Saxophonist John Ellis was known as one of the voices of the Charlie Hunter Trio, having toured with the eight-string guitarist in recent years. His searching sound can be heard on Hunter recordings like the recently released Copperopolis. Good years for Ellis, who was able to tour steadily and still work on building a solo career as one of the resourceful players on the scene.
But now appears to be the time for Ellis, 32, a country boy from a farm in Cameron, N.C., population about 200, to make a stronger statement for himself.
"That's come to an end," he says matter-of-factly of his Hunter experience. "There was no drama, which almost seems to be a disappointment to some people who ask about it. To me, it's one of those things. No matter how good something is, it can come to a natural end, naturally runs its course and it feels right. The three of us felt like it was the right time. Charlie made the call, but I was right there with him. Derrick (Phillips), the drummer, was moving to Nashville" and the trio faded out naturally.
Now Ellis is out there with a new CD, By a Thread (Hyena Records), a strong statement of all-original music that uses elements taken from a variety of his experiences. It's his second album on the label, following One Foot in the Swamp (2005), and his fourth overall, counting a record he produced in 1996 in New Orleans (The Language of Love) that received no distribution support and "to my knowledge, only exists in my house," he quips in his easy-going fashion. (Second was Roots, Branches and Leaves on Fresh Sound.)
The band is solid, made up of musicians Ellis has known and played with: Aaron Goldberg , keyboards; Mike Moreno, guitar; Rueben Rogers, bass; Terreon Gully, drums.
The nine tunes come from music that Ellis has had for a while, as well as things worked out more recently. "I had a weekly gig in New York at the tap bar at the Knitting Factory. A lot of music grew out of that. I had a few things kickin' around, but the rare opportunity of having a weekly gig in New York gave me the chance to work out the stuff," says Ellis. Writing is something Ellis has always enjoyed, including drawing up compositions played by the Hunter Trio. In fact, he says, original music isn't just something to doit's important to him.
"I guess some people define themselves as interpreters of other people's material, particularly within the jazz idiom. Up to this point, I didn't think I had much of a home or much of a personal statement to make in that. I'd like to do it at some point, but up until now I feel much more at home if I'm writing the music or playing other people's original music. I'm less burdened by the shackles of tradition. My mind is less cluttered with thinking about how so-and-so might have played it. I get a lot of fulfillment from writing anyway. It's really fun."
"Tall Drink of Water" has Ellis playing tenor sax over a slick upbeat tempo that finds its way into urban funk, and back to upbeat for guitarist Moreno's engaging exploration of the theme. "Little Giggles" finds Ellis in a lyrical mood, over sharp grooves laid down by drummer Gully. "Old Man" takes a different direction entirely, the main theme winding serpentine, put forth briskly by Ellis' strong soprano playing before Goldberg jumps in for some funky, stutter-step piano licks that escalate into a toe-tapping fun romp. "Swirl" is serene, but features sweet guitar work by Moreno and Gully, as he does throughout, provides a strong rhythmic bed on which the others can jump. One of the main strength of the CD lies in the compositions. Some may bear the "curse" of being accessible, but they have underlying elements that keep the interest, and the groove, going. The group is tight as an ensemble and as individual soloists.
There are definitely elements of jazz, and other elements come and go, as one might expect from a musician who grew up with diverse musical influences. Ellis is unconcerned about outside perceptions. Just bring on the music, he seems to feel.
"Sometimes people want to own the term (jazz). There's an underlying battle that goes on for the definition of it. But it's interesting, because the more different kinds of music I play and the older I get, I feel the less invested I am in any of those things," he says. "You can be as equally invested in not playing jazz as you are in playing jazz. You can be anti-jazz. I don't want to be invested in any of those. I love jazz, really deeply. I don't have any bad feelings about it. But I don't necessarily feel allied with a certain sense of what you sometimes think of people playing jazz. I'm not waving the flag of anything, hopefully."