Though geographically hundreds of miles separate the cities, an undefeatable spirit joins them. Both cities have faced recent catastrophes but both are coming back intact, licking their wounds, but healing and going forward in spite of their losses.
Playing music in his father’s church in North Carolina, John became comfortable performing for others before moving to New Orleans. He attended the University of New Orleans, being tutored by the great Ellis Marsalis, Harold Baptiste and Victor Goines, picking up the distinct flavor of Cajun swamp music-a brass heavy, tambourine laden, accordion driven soul, folksy sound with a down-home feeling.
After touring the world, playing tenor sax and creating compositions with guitarist Charlie Hunter, Ellis signed on with Hyena Records and enjoyed the hot success of his 2005 release, One Foot In The Swamp, before moving to New York.
His New York years added a smooth dimension to Ellis’ playing and by 2006 he released By a Thread.
Realizing the darkness of mood, the emergency of living today before the darkness envelopes everyone, Ellis pours compositional artistry and his amazing sax skills into Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow, along with his group, Double Wide, composed of Matt Perrine on sousaphone, Gary Versace on Hammond B-3 organ and Jason Marsalis on drums.
JazzReview: On your new album, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow, let us talk about your concept for this album. What did you envision? And, did you bring this about?
John Ellis: I lived in New Orleans off and on since 1993 and I played a memorable gig with this sousaphone player, Matt Perrine. It was actually a gig Johnny Adams was singing on and Herlin Riley was playing drums. It was exceptional with Matt’s ability to play the bass on the tuba but not in the traditional New Orleans way.
I’ve been making records with him ever since then. That was probably around ’96 or so. It came together the timing seemed perfect. I’d been up here for a while (NY) and I’d been thinking about making a record-- some sort of fun record, some sort of dance project, where dance is the central theme. Dancing by title, dances by music but still challenging in some other ways. Not necessarily dumbed down dancing but fun
Actually, I thought about having accordion on everything. Almost like a street band. It ended up enlisting Gary Versace because he’s one of my favorite keyboard players of all instruments-he plays accordion and organ. We did a lot of this on organ but I think it could still be done on accordion.
Then, Jason Marsalis is someone I’ve made records with him for many years. He’s on two of my previous records and I’m on one of his. He was a natural choice because he’s such an open, interesting musician and has a natural New Orleans flavor. He’s capable of taking stuff in all kinds of wacky directions. He’s from New Orleans-the sixth and youngest of the Marsalis brothers.
So this album has been a long time percolating. I think there are a lot of reasons to be thinking about "Dancing like there’s no tomorrow."
JazzReview: Oh yeah. Marsalis is almost synonymous with New Orleans. The album came together nicely. Jason Marsalis keeps the drumbeat heavy and a bit thick on "Dream and Mosh". Your sax is a little sullen on this one. Where does the word ‘mosh’ come from? Where does the concept for this title come from?
John Ellis: Well, that one is really divided into two sections. There’s the dream section and there’s the mosh. First thing you hear is the mosh session---boom, boom, boom, You know, a mosh pit is like at a punk rock show where all the kids just run and slam into each other. It’s a defiant act of dancing where you might break a limb. It is recklessly throwing your body into someone else’s body. The other section is much more light, much more airy, and much more dream like. So, we have the dream section and the mosh section keeps coming back.
JazzReview: It is a very interesting title. You’re really up with what’s going on with the youngsters.
John Ellis: Well, it’s been going on for a long time now.
Jazzreview I don’t know where I was I missed it. Borrowing from the liner notes; Matt bumps the groove on "Trash Bash". This is a heavy New Orleans brass sound. How did you come up with that title?
John Ellis: You know, I live in New York City. We understand the idea that the world could be perched on the cusp of some sort of global climate change. It’s easy to see when you live in a place where there’s this much trash being made. .So, that’s like a global warming party, end of the world sort of dance song. A dance for garbage.
JazzReview: So this is all basically very timely in view of current occurrences added together in a dance rhythm.
John Ellis: Yeah. Hence, "Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow."
JazzReview: Absolutely. Then you go into something very sensitive and gentle with "I Miss You Molly." She meant so much to so many. She spoke out for the mainstream-working people. How did you come to pay this tribute to her? Where does she fit into your life?
John Ellis: I come from a family of rare breed, southern democrats whose politics is defined by civil rights and social injustice and poverty and people who place a great deal of emphasis on education but not necessarily on making as much money as you can.
