“Charm” can have many meanings: an ingratiating personality, a totem of good luck, a hypnotic allure. In all of those senses, Charm is an ideal title for the third album by saxophonist/clarinetist John Ellis’ eclectic, eccentric, and utterly charming band Double-Wide, due out September 18 on Ellis’ own Parade Light Records. It’s not all fun and games for this gifted group, however. As Ellis notes in the song that gives the album its title, “Charm Is Nearly Always Sinister.” That winning smile can hide ulterior motives; that rabbit’s foot or four leaf cover may offer little more than false hope.
That dichotomy is in itself a perfect encapsulation of the sound of Double-Wide, which laces its party vibe with a serious edge. The unusual quintet bridges Ellis’ two homes, capturing the celebratory spirit of New Orleans and the urban grit of New York City. Charm is the most inventive and colorful expression yet of that split metropolitan personality, with a chainsaw-juggling balance of bayou brass, raucous gospel, and devil-may-care modern jazz.
“I love the idea of being a conduit between these two cities that I love,” Ellis says. “The band is in pursuit of humorous fun, but there’s also more weighty, sinister stuff in there.”
For this outing, Double-Wide is anchored as always by sousaphonist Matt Perrine and drummer Jason Marsalis, who lend the band its buoyant New Orleans groove. After sitting out the last album, Gary Versace returns to the fold on organ, piano and accordion. Completing the line-up is trombonist Alan Ferber, who appeared as a special guest on Double-Wide’s second album, Puppet Mischief, and has since become a part of the family. Leading the charge is the ever-versatile Ellis, who manages to play with a keen intellect while keeping his tongue in his cheek and a mischievous – but oh so charming – gleam in his eye.
The album kicks off with “Booker,” a tip of the cap to another Big Easy iconoclast, James Booker – the man who Dr. John has memorably called “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Like much of the album, “Booker” was written during a three-month residency at Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center, where the pianist was often Ellis’ wake-up music of choice. The song pays tribute to Booker’s vibrant sound, with only a hint of his ultimately tragic life.
A prolific and in-demand sideman when not leading his own projects, Ellis welcomed the break from his typically hectic schedule offered by the 18th Street Arts Center’s Make Jazz Fellowship. “It was the opposite of what my life is like in New York, he says. “Living in this beautiful part of the country and writing music all day, with very little playing and very few gigs, was therapeutic.”
The lift that period gave his spirits is evident in the gospel-tinged “High and Mighty,” which is another play on contradictory meanings – the sanctified uplift of the religious meaning of those words contrasted with the snobbery implied when they’re hurled as an insult – not to mention a more playful wink at other meanings of the word “high.” Almost cartoon-like in its ability to paint a picture, “Horse Don’t Trot” moves at the ramshackle pace of a worn-out nag, calling to mind a broken-down twist on Sonny Rollins’ “Way Out West” Americana as well as Ellis’ own childhood in rural North Carolina.
“Old Hotel” was another product of Ellis’ West Coast residency, named for subtle allusions to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” that the composer discovered only after the fact and attributes to something elusive in the sunny SoCal air. The self-explanatory “International Tuba Day” is a showcase for Matt Perrine’s blustery, agile sousaphone, and an unsolicited theme song for a very real holiday (it takes place the first Friday in May).
The serpentine strut of “Snake Handler” takes another trip to church, this time to a reptile-hoisting Pentecostal ministry, while also nodding to those preachers’ abilities to work their charm on the snakes. Kicking off with a gorgeous, breathy tenor solo by Ellis, “Better Angels” looks more sincerely heavenward, its title taken from the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. The soulful groove of “Barbed Wire Britches” may inspire movement in its listeners akin to the uncomfortable pants of its title (a bit of homespun wisdom from Ellis’ home region), while “Yearn” closes the album with a howl of bluesy longing.
Formed in 2007, Double-Wide has proven to be a fertile and colorful outlet to ease the tension of Ellis’ internal tug-of-war between New Orleans and New York. In addition, he leads a more straightahead jazz quintet whose most recent release, It’s You I Like, paid tribute to two influential songwriters: Elliott Smith and Mr. Rogers. He’s also created 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.
As one of modern jazz’s premier voices on the tenor saxophone, Ellis is also a sideman with an impossibly busy schedule. The second place winner of the 2002 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, he’s since worked with artists as diverse as bass great John Patitucci, organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith, MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón, the Brooklyn-bred big band led by composer Darcy James Argue, guitar groove master Charlie Hunter, and pop icon Sting.