Every Sunday, the man leaves roses for his dead lover. One spring afternoon, an ethereal voice lures him downward, into the crypt…
The Ice Siren, composed by John Ellis with a libretto by Andy Bragen, is a through-composed hour long musical narrative piece, a “jazz opera” in development. It debuted as part of the Jazz Gallery’s Large Ensemble Composers Series on May 29 and 30, 2009. Dark, funny and surreal, The Ice Siren marks Bragen and Ellis’ second collaboration.
The Ice Siren
Album Out March 20th, 2020 on Parade Light Records
order your copy now!
The Dreamscape Ensemble
Miles Griffith & Gretchen Parlato -vocals
John Ellis –tenor sax, clarinet & bass clarinet
Marcus Rojas –tuba
Mike Moreno –acoustic & electric guitar
Chris Dingman –vibraphone, glockenspiel & chimes
Daniel Sadownick & Daniel Freedman -percussion
Hiroko Taguchi -violin & viola
Olivier Manchon –violin
Todd Low -viola
Christopher Hoffman -cello
JC Sanford -conductor
libretto by Andy Bragen
After their first project Dreamscapes, a series of Bragen’s dream-related poems paired with Ellis’s musical responses, the cowriters decided to focus on just one dream — only to transform it into a nightmare. The Ice Siren fully merges music and libretto in a dramatic through-composed work for 11-piece hybrid jazz chamber ensemble. Bragen immersed himself in scary films and books and conjured a Tim Burtonesque scenario, haunted but partly comical: the story of a man (sung by Miles Griffith) who mourns his lost love Melusina, placing flowers in her crypt weekly. Lured by “Melusina’s Siren Song,” he ventures further inside the crypt, encounters her ghost (sung by Gretchen Parlato), and becomes trapped, doomed to a frozen eternity.
The ensemble bringing this vision to life features Marcos Rojas on tuba (in lieu of a bassist), Daniel Sadownick on mixed percussion and drums, and Daniel Freedman playing additional percussion. Building on this uncommon foundation, with intricate parts playing and improvisational fire at the ready, are guitarist Mike Moreno, vibraphonist Chris Dingman and of course Ellis himself, playing not only his main tenor sax and bass clarinet, but B-flat clarinet as well. Just as integral to the sound is the string quartet with violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low and cellist Christopher Hoffman (Henry Threadgill).
There’s a dark and yearning quality to the recurrent melodies and motifs, a dissonance and textural richness in the unfolding written passages, and an embrace of the unexpected in the solo spots as players blur the boundaries of composition and improvisation. And in the spotlight, this unlikely pairing: Parlato with her unperturbed elegance and restraint, otherworldly as Griffith is thrust into emotional turmoil, bringing his singular extroverted style to the interpretation of Bragen’s storyline. Ellis’s writing for voice is demanding, and the execution here is on a high level, but the effect is more than technical — it’s deeply human. The instruments capture it as well: Ellis’s tenor spotlight in “Heaven or Hell,” Moreno’s soaring flight on the electrifying 7/8 “Little Man” and Dingman’s sparkling turn on the eerily catchy finale “Entombed in Ice” advance the story with a resolute clarity of intent that only the finest players on the jazz scene could muster.
The Ice Siren captures a signal moment of growth for Ellis as a composer, prompted by Bragen to consider longer forms and sequences of events — not to mention writing for strings, with all the technical demands and expressive possibilities that entails. “A collaboration like ours forces you to do things that by definition you would not be able to do on your own,” Ellis says of his output with Bragen, and the partnership is certainly reciprocal in that regard. Through recordings and appearances with his own Double-Wide and other projects, and notable sideman work with Rudy Royston (Flatbed Buggy), Helen Sung (Sung With Words), Kendrick Scott’s Oracle (A Wall Becomes a Bridge), Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (Real Enemies) and a host of others, John Ellis continues to blaze a trail as one of the most celebrated and sought-after multireed players of his generation.
Hailing from rural North Carolina, he spent several transformative years in New Orleans studying with Ellis Marsalis and became a New Yorker in 1997, incorporating influences from all these locales and life experiences into his work. In addition to large-scale productions like The Ice Siren, Ellis is now pursuing a parallel strategy of far more frequent track-by-track releases on Bandcamp — a liberating activity that he compares to going fishing. “Get in the boat, go out there, ‘Did you catch a fish?’ ‘I dunno, maybe, depends on the day.’ But isn’t that nice to do, because we like to do it? What other stuff can come up when we leave room for it? Why are we never doing that? Isn’t there something lost if we don’t do it? I just want to keep generating music and not have it be so seldom and so daunting, and in that way open up another creative window for myself.” Ellis’s latest releases in this vein focus on standards and originals with two different chordless trios.
A native New Yorker and resident of the Lower East Side, Andy Bragen heads his own company, Andy Bragen Theatre Projects, and teaches at Barnard College. His body of work includes the plays The Hairy Dutchman, Spuyten Duyvil, Greater Messapia, Game, Set, Match, This Is My Office, Don’t You F**king Say a Word and Notes on My Mother’s Decline. He has received Workspace and Process Space Residencies from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; other honors include the Clubbed Thumb Biennial Commission, a Tennessee Williams Fellowship from Sewanee: The University of the South, a Jerome Fellowship, a New Voices Fellowship from Ensemble Studio Theatre, a Dramatists Guild Fellowship, a Berkeley Rep Ground Floor Residency, and residencies at Millay Colony and Blue Mountain Center. Bragen’s co-translation (from the Japanese) of Yukiko Motoya’s Vengeance Can Wait was published by Samuel French.