I had been around a lot of people in my life-- southern, speak truth to power, sort of lefties, all my life. So I was open to someone like Molly Ivans and I enjoyed reading her columns and her book called Shrubbed. It was funny. Someone who is that fiercely intelligent and unapologetically southern and that unapologetically willing to speak truth to power, I always had a great admiration for her and I wanted to do a tribute to her.
She passed right in the middle of the time I was putting this record together and I happened to read her obituary. I was feeling sad, so I included this tribute to her. This song just sort of came out. I was thinking about her.
JazzReview: Then you came back with a spirited "Three Legged Tango In Jackson Square." The album takes an upturn. Tell me about Jackson Square and three legged tangoing.
John Ellis That one’s a little bit off balance. And a little whacky and fun. It makes me laugh each tie I hear it. Jackson Square is like a magical place in New Orleans where you have the major core-a little pedestrian square with all kinds of street musicians performing, People have weddings there and are coming out of the churches. You have people sleeping on the benches and you have fortunetellers and people who do drawings of you on the street and whacky New Orleans kind of festive things going on. It’s a little seedy. I can imagine couples doing a three-legged tango in that environment.
JazzReview: A lot of people don’t understand, in the south and New Orleans in particular, when people feel like getting up and dancing, they do that.
John Ellis: There’s a lot of spontaneous dancing going on in Jackson Square-- Pretty much every day. I was just there a couple weeks ago doing a pre-release gig.
JazzReview: Is this the first time you’ve been back since Katrina?
John Ellis: This is the fourth time. I went shortly after and the following January. I went down another time to check it out. Then I played at the jazz festival the year before last.
Every time there are changes. It’s interesting what’s going on. But, there’s a sense of something-an undefeatable spirit of New Orleans. It’s encouraging to go back and see there are changes but some things the essence is really strong.
JazzReview: Some people don’t understand-New Orleans is more than a place. It’s a spirit inside your heart, an intangible spirit that doesn’t die. It’s more than a geographical thing. It gets stopped for a minute but not beaten down.
John Ellis: Some of those people got spread all over the country. I think it might be a good thing to have the spirit of New Orleans spread around. An undefeatable spirit. It’s hard on those people, I know.
JazzReview: Let’s hope there’s something better waiting for those people who have gone through so much.
John Ellis: Yes, let’s hope so.
JazzReview: How did you come up with "Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma"?
John Ellis: It’s the main waltz I have on the record. I often think about the concept of aging and imagine sort of waltzing across the generations--Crossing the generation gap. There’s also a lot of young people who have tattoos. I can see this incredibly tattooed group of older folks as these youngsters age. There’s something funny about that.
A tattoo is sort of a youthful defiant kind of thing. Like, you’re trying to fix yourself in time. This is the time I’m in right now and I’m going to mark it with this tattoo. .But, time still passes. So, the idea of a tattooed teen waltzing with grandma, facing the realities of time--a poignant statement.
JazzReview: New Orleans and Zydeco go together. Some people don’t know what Zydeco is. Can you explain it?
John Ellis: No. I really don’t know, either.
Jazzreview: It’s different. It stands out. And it isn’t just the washboards. There’s some piece of soul in zydeco that brings it alive to a different dimension. Note: Zydeco is sometimes described as roots music. Or a New Orleans style jitterbug. However, it expands from this base definition. Often played with washboards being rubbed by metal spoons and accordions blazing, Zydeco is a spontaneous, free for all spirited sound that makes people of all ages get up and dance-wherever they may be at the time.
John Ellis: Yeah. I’ve had the benefit of hearing zydeco bands and there’s definitely accordion, as you mentioned. It’s like Louisiana swamp music.
JazzReview: As a matter of fact, one of the last albums I heard from you was One Foot In the Swamp.
John Ellis that was actually two albums ago. That one and this record are very linked They’re both kind of hybrid New Orleans, New York kind of music.
JazzReview: How did you manage to link New Orleans with New York? Quite a feat --a melding of the two.
John Ellis: I’ve lived in New York for the last ten years. Musically, I came of age in New Orleans and the music that comes out of there. I still feel musically invested in the concept. But I also feel very much like a New York musician after all this time. I think in some ways it is that I’ve lived in both those places and love playing music in both those places that made it a natural connection or link between the two. I get musicians who have mostly played up here and get them together with musicians who have mostly played in New Orleans and it becomes a sound all it’s own.
