John Ellis (ts, oboe), Aaron Goldberg (p, Fender Rhodes), Roland Guerin (b), Jason Marsalis (d, perc), Nicholas Payton (tp), Bilal Oliver (vcl)
Bar code: 8427328421249
"Saxophonist/composer John Ellis wondrously bridges the gap between Americana-tinted, rural folk and modern jazz throughout this beautifully envisioned affair. Per the liners, Ellis grew up on a river town in North Carolina, and this recording signifies his remembrances of family musical favorites passed down through generations. These songs parallel his reflections of life’s evolvement to coincide with his musical maturation processes. Ellis’ deeply personalized cogitations age exceedingly well upon
The band opens with a piece titled “John Brown’s Gun,” which is folk song, retrofitted for jazz. Vocalist Bilal Oliver launches the festivities via his whispery, gospel-drenched crooning, providing a gateway of sorts for the band’s infusion of blues, Latin and swing into a nicely arranged jazz opus. As a saxophonist, Ellis economizes his notes while displaying a penchant for getting his point across in concise fashion. However, he’s an
adapt be-bopper evidenced by his fluent, understated choruses during a shuffle groove-based spin on “Confirmation.” Trumpeter/flugelhornist Nicholas Payton performs admirably on two tracks while pianist Aaron Goldberg serves as a sympathetic foil to Ellis’ lyrically motivated soloing spots. Drummer Jason Marsalis’ crisp, melodic timekeeping and imaginative fills add rhythmic luster to the overall production.
The base quartet pronounces remarkable synergy to complement Ellis’ sincerely constructed theme pieces that are laced with temperate funk vibes, swing and country-blues motifs. A noticeable element of mutual understanding permeates this effort where underlying themes rise vertically and rather inauspiciously in concert with the soloists’ emotively devised exchanges. Ellis shines as a musician who transposes life into a cinematic venture for the mind’s eye."
—Glenn Astarita (Downbeat Magazine)
"Saxophonist John Ellis personalizes his sophomore release by looking back to his early musical experiences and turning to some old musical companions. A native of North Carolina, Ellis is familiar name in the Crescent City having spent a year at the University of New Orleans and several more on the local jazz scene. As revealed in the liner notes, several tunes here, including "John Brown's Gun" and "Nowny Dreams," are based on folk songs Ellis remembers from his youth.
Vocalist Bilal Oliver launches these wonderful nuggets with rawly executed earthy tones that speak of their rural roots. Ellis and the band gradually embellish these little melodies carrying the songs into the jazz world in which the saxophonist now resides. Similar treatment is given to the hymn "Lonely Jesus" which is augmented by a "sound collage" provided by saxophonist/UNO jazz professor Ed Petersen. This concept brings a sense of intimacy to the album that also contains several Ellis originals.
The ensemble includes recognizable New Orleans artists with drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Roland Guerin plus Aaron Goldberg on piano. Nicholas Payton steps in for two of the originals with his flugelhorn teaming well with Ellis' finely toned tenor on the atypically arranged ballad "Ed." The burner "Who?" is just some solid blowing by both horn players and offers a chance for Rose and Guerin to trade bars. Ellis' arrangement of Charlie Parker's classic "Confirmation" takes a new look at the classic as the saxophonist and pianist Goldberg give it a playful start. As a saxophonist, composer and arranger, John Ellis blossoms on Roots, Branches & Leaves. We can hear why he took second place in this year's prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition."
—Geraldine Wyckoff (May, 2002)
John Ellis - Live at the Jazz Gallery
"Two sure things a good jazz player can do, it seems, is to look at folk material and at his own past. Folk sources tap into history and the public imagination, and audiences always appreciate taking a detour from a jazz musician's vast amount of learning to hear something that's been second nature to them since before they owned a record player.
John Ellis, an adept young saxophone player who has performed with Jason Marsalis and Charlie Hunter among others, replayed some of his own background on Thursday night. The son of a Presbyterian minister in North Carolina and from a large extended family that has evidently preserved its culture, Mr. Ellis seemed fascinated by the ways the songs actually functioned. One, "John Brown's Gun", was what his grandmother called a "fun and nonsense song", to be sung with tickling and poking; the band alternated quiet rubato sections with good, fluid swinging, emptying out into free-form interplay over a groove. Two others were lullabies; "The Lonely Jesus" re-enacted the idea of a one-line song being sung over and over until the child (represented by the rest of the band) finally succumbed to sleep.
