In contrast to the schizophrenic nature of John Ellis' previous effort, One Foot in the Swamp (Hyena Records, 2005), By A Thread is an altogether more coherent affair. The 2005 disc focused on consolidating musical experiences gained with artists as diverse as eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Jason Marsalis, shifting from a New Orleans swagger to an urban New York City vibe. Despite being consistently engaging, it felt somehow divisive.
That's not to say there isn't a lot of gear-shifting on By A Thread. But by sticking with a consistent lineup, rather than augmenting it with a variety of high-profile guests, Ellis has created a record where his strength as a writer can evolve along with a group sound. Pianist Aaron Goldberg is the only holdover, and he's as comfortable with the modal vamping that forms the core of "Old Man despite its misleading Indian-inflected introductionas he is the greasy groove of "Moore's Alphabet, a tune that could easily fit into the Charlie Hunter repertoire.
While some multi-instrumentalists sound as if they have a main axe and all others are secondary, Ellis feels equally at home on them all. His soprano moves fluidly over the complex changes of "Ferris Wheel, and his robust tenor fits both the urban groove of "Tall Drink of Water and the lyrical, Metheny-esque "Little Giggles. On "Wishing Well, which marries the spatial abstraction of Herbie Hancock, the modality of John Coltrane and the harmonic ambiguity of Kurt Rosenwinkel, he's lithe and supple on bass clarinet.
Rosenwinkel's influence is also felt in the guitar playing of Mike Moreno, who appeared on trumpeter Jeremy Pelt's stylistic breakout record, Identity (MaxJazz, 2005). But here he's a more dominant and integrated player. When he's not trading fours with Goldberg on the dark groove of "Lonnie, he's contributing a fleet-fingered solo on the uncannily swinging 11/8 "Umpty Eleven, proving he's no stranger to navigating changes comfortably.
Regardless of the multiplicity of grooves, the glue that binds Ellis' new group is the combination of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Terreon Gully. Gully in particular is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, working with everyone from Stefon Harris and Christian McBride to the Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Quartet. With a touch that can seamlessly shift from delicate to powerful in an instant, as on the aptly named "Swirl, Gully is one of the most promising drummers to emerge since the turn of the decade, along with Eric Harland.
As strong as each player is individually, it's the cohesiveness of this group, which belies its short existence, that makes By a Thread so impressive and ultimately successful. That and Ellis' writing, which, instead of resting discretely in two camps as it did on One Foot in the Swamp, more successfully integrates his ever-expanding interests and positions. By A Thread is an early runner for one of the best albums of 2006.
Personnel: John Ellis: saxophones, bass clarinet, ocarinas; Aaron Goldberg: piano, wurlitzer, rhodes, pump organ; Mike Moreno: guitar; Reuben Rogers: acoustic bass; Terreon Gully: drums.