John Ellis & Double-Wide – Puppet Mischief (2010)

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by Pico

A new John Ellis CD drops today, which is an occasion to shout an hallelujah or two. And that’s not just because Ellis serves his jazz with heaping spoonfuls of gospel, either.

A couple of years ago, one of the of brightest, ascending sax stars today decided to do something that made him really stand out from the crowded field of horn players. He formed a band called Double-Wide that features his sax and bass clarinet fronting drums, organ and a sousaphone. The resulting sound this band made sounded firmly rooted in a variety of vintage music forms like gospel, jazz, marching band and New Orleans rhythm ‘n’ blues, and there’s really nothing else like it out there. This fun and inspiring mixture of styles put together so naturally impressed me enough to call their first album Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow the best mainstream/modern jazz record of 2008.

Now it’s encore time, as Double-Wide’s next album Puppet Mischief hits the streets on this day. And Ellis didn’t mess with a winning formula. Well, he may have tweaked it a little…organist/accordion player Gary Versace gets replaced by organist Brian Coogan, but the drummer Jason Marsalis and most critically, the sousaphonist—is that a word?—Matt Perrine stays on board. So does the carnival music. Oh, and there are a couple of guest players who appears on most of the tracks, but more on that later. Ellis & friends also moved over to my favorite world-jazz label of late, ObliqSound. Usually changing record companies shouldn’t have any meaning to listeners as musicians sometimes change labels like underwear, but I wonder if Ellis saw ObliqSound’s demonstrated embrace of exotic forms of jazz and decided he’d feel more at home there.

In any case, the carnival continues on with Puppet Mischief. “Okra & Tomatoes” fills out the band a little bit further with the temporary addition of Gregoire Maret on harmonica and Alan Ferber on trombone working alongside Ellis on the theme lines. Perrine, meanwhile, goes low blurting out the bass line. Ellis breaks off after the first chorus to blow out one funky solo, and Maret gets center stage on the bridge both times. The song itself stomps and dances, too fast for a march and too straightforward of a beat to be second line, but churns with a righteous conviction.

The title “Fauxfessor” might suggest Professor Longhair, but the song is so off-balance in a charming way the it won’t draw many comparisons to ‘Fess, aside from its Big Easy disposition. “Dewey Dah” slows down the mood for a moment, and with guests Maret and Ferber back, the individual players come together nicely to create a complexion for the song that’s oddly familiar and vaguely strange at once. Credit Ellis and his clever arrangement for that. The urgent title track rolls along like a locomotive with Perrine’s sousaphone being the engine. After Ellis and Maret solo, Marsalis gets his chance and makes the most of it, as Perrine keeps the pulse going.

There’s other highlights and surprises. “Dubinland Canrival” is modern jazz meets the circus. “Heroes De Accion” brings the sousaphone to Spain, replete with hand-clapping percussion. “This Too Shall Pass” is a soulful lament that almost begs for lyrics about someone down on their luck who’s trying to console himself. But the band does its best to convey that emotion.

If there’s one thing that signifies a drop-off from that first Double-Wide it would be missing Versace’s organ. Coogan does a yeoman’s job on the instrument, but Versace often went beyond the call of duty, churching up songs like “All Up In The Aisles” and adding the just-right dash of soul to songs like “Dream and Mosh.” It was a second edge to go along with Perrine’s first; Puppet Mischief lacks that. There’s also no standout serious ballads like Ellis had in “I Miss You Molly,” although “Dewey Dah” comes close.

All in all, a step down from excellent is still very good. John Ellis has such an inspired idea with the whole Double-Wide concept, he’d have to go several more albums before he exhausts it. It’s got plenty more hosannas to go.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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