Since 2008, saxophonist John Ellis and his band Double Wide have been taking the sound of New Orleans jazz and knocking it a little off-kilter. While the group’s hard-grooving music is unapologetically steeped in tradition, these five versatile and free-thinking improvisers push tunes in new and oftentimes surprising directions over the course of a performance. The group’s last album Puppet Mischief (ObliqSound) received immense critical acclaim (four and a half star reviews from Downbeat and Billboard Magazines, a five star review from All About Jazz), and helped lead to a performance at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival.
On September 18th, Double Wide released a long-awaited followup to Puppet Mischief—Charm (Parade Light)—and this weekend, the group will convene at The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the album’s release. We caught up with John Ellis by phone to talk about his approach to writing for the various personalities in the group and the differences between living in New Orleans and New York.
The Jazz Gallery: So you’re in New York now—you’ve just returned from California, where you were with Darcy James Argue.
John Ellis: Yup. He has this new piece that he wrote that we’re gonna play at the Next Wave Festival (Brooklyn Academy of Music) in November. It’s called Real Enemies. It’s his next multimedia extravaganza, an hour long meditation on conspiracy theory in American politics since WWI. There are lots of studio images, lighting, costumes. I’m playing saxophones and clarinets in the big band. I’m a cog in the wheel.
TJG: Fascinating stuff! Now, your own project—Would you mind talking to me about your relationship with New Orleans?
JE: I’ve lived there twice. I grew up in North Carolina but moved to New Orleans when I was nineteen, and I was there from 1993 to 1997. I was in school, and apprenticed with Ellis Marsalis and Harold Battiste at University of New Orleans. I went to school for a year there, then left and played in the community. I came to New York, but then went back to teach at Loyola in ’99 and 2000. I considered going straight to New York from North Carolina, but New Orleans made a lot more sense to me, and I still feel connected to New Orleans in a certain way. There’s something special about that town, and it was very formative for me in terms of the way that music works there. So, I go back a lot. “Double-Wide” is a band that basically straddles New Orleans and New York. This is our third record, so it’s my ongoing New Orleans hybrid project.
TJG: So what is it about the sound of the South, and about New Orleans in particular, that really speaks to you?
JE: It’s not just the sound. I grew up in the South, so it’s the culture, it’s the food, it’s the way people speak to each other. There’s an inclusiveness about the way the music works. It’s woven into the fabric of the culture. It’s played for dancing, for parades, funeral services, in the street, in the club. Even the more avant-garde scene has a more inclusive atmosphere in New Orleans. It’s like “Come on, let’s play free music together.” There’s something about that that’s always been very appealing to me. There’s the way the beat feels, there’s the way everything has blues in it. It feels right to me.
TJG: So the band is Double-Wide, and the new album is Charm. How did the band come together?
JE: It mostly came together to have a band with sousaphone as a bass, specifically with Matt Perrine. I played a really memorable gig with him during the early 90’s in New Orleans. He plays bass and sousaphone, but what he was doing on the sousaphone was like nothing I’d ever heard. I wanted to investigate. So I got this idea that was built around instrumentation and personalities. He and Jason Marsalis were how I got started. Then I wanted organ, and got Gary Versace involved. The first record was with the four of us. I’d been experimenting with sounds, so subsequently the second record had trombone and harmonica. After that record, we toured and gigged with trombone, and that became a sound that I liked, so it stuck. So today, it’s a lot about orchestration and how instruments fit together. It opens a compositional window for things I can’t do in other settings.
TJG: How does sousaphone fit into the band, and into the world of New Orleans sound?
JE: Matt primarily plays the bass function, but there are other options. He’s the best sousaphone player I’ve ever heard, by far. There’s no end to what he’s capable of doing. His musical instincts, from dynamics to grooves and time signatures, have a lot of room for exploiting his gifts. I wrote him a little hilarious sort of sousaphone concerto for this recording, so he’s doing that. The organ can play the bass too, which frees him up to be another horn, but he’s primarily the bass function.
TJG: Is there anything about that musical multiplicity and ability to take different roles that’s a reflection of music in the South?
JE: Maybe! There’s a lot of people who play different instruments, though I’ve never thought of that as a New Orleans thing. There’s definitely something about the tuba/bass double that’s a New Orleans thing, because there’s so much music that’s played in the street. The tuba is a bass player rather than a low brass, and in New Orleans, there’s a long history of people who play bass in the clubs and tuba on the street.
What’s cool about having trombone with sousaphone, especially with Matt, is that he can morph and blend with the trombone. So there are orchestration consequences: it gives the band more flexibility. Trombone was sort of a perfect conduit instrument. It has this theatrical craziness, but the low-brass blends with the tenor so well. I play a little clarinet on the record too, so that’s fun.
