The Artist I Dub Thee... Prince?
Jeremy Ellis once again successfully fuses his extraordinary skills as a keyboardist with his excellent command of technology and electronic music on his second full-length album, Lotus Blooms. The record admittedly carries a made-for-VH1-behind-the-story story: Ellis goes to Puerto Rico for three months to study music and use PR rhythms as a foundation for his newest work; however, he loses all his recordings and has to start from scratch. Perhaps the clean slate helps him put his new experiences into perspective: “...once I was back in Detroit the sound just naturally occurred, the influences and everything I’d learned came back to me”, Ellis says in his press release. The album does not actually rely heavily on Puerto Rican music, but instead finds a comfortable space for bomba and plena rhythms within Ellis’ burgeoning vocabulary of beats, jazz and beyond, resulting in a furious fusion of Puerto Rican celebrations, bent harmonies, and broken rhythms, easily making Lotus Blooms one of the stand-out (if not Stand Up) albums of the year.
The album’s opening tracks quickly support this idea(l) of fusion over specific form(s). “Take Your Time” is awash in poly-rhythms, wooshing vocals, sharp keys, and palm tree-laden beach sunshine. The quick clip commands the listener to listen, while the stutter step provokes a yearning to shake shake shake. Ellis’ vocals take center stage, an exceptional move considering how he executes them in an unassuming manner. Celverly recording subtle individual takes, Ellis goes over-the-top using multiple layers, along with gorgeous counter-melodies, to push the melody in all the right places; when he finally stutters “do-do-do-don’t”, the effect could have been played out, but is instead played right because of this cool and patient approach. Ellis slows the tempo a tad to reflect on “These Passing Days”, filling the headphones with throbbing keys, and smooching moogs and guitar licks that wash over the broken beats. Once again, Ellis’ vocals take the melodic lead, but each line also functions as rhythmic counterpoint; feel the body uprock whenever Jeremy coos. Both pieces are exemplars of dance music that is both intelligent and soulful.
Ellis introduces his newfound tricks in two literal tracks, “Bombakiss” and “Cortano a Elena”. The former grounds itself in a four-on-the-floor tap while Ellis’ hard-syncopated piano punches a path above. With a combination of conga accompaniments and precisely cued drum sounds, Ellis fills out an entire composition with a bare minimum of instrument types. The piece amazes with its exceptional performance and intricate technique. “Cortano a Elena”, perhaps a re-titled version of “Cortaron a Elena”, carves a sharply accented rhythm that drives dancers to both herky-jerky and well-placed foot movements. Ellis’ flat-toned but accented singing (his Anglo accent is noticeable only at brief moments) is actually vaguely reminiscent of Willie Colón in his prime on this plena rumpshaker. Note the monster piano solo that leads into a low-end bending breakdown before the final chorus shuffles out. Again, with relative sparseness, the track simmers at a consistent near boil.
The mouthful of “Callelunakarma” conjures a third world fantasy for the first world, but in fact forms the center-piece of the album with its incorporation of contemporary stylistic influences into four movements. “Movement 1” establishes an easy Groove Line bass and clipped, Arp-y keys that move with Stevie-precision. Listen for the sharp rhythmic attack that up-jumps at 1:40. “Movement 2” takes a more broken-beat feel as it stutters and spits its synchronized drums and bass parts out. “Movement 3” irons out the kinks of the rhythm that never completely take form in “Movement 2”, speeding the song along in a wash of effects that pepper and push. Ellis solos sparingly, providing more harmonic filler as the song builds and propels itself toward a four-stomp, before relaxing back into “Movement 4”, which returns to the pace and theme established in “Movement 1”. The elaborate arrangements that connect the four tracks are impressive, but a condensed, and more telling, document of Ellis’ mental database can be found in “Sonatina in C - variations”. The maestro pushes Mozart’s “Sonata in C Major” wherever his musical impulses run, one moment trilling with stately confidence, then hopping about on the introductory melody like an Irakere jackrabbit. The apparent studio-outtake (the piece closes with Ellis stopping abruptly and asking nervously, “All right, so what do you want me to do?”) actually provides an immense summation of Ellis’ ability to merge disparate styles, such as Latin syncopation with classical arpeggios. This synthesis forms the basis of the project and establishes the brilliance of Ellis.
Ellis saves the best for relative last, finally stretching out during the ninth inning appearance of “I Believe”. A sensual groove that slows the roller-thump to a tender bump’n grind, the track features closely-mic’d vocals that shower from head-to-toe, as keys and synth effects gurgle in and out, tickling the sensitized nerves. A lovemaking track with more flourish than, say D’Angelo’s “Untitled”, but nevertheless perfect for crawling under the sheets to.
Ellis’ success is steeped in his established reputation within both the electronic world, under his Ayro moniker, and in jazz circles, using his heavyweight musician chops. This dual citizenship is intriguing, considering Ellis is not a DJ, but a musician first-and-foremost. Yet, he has a DJ’s sensibility and an immense command of technology that allows him to fuse the two with seeming ease and form literate sounds. Listen to how “Lil’ 808 Thing” builds off techno tropes, while using conventional classical composition to pepper in rhythmic shifts and melodic changes through his varying drums and bass sounds. The merge is seamless.
As is the entire record a perfect blend. Many of the parallels that Ellis draws have been in place the whole time; he just reminds us of their profundity by reproducing them in a contemporary language. The one-man-band literally does it all, not unlike the Purple Royalty from not-so-long-ago, but with less ego. For now, he’s just plain Jeremy, exploring what’s on his mind. Let’s see where he goes next.
// Notes from the Road
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