The compressed experiences of John Ellis’s 30 years of life have exposed him to a multitude of situations that many people don’t encounter in a lifetime. Ellis so far has lived the life of an itinerant musician, ready at the drop of a hat to go where the musical opportunities exist (living, for example, in North Carolina, New Orleans, Singapore and New York City and traveling to such far-flug places as Botswana, Germany, Indonesia, Madagascar, Portugal, Kenya and Washington D.C.). Yet, his music has remained rooted in the country life of his boyhood and the street rhythms of New Orleans, even as he has made it edgier through the influence of jazz jamming musicians like Charlie Hunter or John Scofield and of avant-garde folk like George Garzone and musical colorists like Cyro Battista. A veritable catalyst of disparate musical influences, Ellis remains focused on the reminiscences and sounds that first affected him.
Thus.... the name of his latest, and Ellis’s first nationally distributed, CD, One Foot In The Swamp.
And the other foot is where? One Foot In The Swamp
achieves balance between the South’s country music and blues to which Ellis keeps returning and the more adventurous harmonies and rhythms of New York.
Allowing for a ten-second introduction of electronic effects, Ellis bookends the CD with feel-good spirit on "Happy" (no subtlety to that title) and "Sippin’ Cider." Furthermore, he frames the music at the beginning and the end with direct, simple melodies of harmonic concision that affect listeners in a profoundly insinuating way that spans generations. "Sippin’ Cider" itself is unpretentious as Ellis refers to the song that his grandparents song to him, animated by Jason Marsalis’s rhythms unmistakably originating from New Orleans, where the CD was recorded. Simplifying the song even more, and clarifying its melody even more as Ellis abandons excessive elaboration, he finishes "Sippin’ Cider" on the ocarina.
But in between those songs, Ellis reflects many of the other influences that he has internalized. His overriding intention on One Foot In The Swamp
is the attainment of an unconventional ensemble sound by combining his reed instruments with Aaron Goldberg’s Rhodes, Scofield’s guitar and, for the first time, Gregoire Maret’s harmonica. Indeed, the addition of harmonica deepens the plaintive quality of several of the songs, such as the backroads simplicity of "Country Girls," an appealing song in a carefree three-four saunter. When Scofield joins in, the proceedings adapt to his invigorating presence, as on "One For The Kelpers," which alludes to apparently one of the Ellis’s primary tenor sax influences, Eddie Harris.
For contrast, Ellis gets edgier on "Michael Finnegan," as his soprano sax work develops off-the-cuff improvisation, including a quote from Brahm’s "Lullaby," connected by Marsalis’s drumwork. The underpinnings of "Seeing Mice" consists of Goldberg’s extended tones on the Rhodes reflecting Ellis’s floating soprano sax lines before Maret leads into a light swing.
A CD of contrasts as widespread as his travels, One Foot In The Swamp
is eminently accessible and uplifting as the rural nature of Ellis’s roots remains, and probably will continue to remain, the defining characteristic of his style, even as he continues to absorb the infinitude of cultural sounds resulting from his peripatetic musical discoveries.