TJG: What sorts of flavors does Jason Marsalis bring to the drums?
JE: He’s very unique. I’ve know him back since he was in high school. I’ve been close to his dad, who was a mentor for me, so we’ve been playing on each other’s records for a while. He played on both One Foot in the Swamp and Roots, Branches and Leaves. He’s unique in a variety of different ways. He has the sort of superhero gifts of perfect pitch and perfect memory, but then he has this off-balanced weirdness that he can bring to the projects. I like to coax him out of his straight-up jazz into more antics and craziness. That’s a big part of what he loves and does. I remember him playing all this crazy music for me that he liked—he has a wide-open musical taste, and a really unique sound.
TJG: I love his playing on “Horse Won’t Trot” off the new album. I love the whole song – it’s lopsided, quirky, and endearing. How do you usually begin the compositional process?
JE: It’s interesting, and it depends. A lot of this music I wrote when I was out in California for three months of writing. Sometimes I would start writing and say, “Hm, this seems like it’s gonna be more of a Double-Wide tune.” I keep trying different ways. With this band, I have a template in my mind. I can think of what kinds of sounds and moods I can try to coax out of the template. I think about rhythm and groove—with “Horse Won’t Trot,” I had this idea of a wild-west sort of ten-gallon-hat, walkin’ but kind of off balance. I like to play around with things like that. Things that appear fundamentally simple but are off-balance for just a second. Little illusions.
TJG: So when you know you’re writing for Double-Wide, is there anything that you go for within the New Orleans idiom?
JE: It’s not strictly New Orleans, that’s for sure. It’s more just the sound of these instruments, and the personalities of these people. It’s more dictated by orchestration and sensibility. But I think about cartoons, and circuses, and parades, and I try to be clever, fun, humorous. The band feels like that, sometimes. But it’s also a fun template to mess around with. And we can do straight-up blueses and shuffles. That’s language that I love, and with this band I can use things that are really simple. Whether it’s coming from jazz or blues or anything, the band always sounds personal. I never feel trapped by precedent. I think sometimes people avoid certain sounds because they’re old-fashioned. But here I feel like I can play whatever, and it’s always going to have a personal quality, often in pursuit of humor.
TJG: What do you find that people try to avoid?
JE: [Laughs] You know. Major sixth chords. Blues. Dominant Seventh chords. I don’t want to make generalizations, but it’s just the childish nature of how we conceive of music, and what we consider to be new or modern. I think sometimes people search for modern and new sounds in the chords, syntax, rhythm, tuning, scales. Whatever. I believe that there is an infinite expression of newness within whatever you’re dealing with. It just involves that you love it. What’s the mood, what’s the intention, what’s the impression? So, I like to play the blues. I do like to flip it upside down for just a second—it gives it the humor, the antic moment.
It’s hard for people, especially young musicians, to feel like they can find themselves in things that are clear, easy to hear, and ernest, not necessarily clever. But in this band, it’s easy for us to feel like it’s unique and new, but maybe not in the way that people expect. I don’t believe that newness always comes from language. It can, but there are a lot of ways to think about it. So I’m searching for newness in different ways, like orchestration. But I don’t get concerned about playing things that sound old-fashioned. I like folk-oriented music, and art-oriented… It’s interesting how people turn themselves off to certain possibilities. There’s something about the way this band sounds that feels rooted in something I don’t get to do that often.
TJG: You’ve had three large pieces commissioned and premiered at The Jazz Gallery—MOBRO (2011), The Ice Siren (2009), and Dreamscapes (2007). What’s your relationship with The Gallery?
JE: I love it. It’s hard for me to know where I’d be without it. The opportunities they’ve given me have allowed me to discover things I didn’t know I was capable of. I’m so grateful that the space exists. It’s not just me they’ve been helpful for. I’m tremendously glad about what they’re doing in the scene. They put a lot of trust in me, so yeah, it’s been a great relationship over the years. It’s hard to say enough good about what they do!
TJG: We’re really excited to have you back on Friday. Just one more question: What’s your experience of being a working musician in New York, especially when your heart is in the South?
JE: I think New York is a great place for people who are a little uprooted or culturally fragmented. They left something that was rooted, and now they’re here and searching. There’s an automatic kinship you can have with those people. There are things about living in the South that are great, but I’m also happy that I’m not there now. I enjoy trying to navigate with New Orleans as an outsider, but I also realize that I’ll always be an outsider in New York too. Maybe it’s more accessible, since a lot of people in New York feel like outsiders. But it’s a creative space to be in. There’s always something to learn.
John Ellis and Double Wide celebrate the release of their new album Charm at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, October 9th, and Saturday, October 10th, 2015. The group features Mr. Ellis on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Gary Versace on organ, Jason Marsalis on drums, and John Altieri (filling in for Matt Perrine) on sousaphone. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.