John Ellis: Wide Angle
“ I like to include people in the music that I'm playing. I also like to challenge people. ”
Saxophonist John Ellis is a hybrid of New Orleans funk, New York modernity, Presbyterian sanctification and good ol' performing skills. He blends all those things together on his new record, Dance Like There's No Tomorrow (Hyena, 2008), which features saxophone, sousaphone, organ and drums.
Ellis celebrated the release of his new album with a two-night stand at the Jazz Standard in New York on May 13 and 14, 2008, participating in the following interview on May 14 just before taking the stage for the first set, where he spoke about getting the band together, the sousaphone, and music past, present and future.
All About Jazz: John, let's start by talking about the band and how you brought these musicians together.
John Ellis: Jason Marsalis is playing drums, and he's someone I've been playing with for many, many years. I lived in New Orleans on two separate occasionsthe first time in 1993, and the second time for the 1999-2000 school year when I was teaching at Loyola. I played a lot with Jason during both of those times and ever since. And I've been bringing musicians from New York down to New Orleans ever since. I'm trying to be a cross-pollinator.
[Sousaphonist] Matt Perrine is also someone I've been playing with for a long time. In many ways, the concept for this project came out of playing some gigs with him where he was playing tuba in a more straight-up jazz setting, not as much of the New Orleans brass band setting. Although he does tons of that, too. I had a memorable gig with him the first time I was in New Orleans that helped me imagine this project. So Matt on sousaphone was instrumental.
[Organist] Gary Versace is someone I only recently played with up here [in New York City], but I felt like he had a really imaginative and colorful organ concept that was different than the typical idiomatically organ-oriented concept. I thought it would work well with the tuba playing bass. He also plays accordion, which I thought I would want to use on some things. We used accordion on the record, too.
AAJ: And for tonight's gig we've got Sam Yahel in for Gary, right?
JE: Exactly. Gary played with us last night, and Sam was kind enough to come in tonight. We were just rehearsing the music with him, actually, pulling it together last-minute as we often do. Gary had to have a minor surgery so he wasn't able to do it.
AAJ: You talked about the sousaphone being instrumental to the concept of this record. So you had a sound and a plan in mind for this record?
JE: Definitely. Living in New Orleans, you hear a lot of tuba music. I always thought about trying to make some kind of tuba record that would be my personal spin. I've been thinking about this for years, actually. The logistics of getting everyone together can be difficult, especially with guys as busy as these guys. So I was thinking about this for several years. Initially I was thinking tuba and accordion on the whole recorda band that could play in the street. All the music would work like that. When I got Gary to play, we started to realize how cool the organ stuff was also. If we'd had more time to experiment, it might have been a more balanced tuba and accordion record. On the live gigs, Gary plays more accordion. But yeah, the concept really grew around how to make an interesting sousaphone record.
I think a lot about orchestration in general in the music that I play. Certain types of music may not work so well with certain groups of instruments. But when you get the instrumentation, it frees you up to write other kinds of things you might not usually be able to write in other settings.
AAJ: How much of this record came out in the studio, and how much was finished in your mind when you went in?
JE: Every project I've ever done is not finished in my mind. I try to leave room for collaboration. I try to leave room for the individual voices of the musicians. I definitely had a vision for each of these songs. Honestly, I was nervous. Having never played this music before we made the record, I was really not sure that it would work. I was hopeful, but I was not sure that it would work as well as it did. So once we got together and started playing, it really did come together and people had their input. Quite a lot of the finishing touches came together based on the personalities of the musicians involved.
AAJ: Is there a church music background in your past? I think your dad was a minister, right? There's definitely a sanctified feel to some of these tunes, although that could also come just from living in New Orleans.
