Ellis digs the group sound and has particular words for Moreno. "Mike and I went to school together" at the New School for Social Research, Ellis says. "I remember the first time I heard him when he was a freshman. I took a very circuitous route through school, in general, so I was older than him. I remember being totally blown away by him even when he was that young. He's about to make a record of his own, which is great. But up until now he's tragically undocumented, for my taste. He's been good for so long and hasn't recorded a lot, especially his own stuff."
"The last record that I did I thought about in a cinematic way, different people on different tracks. There were more people involved. I think this one is different in that it's all the same guys on every tune. You have a chance to see the different things that everybody can do."
Ellis hopes to tour in support of the new disc, and play more of his own music, "which I have been doing on and off for the last couple of years. With Charlie, it's the first opportunity I had to tour with someone like that. It was my first priority for reasons musical and practical. Now, it's fantastic time for me to begin to prioritize my own thing and be able to focus on that more."
His "own thing" was germinated in the small North Carolina town where he listened to a lot of classical music on NPR radio that was on in his home. "My mom had a record collection that was really cool, but fairly limited. She had the Beatles and a bunch of great older country records, like Emmy Lou Harris, Willie Nelson. I was probably at least as influenced by my brother, who was really into hip-hop when it first started. I heard a lot of that," says Ellis.
It was as a teenager that Ellis began to hear some jazz, including some improvisations on piano from an uncle who had taken some lessons briefly from Marylou Williams. "I got exposed to the process of improvisation when we would see him. He would play the piano and it seemed like magic: Wow. How does he do it? But I didn't have a chance to hear a lot of him."
Like many youngsters, Mom insisted on piano lessons for John and his brother. "Both of us hated it. I remember crying. I didn't particularly excel. In the sixth grade I played clarinet. In seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth grades I played the oboe. I ended up switching to the saxophone. The first time was to march in my high school band in ninth grade, because I couldn't march the oboe."
" I only chose it because I didn't know what it was. I thought that would be a great thing and distinguish me from everyone else with normal instruments. But I never fell in love with it. I used it as a ticket to get into the North Carolina School of the Arts, which is where I went when I was in tenth grade. I played oboe there for a year and then I convinced them to let me switch to saxophone. It seemed limited to me. My love for the oboe wasn't enough to carry me where I would need to go on that instrument. It was the best decision I ever made. Somehow, I convinced them to let me stay in this exclusive performing arts school and switch instruments, which is really unusual," he says.
At the School for the Arts, Ellis says the music curriculum there was like a university, "so I felt like, in some ways, I had gone to college already." It was also there that he made his first major connection. "Unquestionably one of my biggest influences was James Hollick, the teacher I had at the School of the Arts. He started me off from scratcha lot of the things about playing the instrument, attitude toward music. He made a very strong impression on me when I was beginning to play. There are some things that will be with me forever that came from him."
From that school, Ellis went to University of New Orleans where he spent time in a program that wasn't very organized. Nonetheless, "there were amazing things you could get by hanging out with certain teachers that were there, but most things were very informal, not classroom oriented. In terms of the structure of music education, it was a step down. But the unstructured thing was really great. The end result is I ended up quitting school with the encouragement of the teachers I respected the most."