JazzReview: It’s an interesting cross.
John Ellis These are my two favorite musical cultures in the US. They are very different from each other.
JazzReview: Yes, it’s interesting that every area across the nation has its own particular musical dialect or timing, or particular instruments, like a signature of the area.
You reach back for the beautiful and sensitive "Prom Song." Where did this come from?
John Ellis: I don’t know. Originally, that tune was called "Last Dance." One of my friends said I should leave that title. But, in my mind, the poignancy of it was always the last dance at the prom. You know, it’s the high school prom and the last dance. You really want to savor every moment. This relates to our youth sentimental things.
JazzReview: You appropriately close your album with "Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow." It’s the theme of the entire album. Each song has a dance theme independently. Each song makes you want to get up, dance, and experience it with your body as well as with your ears. That’s a good way to leave an audience--Upbeat and wanting more.
Did you have a favorite song on this album? Something more heartfelt by you?
John Ellis: I think they are all heartfelt. Making an album is always a process of discovery. We never know how it’s going to sound, especially for someone like me. I always value other musician’s opinions and their collaboration. So there is a sense of not knowing what the music will sound like until we play it. That makes each song unique and heart felt. For me I get a kick out of the silly ones like "Zydeco Clowns on the Lam" and "Three Legged Tango," but I can’t really say I have a favorite. The songs all fit together and they all represent different moods.
JazzReview: Was one song more difficult to play than the others?
John Ellis: "Tattooed Teen" was tricky because it’s harmonically complex. .And the orchestration is complex. A lot of times we were doing different things with the organ and the roles were switched around. It has a lightness yet harmonic complexity and it’s still jazz which makes it tricky. But, first, it was tricky because there are some difficult metric things going on. It was a little confusing to physically execute that one.
It’s not supposed to be tricky in a way that calls attention to it being tricky. But when playing it there are some things that are hard to do. So we had a challenge with that one.
JazzReview: Starting off, you’re playing the sousaphone in the beginning?
John Ellis: I play the sax, but yes; the sousaphone is the first thing you hear.
JazzReview: The organ then comes in for a dark, heavy sound-a thick sound. Then it turns around a little, lightens up and goes into the actual song. Each note had to be extremely right for this opening.
Was this album produced in a single studio?
John Ellis: Yes. We did it together in a studio. Live recording. This is a kind of old-school way of recording. I like making a live approach to music.
JazzReview: You grew up in the south with a father who was a preacher. You played in his church. Do you feel that had an influence on you making music your life’s work?
John Ellis: Hmm I’m sure it did. I had parents who were very encouraging. In terms of music, that’s probably incredibly irresponsible. But, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
My mom was a teacher. I learned music has a meaning greater than money. There are more important things in life than pursuing lots of money.
My parents had a tremendous influence on me. They were tremendously encouraging. Being in the church also made a difference. My dad just retired. His method of preaching wasn’t so much ‘preaching’. It was more of being a community anchor.
Getting up in the pulpit and telling people what to do was the thing he did most reluctantly. He was more of an active listener. That is his gift. Unfortunately, that isn’t the kind of preacher you normally hear about.
So, with that kind of environment, that type of listening, when music happens it’s at its best.
JazzReview: About your relationship with Hyena Records?
John Ellis: It’s a tricky time for the music business, all around. One guy over at Hyena is particularly helpful, hardworking and works to promote-Kevin. Having a label relationship becomes increasingly hard in times like this with limited budgets all around.
Hyena has a lot of musicians I really admire. They have an eclectic mix. They’re bold, putting out all-American music that’s a nice mix. Originally I was attracted to Hyena because they have a vision that jazz can be attractive to all people rather than just active jazz fans.
JazzReview: So, what is next? I know you will be in New Orleans for the Jazz Heritage Festival on May 1. Will you continue touring for this album after that?
John Ellis: I will be in New Orleans for the Jazz-Heritage festival. Then we will be in New Orleans for the fest and playing at both of the fairgrounds and at night. We will be in Boston at the end of May. (John and the band, Doublewide)
JazzReview: Do you have a web site?
John Ellis: Sure do: www.johnaxsonellis.com
I also try to keep myspace updated, which is just: www.myspace.com/johnellis
With the spirit of being undefeated, "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow."