For some bandleaders, a quartet comprising saxophone, sousaphone, Hammond B3 organ and drums would be as much of a patchwork as it seems—an earnest stab at collecting Northern and Southern jazz and funk flavors but too spare—or worse, too afraid of itself, to muster a sound that didn’t err decisively toward either of those sides in particular. Replacing an electric bass with a blatty sousaphone does not a balanced Manhattan gumbo make, right?
But so skilled is John Ellis in reconciling his divergent New York and New Orleans backgrounds that the combination sounds exactly right on his new album, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow. It’s the Brooklyn resident’s fifth release and most recent for Hyena Records, itself nestled, commandingly, in the imaginary Venn Diagram that links Gotham and Crescent City jazz and acid-jazz strains.
The nine tracks on the disc are all variations on the titular “dance” theme, and they all seem to collect the influences and experiences that have formed Ellis, now 33, up to this point in his career. His story began in North Carolina, and from there came two long, separate stints in New Orleans—first under Ellis Marsalis’ graceful tutelage, and then later as a teacher and ubiquitous local scene presence—and in between them a spot in the 1996 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition that brought him his first Big Apple connections. He’s always loved to mix it up. In addition to his lead tenor, he’s also known for soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, ocarinas and a host of other instruments, and a quick-scan of his calendar, no matter what time of year, reveals a lengthy, eclectic slate of gigs with various ensembles all over the world.
Through a mutual friend in Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, Ellis met Charlie Hunter, in whose slippery and inventive ensembles Ellis served starting in 2000. When those heady Hunter trios met a natural end, Ellis was already breaking out on his own with albums like One Foot in the Swamp (2005), and then the encouraging By a Thread (2006). The latter, especially, anticipated the Double-Wide group by being something of a yin and yang—a balance of elegant compositions and faster, looser horn jams that at the time felt fluid, although when compared to Dance now sound a bit cluttered.
As Dance unfolds, “All Up the Aisles” is the tone-setter. A womping sousaphone intro from Matt Perrine that finds quick confluence with Ellis’ sax salvo and is insistent in its pacing and forward-movement, throwing out ideas in front and then filling them in from behind. More individual band member showcases come later, as in “Prom Song” and “Trash Bash”, which respectively highlight Jason Marsalis crisp underpinnings and Gary Versace’s darting organ fills. Ellis’ tenor is appropriately prevailing throughout, though he saves his best for the poignant “I Miss You Molly”, penned with the late political columnist and Southern legend Molly Ivins in mind, and the boogie-happy title track, which justifies all those Stanley Turrentine/Jimmy Smith dichotomy comparisons the Ellis/Versace interplay has been getting since the release of the album.
I’m split on “Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma” and “Three-Legged Tango in Jackson Square”. Some days I admire their willingness to go a little off the rails and extrapolate using, yes, waltz and tango tempos. Others I find their tricky rhythms and untethered interplay awkward and inchoate, especially for a streamlined unit like this one that doesn’t make messes for the sake of them.
They’d be easier to digest, all told, if “Zydeco Clowns on the Lam”—tasty title, tastier execution—wasn’t so exciting and triumphantly executed. It veers in a number of different directions and finds Versace on accordion instead of organ, dressing up a sort of “acid zydeco” with the elan of really sharp musicians in the mood to rib each other and loosen their neckties a bit. “Zydeco Clowns” by itself might be the John Ellis vernacular fully realized: cosmopolitan, yet down home, urbane, yet greasy, comfortably lively yet edgily compelling.