Saxophonist John Ellis’ new album, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow, opens with the low rumble of a sousaphone followed by the swell of a church organ and the rattle of tambourine. In just those few seconds there’s a clear indication that something wholly sanctified is about to transpire. Enter John’s deep, soulful tenor moan and as the song’s title declares, everyone is bound to be “All Up In The Aisles.”
The North Carolina-native, New Orleans-disciple and current Brooklyn-based John Ellis has gone back to his Crescent City roots, forming a new band dubbed Double-Wide to record his third album for HYENA Records. He assembled the four-piece unit, featuring Matt Perrine on sousaphone, Gary Versace on Hammond B-3 organ and Jason Marsalis on drums, with a specific musical vision in mind. Although he’d played with the three musicians in previous configurations, the actual Double-Wide quartet went into the studio without ever having previously performed together as a unit. It’s a testament to Ellis’ idea for the record that the results completely transcended everyone’s expectations.
Ellis elaborates: “For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to make a record with sousaphone, and with Matt Perrine in particular. This all goes back to a memorable gig I did in New Orleans, probably around ‘95 or ‘96 at the New Showcase Lounge. David Torkanowsky put the group together, and the band was Johnny Adams on vocals, Herlin Riley on drums, Tork on keys, Matt Perrine on bass and sousaphone, and me on saxophone. Matt’s ability to play the bass function on the sousaphone even outside of the normal tuba-as-bass vernacular blew my mind.”
With the concept for the band in place, John Ellis thematically structured the compositions around a timeless celebratory tradition—dancing. The songs run from the twisted urgency of “Three Legged Tango In Jackson Square” to the nostalgic wistfulness of “Prom Song.” The New Orleans brass band sound is re-imagined on “Trash Bash” with the thumping low-end from Matt Perrine bumping the groove. There’s dark and provoking modern jazz found on “Dream And Mosh” and gorgeous balladry like “Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma.” All evoke the dance-based imagery suggested by their titles.As John Ellis has effectively accomplished on all of his prior recordings, he allows sadness to co-mingle with humor. His most poignant moment comes on “I Miss You Molly” which was written for the best-selling Southern author, political commentator and newspaper columnist Molly Ivins who passed away while John was working on the album’s material. As John explains, “this song was a response to the sadness of her pass- ing, as a symbolic dance for her and with her, perhaps. She’s a hero of mine as someone southern, witty, and fearless about speaking truth to power.“ In quite the opposite mode, “Zydeco Clowns On The Lam” turns the sounds of the bayou on its head in a joyous romp that comes complete with Gary Versace playing accordion. The album’s title track, “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” is a full-tilt barnburner in the great organ- tenor tradition of Stanley Turrentine-Jimmy Smith and Gene Ammons-Jack McDuff.
“All of the songs have some dance reference point, even if some are more abstract than others. There’s also an underlying theme of defiance in the face of adversity. I’ve always been attracted to the idea that we have to live today as much as possible, because no one knows what tomorrow brings,” explains Ellis. “In New Orleans, and along the gulf coast, Hurricane Katrina inflicted damage that was real and tangible, measurable in the loss of life and property. The colossal failure of our government—before, during, and after the storm—has done immeasurable damage to faith in our very nation. It’s worth noting, though, that during Hurricane Katrina and in its aftermath there were bars on Bourbon Street that never closed. And of course it wasn’t ‘too soon’ to celebrate Mardi Gras the following February. New Orleans has always known how to live for the day, and how to dance like there’s no tomorrow.”
John Ellis grew up as the son of a preacher on an 18-acre farm in rural North Carolina. He began playing music in his father’s church. His brother, David Ellis, a world-renowned artist, was influential in encouraging John to pursue music as his life’s work. After studying for a year at The North Carolina School for The Arts, John moved to New Orleans where he enrolled at the University of New Orleans under the tutelage of Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste and Victor Goines. With gigs coming fast and
furious, John left the university to play music fulltime. His work as a sideman took him around the world. He’d release his first internationally distributed solo album, Roots, Leaves & Branches, on the jazz tastemaker label, Fresh Sounds. Soon thereafter, he’d hook up with the widely popular guitarist Charlie Hunter, playing tenor saxophone and contributing compositions to Hunter’s trio on four albums and countless tour dates around the world. During this Hunter period, he’d sign with the revered indie label, HYENA Records. His first release there, 2005’s critically acclaimed One Foot In The Swamp, fused a funky New Orleans vibe with New York City’s modern jazz aesthetic. Special guests included John Scofield and Nicolas Payton. In 2006, he’d release By A Thread, a recording that took his compositional prowess to another level and further dug its heels into the sounds of his current NYC home base.
On Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow, John Ellis goes back to the wellspring of inspiration that stems from his upbringing in the South and his years spent in New Orleans. But rather than treading old ground, he’s using its influence to push his music in fresh and compelling new directions.