By Trevor Pour
Many forms of expression exist in the jazz world, on somewhat of a sliding scale. At one end of the spectrum, you encounter the smooth and unbecomingly-termed "elevator music" from the likes of Kenny G. On the opposite fringe, you've got the experimental, progressive, and often alienating sounds of the aptly-named Dead Kenny Gs. Somewhere in the center of that vast range, you find the classic, balanced jazz of Ellington or Armstrong. Rarely these days do you find an artist who playfully skips among these isolated divisions with such a carefree pace as John Ellis, who in his latest release, By a Thread, has created a contemporary masterpiece. This is jazz, plain and simple. Try and focus your genre-lens any closer and you'll lose sight of a large part of Ellis' ability and scope.
Put simply, By a Thread is a phenomenal modern jazz release and unashamedly accessible to virtually any music fan. There are a couple tracks that get a little too smooth for my ear buds, but each musical moment has at least one voice of dissent audible in the fray, trying to pull the sound away from those oft-traveled ruts and into more interesting territory. The strong five-member company consists of John Ellis (saxophones and bass clarinet), Aaron Goldberg (piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, pump organ), Mike Moreno (guitar), Reuben Rogers (bass), and Terreon Gully (drums).
The first track, "Ferris Wheel," along with the later "Wishing Well," establish the album as creative yet firmly grounded. Both are slow and smooth without being overbearing or heavy-handed. The notes in these compositions float on air, truly reminiscent of jazz greats who have come before. It's tough to describe these as anything but plain good old jazz tunes, and they whet the appetite for the rest of the record. "Ferris Wheel" includes some excellent play between Goldberg, Ellis, and Gully; however, if you want a bit more, look to "Tall Drink of Water," the standout track. The entire ensemble really works as a cohesive unit, as their instruments resonate between distinct sounds and a singular creative outlet. A few tracks: "Little Giggles," "Lonnie," and "Umpty Eleven," all get far too large a helping of smooth sax for comfort, but some creative acoustic bass from Rogers keep the tracks enjoyable and might even get you tapping your feet by the end of one or two of the songs. You can't help imagining a couple of these songs being played at a dentist's office, and there exists just a bit of disappointment in that vision. "Old Man," which starts with the elemental musings of what sounds to be Ellis on alto ocarina, slowly melds into a really satisfying composition and adds a great deal of breadth to the album. Goldberg and Moreno both shine on this piece. The last two tracks, "Swirl" and "Moore's Alphabet," are both excellent closing compositions with strong grooves. Despite my minor criticisms of the smooth jazz element (based solely on personal preference), I couldn't stop playing this album for weeks after my first listen. Ellis proves himself again as a composer and a musician, and this album shouldn't be ignored by anyone with even a remote interest in today's jazz.
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