JE: I think it's "both/and." My father's a Presbyterian minister. I grew up in North Carolina and went to church all the time. Both to his church, and then when I would stay over at friends' houses, I would go to their churches. I've probably been saved five or six times. [laughs] The Bible Belt is a pretty intense place, but my father's a really progressive guy and really liberal, so a lot of the things you think about when you think of ministers and rebelling didn't apply so much to me. My mother's father is also a minister, and my father's grandfather, so it goes back many generations in my family. I played in church a lot when I was growing up, so that definitely influenced me.
AAJ: When you first went to the University of New Orleans, you ended up studying with Jason's dad, Ellis Marsalis, right?
>JE: I did. I went to UNO for one year in '93, and Jason's dad was heading up the program at that time. I actually had the good fortune to play in his band. He had a record called Whistle Stop (Sony, 1994) that came out around that time that was promoting the music of James Black, a great New Orleans drummer that people definitely don't know enough about. I was 18 and definitely struggling playing those James Black tunes, but I got to play them with Ellis. I would say I got a lot more education from playing with him. It was such a treat to play with him. He's amazing on the bandstand in terms of how you can learn things from him just by playing with him.
AAJ: What caused you to make the jump to New York City in the 90s?
JE: A lot of different factors. My brother [David Ellis] had moved here in '89. He's a well known artist. He was lobbying for it. I also had an opportunity to be in the Thelonious Monk Competition in '96. Pretty much every saxophonist in the competition was from the northeast, either Boston or New York. There was a certain feeling of vocabulary and evolution that I felt like I wasn't getting exposed to in New Orleans. Especially a really modern tenor saxophone conception. I was curious. I was young and I wanted to try to develop as much as I could. I also felt like the longer I stayed in New Orleans, because it's such a great place, maybe the harder it would be to leave. So a lot of it was motivated by a desire to improve and to change my work and be around musicians that were really challenging and music that was foreign to me.
AAJ: What was your experience like at the New School for Social Research?
JE: The New School was great for me. I had taken three years off from school, and I was very focused on what I thought I could get out of school, which I think is really important if you're going to go to jazz school, because it's a pretty impractical thing to do with your life. The New School is great. They have a real adjunct environment, and you can study with whoever you want. There's an amazing assortment of legendary people there, like [bassist] Reggie Workman and [drummer] Joe Chambers and [bassist] Cecil McBee and [pianist] Joanne Brackeen. I studied a lot with [saxophonist] George Garzone, which was great. There's a giant list of great musicians that I interacted with.
Their classical thing was really great, too. One of my biggest mentors was this guy Robert Sadin, who's a producer and orchestrator who worked a lot with [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter and [pianist] Herbie Hancock. We still work together. I reach out to him often for his advice.
JE: I don't think there's much of a way to prepare for something like living in New York. One of the reasons why I try to convince or encourage my friends to move here is that New York can loom so large in your imagination when you're not here. It starts to take on an unreal character. You start to think, "Oh my GodNew York City!" There's something about dealing with all the people you hear on records, just meeting them and seeing them at gigs and not having that distanceI think it's really helpful. You pop the mythical bubble. But New York continues to be a difficult place to live in a lot of ways. It's very time-consuming to do menial tasks, and it's always hard to make money here. But I think that's one of the reasons why it's great to move. It's also great to move here when you're young, so you have the energy to fight the fight you've got to fight to live here.
AAJ: You've spent so much time playing either your own original music or someone else's original music, as opposed to mining the standard repertoire. Has that been an intentional choice?
JE: It has been for a variety of reasons. I guess I feel the most at home when I'm playing music either written by me or by friends of mine that we're interpreting for the first time. I think there's such a weight of tradition and a burden of tradition in jazz. I love the tradition so much, and I've listened to it so much, that to do a half-assed version of itor like "Look at me, I can play like so-and-so"has never been something that I was motivated to do. And in many ways, I don't think I was ready to make a strong statement on the standard material. I still have an ambition to do that in the future, but I feel like the more I can spend time trying to cultivate a perspective and nurture the music I'm interested in, then maybe I'll have a hope of playing some of that standard material with a personal spin.
