This remarkable recording begins with “John Brown’s Gun,” Ellis’ cutting-edge jazz adaptation of a folk song he learned as a child on his grandmother’s knee. Pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Roland Guerin, and drummer Jason Marsalis join the tenor saxophonist in riotous, swinging play, augmented at certain intervals by the understated vocals of Bilal Oliver, who masterfully evokes the ghosts of the South. Oliver reappears on “Nowny Dreams,” another folk adaptation that finds Goldberg switching to the hip but delicate Fender Rhodes. Ellis’ haunting free-form arrangement of “The Lonely Jesus” also boasts the sound of the Rhodes; Oliver’s peculiar incantations resurface, along with a mysterious female voice listeners hear from again at the very end of the disc, on a hidden track that follows Ellis’ overdubbed woodwind-choir arrangement of “For All We Know.” The voice, one presumes, is a tape of Ellis’ grandmother, singing the verse that begins “John Brown’s Gun.” The effect is endearing and even magical; one is struck by Ellis’ generosity, as he shares with listeners this most intimate source of inspiration. The remainder of the record is quite strong: Highlights include the moody “Light-Headed,” the 7/4 reading of “Confirmation,” and trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s two guest appearances, on the pretty waltz “Ed” and the piano-less swinger “Who.” But it is the folk-inspired material that affords Ellis an originality of the most striking sort.
David R. Adler