Of all the sax-organ-sousaphone-drums ensembles out there, John Ellis & his Double-Wide ensemble really do stand out. That might be because there aren't any other such ensembles out there.
To get to this point where he's leading such an unusual combo, North Carolina native John Ellis had been on a musical odyssey that took him from singing hymns in his father's church in Tobacco Country to honing his sax skills in the Crescent City under jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, cutting his teeth in New York, back in New Orleans to teach sax and gigging over six years as a member of Charlie Hunter's band. Somehow, Ellis found time to record four albums of his own during these ten years of non-stop learning, teaching and playing as both sideman and leader.
This week brings the release of Ellis' fifth, entitled Dance Like There's No Tomorrow. In it, he reveals his reverence to the tradition as taught by such mentors as Marsalis, Joe Chambers, and Reggie Workman. At the same time, the adventurous spirit of Charlie Hunter is present, too. That dichotomy manifests itself in the credits when you learn of that somewhat unusual makeup of the band, before the first note is even heard.
Appropriately, the first actual notes on the whole CD is played by that sousaphone. The sound of the close cousin to the tuba mimics a singing preacher with a church organ and tambourine responding as the "amen" choir. Soon, the opening track "All Up The Aisles" gets going with a Big Easy Beat as Ellis' joyfully greasy Gene Ammons tenor enters the prayer meeting. It's Jack McDuff meets Dixieland; you may not have heard anything quite like this before but it sounds like you should have a long time ago. And that cut is just for openers.
It's a sound special enough that Ellis felt that his new group merited its own name. Aside from the tenor/soprano sax and bass clarinet-playing leader, Double-Wide has that righteous organ played by Gary Versace which provides the gospel, while the sousaphone of Matt Perrine brings the jazz funeral to the music. Ellis Marsalis' youngest son Jason provides the steady, New Orleans back beat. Perrine replaces the plucks of a bass with the puffs of a horn, but as Ellis effused, "Matt's ability to play the bass function on the sousaphone even outside of the normal tuba-as-bass vernacular blew my mind." Mine, too.
Sometimes Perrine plays it like a Fender bass, like on the soulful "Trash Bash" or the solemn ballad "Prom Song." On the latter, he even plays it well in the pocket with Marsalis on a the funky interlude. Meanwhile, Ellis is throwing it down on with his tenor.
Just as effectively, Ellis provides some heartfelt soloing on the somber Molly Ivins tribute "I Miss You Molly." Versace follows up with an equally pretty solo.
Some of the song titles are pretty self-explanatory. "Three-Legged Tango" and "Tattooed Teen Waltzes With Grandma" are indeed a tango and waltz, respectively, but with cleverly awkward passages these names suggest. "Zydeco Clowns On The Lam" isn't exactly zydeco music, but Varsace does switch from organ to accordion and the bandmembers clown around with changing tempos.
The album finishes as upbeat as it starts with the shuffling boogie gospel of "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow."
Literally bringing this music home, John Ellis and Double-Wide will perform at this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 1. If you're in town for Jazz Fest that weekend and are ready to "dance like there's no tomorrow," you'd do well to go absorb the joyous music of this record up-close and personal.