The Gary Larson/Herb Ellis connection isn’t as far out as it seems. A few years ago, a friendship developed following a performance that Ellis gave at the Jazz Alley in Seattle. Larson, a Seattle resident and Ellis aficionado, is the cartoonist whose Far Side strip appears in more than 900 newspapers. He is also a guitarist who took one of Ellis’ albums to the club for an autograph.
Larson is known as the creator of an absurdist, sometimes sinister world where animals do the unnatural, i.e. act like humans. A female moose, for example, in a slip and curlers, hands a phone to her husband, who’s sitting in an easy chair, and says: “It’s the call of the wild.”
Larson says he is inspired by listening to Ellis and a handful of other jazz musicians while he works. When the cartoon juices aren’t flowing, he stops to strum for awhile, he has said.
When Ellis asked Larson to design the “Doggin’ Around” album cover, the cartoonist agreed on the following terms: payment could be rendered in the form of a $5-million check or a guitar lesson.
Ellis accepted the teaching gig. The 39-year-old cartoonist flew to Fairfield Bay, Ark., and the lesson turned into a three-day session with Ellis at his home.
Larson then designed the Herb Ellis and Red Mitchell album cover with typical flair. The guitarist and bassist are hound dogs, as are the club’s customers being served by a poodle at tables with cards that read, “Please keep table barking to a minimum.”
Mutts are featured on a wall of fame. The lavatory is indicated by a fire hydrant symbol and a stuffed cat hangs in the far corner. On the back of the jacket, Larson writes: “Nothing gets my own juices going like the sounds (Ellis) and Red have turned out here.”
What’s next for the odd couple? Ellis has told Carl Jefferson, president of Concord Records, the company that produced “Doggin’ Around”: “I asked him (Larson) to do a guest shot on my next album.”
On hiatus in New York after completion of his book, “The Prehistory of the Far Side,” Larson is “seeking out good guitarists, meeting with them and playing with them,” according to Concord Records’ Merrilee Troost. Among those guitarists is Ellis, whose weeklong engagement at the Blue Note in Manhattan in June drew Larson there each night.