John Ellis: Emerging
He said the Hunter gig that put his name out into a broader public realm, was "incredible good fortune and luck. I knew his playing. I had seen him play, but it would be unfair to say I was a fan, not being from the west coast, or whatever reason. New Orleans was a different scene. I just hadn't been swept up in the thing. I came to know his music a lot more after I started playing with him. He had done a tour with his band that was called Pound for Pound, with a band called Galactic, a New Orleans funk band, which my friend Stanton Moore had played in. Stanton told him during that time, 'There's this guy, John Ellis, you might want to check out.' This was maybe 1997 or something. I guess Charlie filed it away. Now that I know Charlie well I know how he never forgets anything, so it doesn't surprise me now."
The two met later, randomly on the streets of Brooklyn. "He kind of knew who I was. He said, 'Stanton told me about you.' Amazingly, good fortune for me, he was thinking about adding a saxophonist to his band right at that time. It was kind of crazy. We talked on the phone a little bit. It was all very casual. I wasn't thinking I was auditioning, which was a testament to how slick he was. He came where I played and listened. So I did a couple gigs with him. It was kind of open ended. Then before I knew it, it was like, 'Wow, I guess I'm in the band.' He said, 'You want to make this record?' I said OK."
Ellis fit in with that group for the next four to five years. And now the focus is on his own music, which isn't necessarily what some people would define as jazz.
"Musically, I'm all over the map, increasingly. I think playing with Charlie had significance in term of opening me up to playing and feeling free to play in a band where the idiom is not really the objective. It was great for that. When you're playing with a guy that plays eight-string guitar, you're already in uncharted waters. I think it opened up some opportunities to try to hear music and play ithear what's happening and play, accordingly. Without attention to any agenda that might be there," says Ellis. "Charlie had his agenda, for sure, but playing with himhe covers so much territory, you just kind of integrate with what's going on. That was incredibly influential, playing a lot of different kinds of rhythm-based music. A lot of the music I really love that wasn't jazz, I felt like I could bring it in and use it, whether it's Radiohead or Stevie Wonder, whatever it might be."
In addition to the earlier jazz masters, Ellis finds influences and inspiration among his contemporaries as well. "I'm leaving out all kinds of people of course. I have checked out and been interested in everybody. Mark Turner, he spent some time in New Orleans. He made an impression when I was young. It was a period of his evolution that wasn't documented so well. He went through a couple phases where he incredibly imitated these other people, which is interesting because he doesn't sound like anyone at all know. His approach to music. His seriousness, his work ethic, made an impression on me when I was younger and I still think about it. Chris Potter is a magical improviser. Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake. There's a lot of guys I really enjoy."
As Ellis looks ahead, he says he has many ideas about recording that cross a broad musical spectrum. "I'm kind of grateful I have all these ideas. I don't know when I'm going to get to them. If I can really put it together, I'm going to try and do something in June. I have the next recording very close to being ready. I think if I can book the studio time, that will provide the incentive I need."
Says Ellis, "I just want to make music. I don't even feel qualified, sometimes to comment on what kind of music it is. Sometimes I don't even know. Maybe other people can tell me better."
John Ellis, By a Thread (Hyena, 2006)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Copperopolis (Ropeadope, 2006)
John Ellis, One Foot in the Swamp (Hyena, 2005)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Friends Seen and Unseen (Ropeadope, 2004)
Charlie Hunter Quintet, Right Now Move (Ropeadope, 2003)
John Ellis, Roots, Branches and Leaves (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2002)
Charlie Hunter, Songs from the Analog Playground (Blue Note, 2001)
Jason Marsalis, Music in Motion (Basin Street, 2000)
Photo Credit: Michael Didonna