plus, she's a dangerous improviser on the flute," said Turetzky.
Local free-jazz trumpeter and record label owner Jeff Kaiser sees much to admire.
"Ellen -- like so many of my favorite saxophone players -- is able to get around on the instrument with a wide and varied vocabulary from displays of technical and energetic virtuosity to subtle extended techniques," Kaiser said. "Never empty displays, always in service of her music."
In addition to Golia, Lewis and Turetzky, Spirits, Little Dreams & Improvisations features drummers Marcos Fernandes, Nathan Hubbard and a 17-year-old Charlie Weller; bassists Lisle Ellis and Scott Walton; husband Bob Weller on piano and drums and clarinetist Robert Zelickman.
The acclaimed saxophonist Jason Robinson thought enough of the music and Weller to put out the disc on his own label, Circumvention.
"Ellen's music making is multi-dimensional -- it's impossible to summarize her work in neatly bounded ways. She's a creative and virtuosic improviser, an imaginative composer and, most recently, a dedicated, fastidious orchestra conductor. She has a special ability to see connections between music and people, so it's no surprise that she's a first-rate educator," said Robinson.
Weller is equally passionate for all of these diverse elements. She does have a special connection to free jazz, though.
"Free improvisation always felt like more of a welcoming place for me than [mainstream] jazz, which was and still is very male-dominated, with a huge emphasis on virtuosity of a very restricted kind," said Weller. "To this day, I do not get many calls from local jazz players, probably because I play so outside if I get the chance. Free improvisation allows me to instantly communicate with anybody, anywhere, and I can bring in my world-music passion as well. I can play with the super-violinist Mary Oliver -- we both have classical music backgrounds -- jazz musicians, klezmer, Persian and Japanese musicians without any lengthy discussions."
Look for the chance to experience Weller live -- or dig up a copy of Spirits, Little Dreams & Improvisations. You will find a supreme musician: one that can travel the divide between streams of pure, spontaneous melody and squalls of hair-raising tension.
Robert Bush Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.