These were sturdy, simple old hymns and English-ballad melodies, and an energetic band - with Aaron Goldberg on piano, Doug Weiss on bass and Ali Jackson on drums - made vibrant the extra dimensions that Mr. Ellis's arrangements dictated. Dean Bowman, with a trembling voice that suggested Nina Simone with a lower range, sang shrewdly.
Counterbalancing that early-American solemnity was a version of Charlie Parker's "Confirmation," which was full of the wild slang of the new, as well as a beautifully light and airy re-editing of bebop rhythm; Mr. Jackson, a fearsomely intelligent drummer, played skeletal, propulsive patterns."
—Ben Ratliff (Novemver, 2002)
The New York Times
"This remarkable recording begins with "John Brown's Gun," Ellis' cutting-edge jazz adaptation of a folk song he learned as a child on his grandmother's knee. Pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Roland Guerin, and drummer Jason Marsalis join the tenor saxophonist in riotous, swinging play, augmented at certain intervals by the understated vocals of Bilal Oliver, who masterfully evokes the ghosts of the South.
Oliver reappears on "Nowny Dreams," another folk adaptation that finds Goldberg switching to the hip but delicate Fender Rhodes. Ellis' haunting free-form arrangement of "The Lonely Jesus" also boasts the sound of the Rhodes; Oliver's peculiar incantations resurface, along with a mysterious female voice listeners hear from again at the very end of the disc, on a hidden track that follows Ellis' overdubbed woodwind-choir arrangement of "For All We Know." The voice, one presumes, is a tape of Ellis' grandmother, singing the verse that begins "John Brown's Gun." The effect is endearing and even magical; one is struck by Ellis' generosity, as he shares with listeners this most intimate source of inspiration.
The remainder of the record is quite strong: Highlights include the moody "Light-Headed," the 7/4 reading of "Confirmation," and trumpeter Nicholas Payton's two guest appearances, on the pretty waltz "Ed" and the piano-less swinger "Who." But it is the folk-inspired material that affords Ellis an originality of the most striking sort."
—David R. Adler (All Music Guide)
"New Orleans saxophonist John Ellis is firmly in the post-Bop mode. Hes a lyrical player with a tone that is light substantive. And dont let the fact that hes from New Orleans and the presence of a Marsalis and Nicholas Payton in the lineup fool you. This is not music yoked in the neo-Bop tradition. Ellis is reaching for something a little different here. Some tracks feature vocals by neo-soul singer Bilal Oliver but they are not neo-soul in style. (Incidentally, Olivers appearances are brief.)
They are all based on older folk songs. John Browns Body takes the song and opens it up as a vehicle for lengthy improvisations chilling rhythms. The Lonely Jesus interweaves an old recording of the song and towards the end has Oliver duetting with it. Who?, an original, finds Nicholas Payton guesting. The theme has the zig-zagging quality of an Ornette Coleman theme although, when soloing begins, it reverts to a more traditional structure. Ellis arrangement of Confirmation is quite intriguing. It starts as a duet between Ellis and pianist Goldberg. The rhythm section enters and then they re-state the theme, this time over a 7/4 structure. Its a very odd approach but, surprisingly, it works. Solos are performed alternating over the 7/4 rhythm and a straight swing beat. Goldberg, in particular, seems to have fun with this. Finally, closing out the album is a lovely solo version of For All We Know. One can hear the influence of Coltrane in Ellis tone on this one. (His soloing style is very different however.) Also on this track, Ellis has overdubbed what sounds like about a six piece reed section (with bass clarinet, clarinet, flute, etc.) over his solo tenor. I assume these are the winds hes credited along with playing the tenor. Its well done. Theres also a brief (uncredited) reprise of John Browns Gun complete with a field recording of the piece.
All in all, an interesting debut for this player. I have to say, it was one of those records that grew on me with repeated listenings. I look forward to hearing more."
—Robert Iannapollo (Cadence Magazine)