John Ellis Quartet: Live At Yoshi's - July 18, 2005

Mark Sabbatini By

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Saxophonist John Ellis' new album By A Thread is "an early runner for one of the best albums of 2006,"according to one AAJ review. Thanks to his free, two-set live performance available free at his Web site, he's got his hat in the download category as well.

This 2.5 hour session is first-rate in personnel, performance and audio quality, easily deserving of album status if Ellis choose to go that route. The unprotected MP3s are easily obtained—no registrations, no fancy download schemes—by anyone with 175MB worth of bandwidth and hard drive space.

Just looking at the players (Aaron Goldberg, Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin) and songs (all 12, except for the set-ending outros, are ten to 21 minutes long) it's hard to imagine this being a disappointment. Indeed, like much live jazz, this betters his studio release at times thanks to the extra energy and development the setting allows. The tradeoff is the arrangements and soloing aren't as sharply defined and broad as the studio cuts, where more instrumentation and engineering are possible. Also, the volume of the stage performance is low—the ears got an assault when it jumped from the end of the set to one of his studio albums.

The gig, unsurprisingly, is mostly songs from Ellis' 2005 album One Foot In The Swamp, although some from By A Thread are performed toward the end. He opens with "Happy," which on the album is a tambourine-, Rhodes- and guitar-heavy composition with a ringing New Orleans funk. Live, it gets a rugged workover with Marsalis' raw, rumbling drums and Goldberg's densely straight-ahead piano. Guerin ponders, slaps and walks his upright bass through a multicharacter solo near the end of the 16-minute piece. Ellis is considerably more verbose, if less precise, than in the studio, kicking out a straight-ahead flurry that achieves peaks and valleys more through expression than hitting the extreme highs and lows of the note range.

He talks enough to keep the audience between songs to allow them to follow the quirky, simplistic ideas behind compositions such as "Bonus Round."

"That last tune we played was—like it or not and believe it or not—influenced by playing a lot of video games as a young child. But they were OK. It was Atari 2600 games and stuff like that. It wasn't like 'Grand Theft Auto,'" he says. The next piece, "Country Song," is "dedicated to young ladies of Cameron, North Carolina, where I grew up. Particularly the ones that used to bring the Jell-o salad to the covered-dish supper. The kind with the little marshmallows in there."

Although Ellis is listed as playing sax, he's also either playing a harmonica without credit on this piece, or Goldberg is wringing previously unheard sounds out of his Rhodes. Either way, it's work that adds the kinds of Southern flair his listeners are used to.

There's fine work consistently as different players stand out—as they should—depending on the character of what's being performed. "Who?"and "Little Giggles" feature Ellis doing some of his most intense straight-ahead, "Ask Me Now" allows an unaccompanied Guerin to show off his range again and set-enders like "Sippin' Cider" are fun-n'-funky jams for the collective whole.

Maybe the best thing that can be said about this set is it works equally well as an incentive for first-time listeners to check out his studio albums—which avoid the usual pitfall of feeling shallower than his live work—while serving as a great way for fans to hear Ellis expand his repertoire. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise coming from a regular sideman to guitarist Charlie Hunter, whose free download collections are among the most of any jazz artist on the internet, but it's definitely too worthy to be taken for granted.

Track listing: Happy; Bonus Round; Country Girls; Who?; Sippin' Cider; Outro; Work In Progres; Little Giggles; Old Man; Ask Me Now; Moore's Alphabet; Outro

Personnel: John Ellis, saxophone; Aaron Goldberg, piano and Rhodes; Jason Marsalis, drums; Roland Guerin, bass and drums

Photo Credit
Michael Didonna

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