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John Ellis: Wide Angle

Jason Crane By

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I like to include people in the music that I'm playing. I also like to challenge people.
John EllisSaxophonist 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 occasions—the 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 record—a 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.

John Ellis

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.

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