John Ellis: One Foot in the Swamp

Robert R. Calder

Mood music -- insofar as Ellis favors a sort of mood-setting on his various wind instruments, this is mostly playful, light -- skipping, strolling nowhere in particular.

John Ellis

One Foot in the Swamp

Label: Hyena
US Release Date: 2005-02-22
UK Release Date: Available as import
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The presence of so distinguished a trumpeter as Nicholas Payton might suggest there's something to this CD, but he doesn't get to make that much of a contribution. Purely in terms of showing what he can do, there are hints of an amazing lyrical capacity. John Scofield also sits in on a couple of titles.

The music is light -- feet are not stuck in any swamp, but on something soft and springy which allows no four-square stance, far less any digging in. On Scofield's second appearance he achieves a clarity of rhythmic articulation, remarkable under the circumstances. Nobody gets to stand still, and the general diffuseness suggests that this is music more for dancing than listening. Happy moods for dancing?

Aaron Goldberg opens on keyboards -- the first track is listed as ten seconds long and more-or-less segues into the first real performance. Roland Guerin pads along on acoustic bass and Jason Marsalis uses tambourine along with Goldberg before Ellis dithers away on a gentle sort of R&B tenor sax. Scofield takes a bluesy-cum-Wes Montgomery guitar, which Goldberg echoes with a guitar imitation. This is guitar-keyboard-tenor lightweight.

Gregoire Maret opens "Work in Progress" with chromatic harmonica, and there's more of Goldberg's guitar-ism, a touch of Ellis on soprano, and a few flashes of darting Payton and Ellis interaction are followed by Goldberg trying to synthesize mimicry of them. Ellis then solos on soprano, and the big question, as elsewhere, is what he would do without Marsalis' drumming. I want a trio set with a more purposeful hornman serving Guerin and Marsalis! I have to make do here with Marsalis having a workout with Goldberg playing various melodic figures on top. There are slight appearances with more Ellis and Payton, and the playout has harmonica and soprano.

"Country Girls" opens with Ellis sounding his most impressive on tenor, albeit briefly. He goes into a sort of country neo-funk, and the harmonica joins in to complete two and a half minutes of jazz-pop.

On the longer "Bonus Round" the harmonica opens and Ellis joins in on tenor. He toys with a range of phrases (his usual procedure in a solo on this set) while the bassist works hard and Marsalis adds weight and even a sense of direction. They're not intrusive, they don't stand out so much as they are just a standout. They deserve a bigger fee than anybody else for all of this.

John Scofield's presence makes a whale of a difference on "One for the Kelpers", where he sounds like an impatient Wes Montgomery dancing with an electronic baby elephant. Ellis' tenor solo ends with a fade, which might almost be an editorial comment . . .

"Ostinato" has Ellis playing bass clarinet over the slightly swallowing noises emanating from Goldberg's apparatus. He's joined by harmonica and Payton sounding actually saxophonic on what is probably a fluegelhorn. Maret's chromatic harmonica does some cooking bebop, with bass and drums, before Goldberg comes in.

"Michael Finnegan" is that very song about the old man who grew whiskers on his chin-agin, the ones the wind came out and blew in-agin. Ellis and Goldberg play phrases more or less obliquely from that nursery rhyme while Guerin pumps and Marsalis toils, before about two-and-a-half minutes when they all play an excerpt from the Brahms Lullaby. Guten Abend, gut' Nacht, indeed! It's an encore and a playout to send revellers home, skippingly at peace.

"Chalmette Shawarma" opens like softly phrased hard-bop. Hard-bop needs more solid ground, but while you can dance or stand still on solid ground it's necessary to stay relaxed on this sort of footing. Goldberg maintains the soft and elastic for a bit and then introduces some swelling punctuations as Ellis does more of his playing around on tenor. Solo-building may not be his bag here, but you try piling up toy bricks on a bouncy castle. Payton's probably incapable of maintaining the same pure drift (not a fault on his part) and his trumpet solo actually does develop a cumulative force. He is a master, and with the bassist and drummer he actually manages to build a measure of tension. Somebody feature just these three as a trio, please!

"Sippin' Cider" features tenor, guitar, keyboards and the two-man New Orleans Revelation Brass Band maintaining the sort of Rampart Street Boogaloo with which some lion cubs made the Rebirth Brass Band actually just that a number of years back. The gyrating marching-band performance does suffer an interlude as Goldberg modulates into a funky keyboard solo, but even there the bass doesn't stop dancing. There's a false ending and then (as in Lionel Hampton live performances, and sometimes on every number during one of his concerts) a sort of reprise cum encore -- very pretty piece, and lit up by Ellis on ocarina, piping like a pocket calliope, repetitively if you're listening rather than dancing. This could have been nice light relief if there had been much substance to the performance. Back when there wasn't that much jazz on issued records in Britain, long gone old-timers like Max Jones grew up and into the best of jazz writers by sifting through Paul Whiteman records for snatches of the real thing (Bix Beiderbecke for this set's Nicholas Payton?). You don't however have to wait for more of a sustained, concentrated real thing these days.


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