Reedman John Ellis has distinguished himself in recent years as a sideman and collaborator in the renowned Charlie Hunter Trio. One Foot in the Swamp, released on the New York indie jazz label Hyena, marks his third as bandleaderthough his two previous albums received only limited distribution, meaning that this may seem like a remarkably confident debut to some, as it did me. The album thrives on the vibrant, often surprising mix of backward-looking, forward-thinking songwriting that listeners might have presaged from Ellis' work with Hunter, and perhaps even expected based on his earlier sessions as leader.
Opening numbers are typically strong and tone-setting, but "Happy," our introduction to One Foot in the Swamp, is something like the quintessential opener, a six-and-a-half-minute metaphor for the album as a whole. What sounds like an Atari video game sound effect gone haywire leaps up immediately and then dies out, leaving Ellis to breeze in with a contrasting smooth and soulful tenor sax head. Drummer Jason Marsalis taps out a sassy beat on the tambourine, later introducing snare, high-hat, and even cowbell. Prior to his own space age-sounding solo, keyboardist Aaron Goldberg makes funky interjections on the Rhodes to underscore Ellis' leading groove as well as the lip-curled guitar solo by John Scofield. The track seamlessly brings together the folky bayou blues and big city progressiveness that are manifest throughout One Foot in the Swamp.
Two earlier efforts are revived here. Ellis' self-penned charts from Charlie Hunter's Friends Seen and Unseen, which appeared last year, slip in near the center of the disc: "Bonus Round," drawn out to twice its previous running time, and "One for the Kelpers." The former, featuring Gregoire Maret (another Hunter veteran) on chromatic harmonica, is propelled by a baritone vamp that runs like a figure eight, most noticeable during the second half of the song as Goldberg squeals out his solo. Scofield appears again on "One for the Kelpers," balancing its mood of '60s beach party swing with bluesy rock.
Departing slightly from the straight-ahead jive of "Happy"though still a close cousinis "Work in Progress," an abstract groove that flirts with post bop. "Seeing Mice" is a psychedelic head trip, a long group (augmented once again by Maret and trumpeter Nicholas Payton) exploration that occasionally anchors itself in a more tuneful ballad. Its photonegative would be the brief "Country Girls," a lazy, sentimental number with barely any drift away from its primary melody. More playfully, "Michael Finnegan" begins with only scraps of a tune, transitioning to what might be fragments of "You Are My Sunshine," and finally closing by quoting from Brahms' famous lullaby.
If, as this disc claims and confirms, one of Ellis' feet is in the swamp, then the other is firmly planted in cosmopolitan NYC, and he's straddling everything in between. But he hasn't done it entirely on his own. A fine group of established performers, each given ample elbow room, help to turn this more prominent outing as leader into something both memorable and auspicious.
Happy; Work in Progress; Country Girls; Bonus Round; Seeing Mice; One for the Kelpers; Ostinato; Michael Finnegan; Chalmette Shawarma; Sippin
John Ellis, tenor and soprano sax; bass clarinet; ocarina; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Gregoir Maret,
chromatic harmonica; John Scofield, guitar; Aaron Goldberg, keyboards; Jason Marsalis, drums; Roland