John Ellis, the gifted, versatile saxophonist/clarinetist/composer occupies an imaginary (and extremely imaginative) space directly between the celebratory, welcoming spirit of New Orleans and the edgy, frantic streets of New York City. Both as the leader of his own eclectic projects and as an in-demand sideman for a mind-boggling number and variety of artists, Ellis expresses a keen intellect and easy virtuosity while maintaining a mischievous gleam in his eye and never letting tongue stray far from cheek.
That combination is best showcased in Ellis’ eccentric combo Double-Wide, which recently released its third album, Charm, on Ellis’ own Parade Light Records. While the title is an apt descriptor of the band’s inviting, joyous vibe, its soul is even better captured by the song that gives the album its name: “Charm is Nearly Always Sinister.” That dichotomy perfectly encapsulates Double-Wide’s split metropolitan personality, with a chainsaw-juggling balance of bayou brass, raucous gospel, and devil-may-care modern jazz. Ellis’ band of merry pranksters includes Gary Versace (organ/piano/accordion), Alan Ferber (trombone), Matt Perrine (sousaphone), and Jason Marsalis (drums).
Ellis also leads his own quintet of A-list players, whose most recent album was the 2012 Criss Cross release It’s You I Like. Featuring Mike Moreno (guitar), Aaron Goldberg (piano), Matt Penman (bass), and Rodney Green (drums), the album definitely leans more toward the NYC end of Ellis’ playing spectrum, though its two dedicatees still show off his “serious fun” duality: the repertoire includes songs by moody singer-songwriter Elliott Smith and legendary kids’ TV host Mr. Rogers.
An ambitious composer as well as an agile musician, Ellis in recent years has composed three large-scale narrative pieces commissioned by The Jazz Gallery in collaboration with playwright Andy Bragen. The most recent, MOBRO (released in 2014 on Parade Light), looks at environmental issues through the story of the infamous MOBRO 4000 trash barge.