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John Ellis: Wide Angle

By Published: June 10, 2008

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.

John EllisAAJ: How did the reality of being in New York compare with what you imagined it would be?

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 God—New 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 distance—I 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 it—or 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.

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