Brooklyn-based saxophonist John Ellis is a player who, whenever he puts his horn in his mouth, makes it seem like retro-modern is the only show in town. His style is part classic soul and funk, part modern jam band groove and part freewheeling improvisation. He has a particular affinity with New Orleans roots music and also references non-American folk and popular styles. He has a hipster sense of humor and an itch to experiment. It's a spellbinding combination and is mixed to perfection on Puppet Mischief, Ellis' second album with Double-Wide.
Ellis made his first album as leader in 1996 but it wasn't until he joined Charlie Hunter's band that he began to attract sustained attention; Tales From The Analog Playground (Blue Note, 2002) was the first of four discs he made with the guitarist. Between 2002 and 2006, before forming Double-Wide, Ellis recorded four more albums as leader. Recent sideman credits include his participation in the series of psychotropic jams keyboard player Marco Benevento collected on the DVD Live In NYC: The Sullivan Hall Residency (The Royal Potato Family, 2009).
Double-Wide's first album was Dance Like There's No Tomorrow (Hyena, 2008), grounded in New Orleans funk and conceived as a tribute to the people of the post-Katrina city. The quartet also included sousaphone player Matt Perrine and drummer Jason Marsalis, both present on Puppet Mischief, and organist Gary Versace. Brian Coogan replaces Versace on the new album, which also features two "guest members," harmonica player Gregoire Maret and trombonist Alan Ferber.
Puppet Mischief starts out where Dance Like There's No Tomorrow left off, in the streets of New Orleans, with "Okra & Tomatoes" and "Fauxfessor." It ends there too, with the sanctified funk of "This Too Shall Pass." But in between, Ellis scopes wider, channelling Nino Rota soundtracks for film director Federico Fellini, French folk music and flamenco, bringing an elusive, madcap, Mediterranean flavor to tracks such as "Carousel," "Dubinland Carnival," and "Heroes De Accion."
Ellis makes good use of Double-Wide's expanded lineup, which significantly increases the range of the frontline and also adds two absorbing new soloists to the line-up. Maret has a flowing lyricism not unlike that of guitarist Pat Metheny (with whom he's worked), and also, on occasion, takes the harmonica into uncharted territory. His broken-note strewn solo on the title track is magnificent. Trombonist Ferber, a tailgate adept with a libidinous wah-wah mute, also extends the tradition. His visceral solo on "Carousel" contains some engaging new sonorities. Ellis himself is a joy throughout, and his supremely soulful solo on the closing "This Too Shall Pass" lingers long after the disc has stopped spinning.
Okra & Tomatoes; Fauxfessor; Dewey Dah; Puppet Mischief; Carousel; Dubinland Carnival; Chorale; Héroes De Acción; This Too Shall Pass.
John Ellis: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Matt Perrine: sousaphone; Brian Coogan: organ; Jason Marsalis: drums; Alan Ferber: trombone;
Gregoire Maret: harmonica.
In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.