The charmingly-titled Puppet Mischief marks saxophonist John Ellis’s sixth album as bandleader, and the title certainly lives up to its name, as most tracks are a good time filled with tricks of New Orleans and hi-jinks from NYC. Puppet Mischief has the sleekness of a NYC jazz trio, the grit of New Orleans, and the elements of a carnival brass junk band. Song titles like “Carousel” and “Dubinland Carnival” further hint at the light-hearted image. The liner notes offer hilarious photos of Ellis “posing” with puppets with odd facial expressions, and so the listener goes into the audio process armed with a sense of humor.
“It’s hard to say those two words next to each other and not smile”, Ellis says about the disc’s title. The same can be said of Puppet Mischief from the first track on. It’s hard to listen to the melodies and effects without thinking about some sort of comedy action happening. “Okra and Tomatoes”, the first selection, brings to mind New Orleans before any notes are played. A swinging brass sound follows suit, as hep cats swing from solo to solo. Double-Wide’s members are well matched to the material. The sousaphone (Matt Perrine) will always bring the chuckles, and Perrine rocks the gigantic brass bass like a frog uses his croaker. Brian Coogan smoothes everything out on organ, offering a subtle bit of funk. Jason Marsalis keeps things steady on drums. Finally, Ellis shows from his first note that he is in fine form. He starts out on tenor saxophone before switching to the bass clarinet when the mood is sedated briefly. He returns to the sax with his cocky, youthful, and boasting manner. He’s showy but not complicated.
“Fauxfessor” lumbers in as Perrine’s sousaphone plays a silly, elephant-like bassline. Interspersed are little hints and references to circus or carnival music when Coogan’s organ becomes a calliope. Ellis puts tremolo in opportune locations for just the right offhand goofiness. Special guest Alan Ferber joins Ellis’ sax on trombone and the two duel musically for a while, working with and around each other in a playful manner. It’s important to note that these moments of brevity are linked by a phenomenal sense of arrangement and song composition. In “Dewey Dah”, Ellis’ riffs and phrases stick with the listener, haunting in a spooky, psychedelic sort of way when paired with the eerie carnival references. What was once all in good fun begins to get a little bit scary as Coogan fleshes out minor chords and dissonant harmonies. Ellis weaves around like a conjurer around a cauldron, emanating a wicked, goofy sort of power. Perrine gets a moment to strut his improvisational skills under the now-calming hook.
The final selection, “This Too Shall Pass”, juxtaposes a gospel theme with a Southern sense of Southern rock organ, and sunset-tarnished baritone saxophone just sounds like packing up and heading home. The disc ends on a note of celebration and reminds one of the New Orleans groove of Saturday Night Live‘s goodnight theme.