I always find myself a bit deceived by John Ellis. His paradoxically smooth yet edgy style perpetually catches me off guard with each new release. Ellis’ unique saxophone and clarinet musings initially strike me as overly plain and sometimes sluggish; but inevitably a second or third listen unearths the distinctive intricacy and complexity of each individual piece, eventually reminding me why I count Ellis amongst my favorite contemporary jazz performers. Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow (Hyena) follows this same trend, trailing 2006’s critically praised By A Thread. Both albums are similar in a number of ways: A quick listen in a music store wouldn’t convince me to purchase either, yet both became favorites in my jazz catalogue. Neither is cutting-edge or avant-garde; Dance has an unhurried, somewhat traditional core with a jovial, thoughtful and almost Creole twist. It is a versatile album, which can either function as background tunes or give you a cerebral workout, depending on your mood. The production crew for Dance is largely unchanged from 2006, but the personnel has been altered dramatically. Ellis (tenor/soprano sax, bass clarinet) is joined by Gary Versace (organ, accordion), Matt Perrine (sousaphone), and noted drummer Jason Marsalis. The lack of piano and bass guitar are most remarkable, and their absence is primarily responsible for the predominant stylistic change on this album. While By A Thread played like a great NYC house band, Dance‘s company plays like a jazz crew from the Deep South.
Nine lengthy tracks appear on Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow, all of which allow the compositions to develop, crest and resolve without sounding hurried or over-produced. And if there’s an award for creative track names, Ellis might get it. With titles such as “Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma” and “Zydeco Clowns on the Lam,” Ellis captures his playful spirit while slyly referencing his complex side. Since Perrine’s sousaphone is the only instrument appearing on the album cover, it is only fitting that the opening funky/smooth gospel track “All Up In the Aisles” kicks off with some interplay between Perrine and his peers, eventually shifting into a full-bodied piece. The following track, “Trash Bash,” evolves into a multifaceted monster replete with a waxing and waning tempo around a common theme. “Dream and Mosh” starts off with some heavy organ and drum, but is quickly intermingled with a delicate tune from Ellis. This track features nice contrasts and some inspiring technical organ play from Versace. The simple and elegant “I Miss You Molly” is a slow, melancholy composition that impressively holds your attention. One of the gems on the album is “Three-Legged Tango in Jackson,” which features some great individual work from Marsalis and Perrine, as well as a superb display of cohesion and timing as a band. The closing title track is lively, but it sometimes feels lacking. “Dance” (the track, not the album) felt like it was one half-step away from phenomenal. The piece tended to slow a bit when Ellis was actually playing, which was the opposite of what I expected. I wanted Ellis’ high notes crying overtop the interplay of the rest of the team, similar to “Zydeco Clowns.” Still, it ties the album together well.
While I genuinely enjoyed this album, I think his 2006 release is still my favorite. By A Thread seemed to have a distinctly clearer sound, and Ellis’ interactions with Aaron Goldberg (piano, Rhodes) made for a great listen. Dance‘s deep end is filled out with the sousaphone, which makes for a characteristically unique album but a somewhat flat overall experience. Each of the players on this album shine, both independently and as a member of the quartet, with Ellis’ compositions standing up to the brilliance of his past works. If you have enjoyed previous John Ellis releases, you will surely enjoy this one. But if you’re a newcomer, I would look to the past and see what else awaits your ears. And even though Mr. Ellis may have us dancing to believe otherwise, I foresee ever more great works in his future.
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