A FEW MINUTES WITH… John Ellis

Before I played music on “Jazz2K @ The Saint”, I reviewed CDs for various web sites, including this one. Unfortunately, I struggled with the same problem I have now: Finding jazz that hasn’t had the fun squeezed out of it like juice out of an orange. Then John Ellis & Double-Wide’s 2008 debut Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow got right in my face and yelled, “Ain’t no party like a NEW ORLEANS party!”

Ellis had previously crossed my path as the sax player on Charlie Hunter’s funky Blue Note reboot of Bob Marley’s iconic reggae album Natty Dread. That date had fun for days – not only because of the source material but also because “Fun” is Charlie Hunter’s default setting. Even so, I wasn’t expecting this rampant cross between an alt-jazz show at Fat Cat and the dancing portion of a Crescent City funeral march. Ellis’ skin-tight quartet blew me away with a set of outrageous originals that had very few rules (and bent the ones that they even acknowledged).

Cut to March 4, 2010 and Parish Public House (known then as Red Square) in downtown Albany. Double-Wide came to town packing a brand-new disc – the ObliqSound date Puppet Mischief – and a brand-new lineup: Ellis, drummer Jason Marsalis and sousaphone player Matt Perrine were joined by harp player Gregoire Maret, trombonist Alan Ferber, and keyboardist Brian Coogan. I’m sure the band didn’t know this, but I’m not exaggerating when I say literally every person in the audience that night either led, was in, or wrote for a Capital Region jazz band! 

The show nearly didn’t get off the ground because Coogan’s Wurlitzer was missing its power cord, but a little MacGuyver magic by Ellis & his road manager got the Wurly up and running, and Double-Wide went on to leave us all slack-jawed with one of the best concerts of 2010. Three years later, Double-Wide (without Maret, but with Ferber and original keyboardist Gary Versace) made their first appearance at Shepard Park in Lake George, and the band’s “NOLA 2.0” sound had everyone up and dancing – in some cases, dancing all around Shepard Park, as Ellis and the front line led most of us in what may have been the first Second Line in the history of “Jazz at The Lake.”

My point is this: In a genre where you’re judged by how seriously you approach your art, John Ellis & Double-Wide is Bozo the Clown with a saxophone, big shoes, spinning bow ties, and a lapel flower that squirts you with water. But while you’re laughing and having fun, you’re also listening to some of the smartest compositions you’ll ever run into, played by five killers who will happily stand up against anyone in a grey suit with razor-sharp lapels and shiny black wing-tips.

Ellis was kind enough to take a few minutes and discuss the band, its members, its inspirations, and a little tidbit at the end that’s got me dancing around my home office:

This will be your second appearance at “Jazz at the Lake.” Do you remember anything about your last visit in 2013?

Sure. Lots.  I’d never been to Lake George before.  It’s a great location. The organizers were wonderful.  The audience was enthusiastic and generous. And I remember that we ended up spontaneously walking out into the audience during a song, which doesn’t always happen.  

Double-Wide is described – on your own bio page, I might add – as an “urban carnival band.” Is that how you pictured it from the jump, or is that just how it developed?

Thanks for pointing that out.  I should try to come up with a better description.  It’s always been a writing vehicle, one that explores my New York and New Orleans influences, but it’s also about orchestration and color and mood.  I’m always trying to find more combinations from the available sounds in the group – it’s kind of an endless sonic palette. And certain types of melodies, rhythms, and progressions work for this group that would never work as well in my other groups with more traditional instrumentation.

Did you come up with the concept after you moved to New Orleans in 1993, or have you always had this band in the back of your mind?

The band wasn’t formed until 2007, so 10 years after I’d moved to New York, but I had been thinking about starting a band that included Matt Perrine on sousaphone since my time in the 90s living in New Orleans.  We played a memorable gig together, probably around 1995, that was organized by David Torkanowsky, and Matt’s abilities on the sousaphone were like nothing I’d ever heard or experienced. 

The drummer for Double-Wide is Jason Marsalis – who doesn’t get near enough love as a player, to my mind. Did you two team up after you started studying with Ellis Marsalis, or had you known each other prior to that point?

I totally agree that he doesn’t get enough love as a player.  I met Jason in the summer of 1993, just before I moved to New Orleans to study with his father. He was in Greensboro attending the Eastern Music Festival, and I was living in Winston-Salem at the time.  We played a little then, but I got to know him more after I moved to New Orleans that fall. I also played in his band when I moved back to New Orleans to teach at Loyola University during the ‘99/’00 school year.  He also played on two of my records before Double-Wide was formed: Roots, Branches, and Leaves and One Foot in the Swamp.

A lot of people may only know Matt Perrine from his cameo on Treme, but he’s also the backbone of Bonerama, who’s having great success with their latest disc Bonerama Plays Zeppelin.  You said Matt was always going to be a part of the band. Why?

There are many great sousaphone players, but for me none with the musical or technical range that Matt has.  It’s very hard to perform with the band without him, and for a while I refused to do it. I still think to cover the whole range of what the band can do and express, we really need him there.

I think of Gary Versace as Double-Wide’s “chaos agent.” There’s something about his playing – whether it’s on Hammond B3 or accordion or whatever – that seems to crank up the madness even further. Is that how you see it, or am I completely off-base here?

I love this characterization, although I don’t think I would’ve framed it that way.  Gary is a very sensitive and sympathetic musician with an extraordinarily wide musical lens.  He can play zany and crazy, as you pointed out, but also can be very serious and introspective if the music calls for that.  And the fact that he plays organ, piano, and accordion so well gives the band so many wonderful color choices.

When you came to Albany in 2010, you had expanded Double-Wide to include Gregoire Maret and Alan Ferber. Gregoire’s back to doing his own thing, but Alan’s still with the band. Please tell us a little about him and what he brings to the group.

In addition to being an incredible trombone player, Alan is an exceptionally gifted writer and arranger, as anyone who’s heard his big band can attest, and he seems to make everything he’s a part of sound better. 

To my mind, you come up with some of the best titles in jazz: “Charm is Nearly Always Sinister”, “Okra and Tomatoes”, and “Zydeco Clowns on The Lam” are just three of my favorites. This leads me to the classic chicken-or-the-egg question: What comes first, the title or the tune?

Very kind of you to say that.  I often keep running lists of titles or words that I like.  And then when I’m writing music, sometimes one of the existing titles seems to fit well with the music and they kind of snap together – so I guess it’s a little like parallel work that is assembled later.

There’s one other piece you had on Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow that I love, and that’s “I Miss You, Molly” – not only because it’s a great tune, but because of the inspiration for it. Tell me about what Molly Ivins means to you.

I grew up around very progressive southern lefties who were gifted with language, so I really gravitated to her writing.  She was so biting and smart, so undeniably southern, and ultimately, so funny. When she died of cancer, I was surprised by how much I felt it as a loss. 

John Ellis

It’s been three years since Charm came out. Speaking as a devotee of this group, we’re starved! Any chance of a new Double-Wide date coming out in the near (or far) future?

As a matter of fact, we’re recording for a few days just after our performance in Lake George.  So, with any luck, we should be able to have something new out before too long.  

John Ellis & Double-Wide will appear at “Jazz at The Lake” on Sunday, September 15th at 1pm. To find out more about “Jazz at The Lake” – happening September 14th and 15th at Shepard Park in Lake George – go to https://www.lakegeorgearts.org/lake-george-jazz-weekend/

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