AAJ: This new record, Dance Like There's No Tomorrow, is very accessible. Most of the tunes have singable melodies and they seem like tunes I've always been hearing. Was that a goal?
JE: Sure. I like music that's inclusive. I like to include people in the music that I'm playing. I also like to challenge people. I like music that has subtle, sly little complexities, and things that seem accessible but have hidden little things. I like the idea of playful music with a sense of humor. I'm conscious of accessibility, but for me it's also important to not pander. Sometimes accessibility can mean that you can be stifled by trying to figure out what the audience wants. I'm not so interested in that, but I like making music that has an inclusive feeling.
AAJ: I became aware of you through your association with guitarist Charlie Hunter. Was there a New Orleans connection in your meeting with Charlie?
JE: Yeah. I met him kind of through [drummer and Galactic member] Stanton Moore. I think I actually met him coincidentally, but he said, "Oh yeah, Stanton told me about you." Stanton and he had done some touring together. Galactic and Charlie did a co-billed tour in the late 90s, and I was playing with Stanton quite a lot. Stanton said, "Charlie, you'd like this guy John Ellis," and I guess he filed it away. Charlie has an impressive brain and doesn't forget very much. So when I met him, he knew who I was from talking to Stanton, and we started playing shortly after that and played for five and a half years together.
AAJ: Are there ways that you approach music now that come out of that association?
JE: Of course. To play with someone like that for five and a half years, it makes a tremendous impression. I guess I'm not sure how much of that is conscious and how much is unconscious, but that was a good part of my musical identity for that time. Playing for those audiences changed a lot of things for me. The thing that's great about Charlie, and about being a saxophonist in that bandwhen you play with someone who's playing a hybrid instrument that's unprecedented [like Charlie Hunter's 8-stringed guitar], that knows lots of different types of music, you're referencing a lot of things, but there's no "What did the 8-stringed guitar players of the 60s do?" There isn't any of that, you're not burdened by that.
Honestly, before I started playing with him, I hadn't even listened to his music all that much, so I wasn't even burdened by his history. I was just listening to the music and trying to make it work, which is a great place to be. It's very liberating. You don't really feel like you have to play a certain way. It's harder on drummers to play with him, but I had a great deal of freedom the whole time.
AAJ: What's worth it for you about being a professional musician. What makes it worth going through the struggle?
JE: I used to joke when we would go on tour that we were in the moving business, and that we would just get to play a little music for fun. Oftentimes, that's how it feels. The music part is the part that's worth it. The time when you're actually making the music. When it's at its best, there's nothing like it. When there's a community that grows around it, and you also feel an audience interacting with each other and interacting with you, that's also nice. But my love for the music and the great feelings I have playing it don't always depend on that. Sometimes we're playing for very few people, and I still feel very fulfilled. Music-making is very therapeutic. That's why you go through all the other stuff.
AAJ: What's coming up for you in the near future? More music with this band?
JE:As much as possible. I have this as a named projectDouble-Widefor a reason, because I imagine this project making multiple records and growing over the years. There's quite a few things on the horizon. This band is playing in Toledo for the Art Tatum Jazz Festival. We're playing at Yoshi's in August. And a little West Coast thing. We're tying to book as much as we can. We might do a little tour through the South in the fall. I'm hoping that comes together.
I also have some music I wrote for eight musicians. That's a whole separate project that I worked on for most of the end of last year. Hopefully I'm going to record it sometime this year. There's definitely no shortage of things I want to do. There's a shortage of time.
John Ellis & Double-wide, Dance Like There's No Tomorrow (Hyena, 2008)
Mike Moreno, Between The Lines (World Culture Music, 2007)
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 Records, 2002)
John Ellis, The Language of Love (self-produced, 1997)
Top Photo: Scott Friedlander
Bottom Photo: John Ellis Website
Featured Photo: Peak