One of the things I've always loved about contemporary jazz is the potential it offers those performing and creating it for freedom of creativity. Thanks to the innovators of the past like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Mingus (to name only a few) the precedent has been set for today's musician to take the music in whatever direction they want and still be able to call it jazz. From the electronic minimalism of Chicago Underground Trio to the near tribal rhythms of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and everything in between and beyond, it seems the only boundaries left in jazz are those that the musician imposes on him or herself.
However, lest one think that any idiot can pick up a noise maker, squawk out some sounds and call that jazz, the music also has a history that serves as the foundation for all that is being done today. Just like an abstract painter learns figure drawing, the basics of perspective, and how colour and light work together, before moving on to trying to fulfill his vision, or the writer has to learn spelling and grammar before attempting to break those rules with free form poetry, the jazz musician must first be proficient on her instrument of choice, and know the music itself inside out before setting out for in search of new horizons. The best contemporary/experimental jazz musicians are the ones who can play traditional jazz forms like Dixie land as easily as the fusion creations of a group like Weather Report.
The more knowledge that an artist has to draw upon for creations, the greater the artist's potential to create something original; it also increases the chances that the artist will continue to do so throughout his entire career. Listening to the latest release from John Ellis on Hyena Records, John Ellis & Double-wide, Dance Like There's No Tomorrow, the immediate impression is of a man who has allowed himself to thoroughly absorb the music in all of it's permutations until they've become as much second nature as breathing is to most of us. It's not that you are able to listen to any of the 10 songs on the disc and necessarily cite its heritage like you would the breeding record of a thoroughbred horse. It's more that you feel a sense of purpose and direction that only comes from having his been somewhere else first before he's taken on the experimentation that accompanies works that break new ground.
I have to admit that my judgment on this recording might be slightly impaired due to an inordinate fondness on my part for the bass instruments of the brass section in an orchestra. So when I read that Double-wide included a sousaphone player (Matt Perrine), as well as a drummer (Jason Marsalis) and an accordion/organ player (Gary Versace), I was predisposed to liking it even before I listened to it. When the opening notes, of the disc's first cut, "All Up In The Aisles," were played by said sousaphone, I was hooked. In fact I was so captivated by it that it took me to the second time round listening to the song to pay attention to the other instruments and appreciate the song fully.
What started out as the organ laying down some great gospel quivers over top of the sousaphone, gradually took off into something more up tempo. As John's tenor saxophone joined the fray, along with Jason's drums, it became a song that would most definitely get them up dancing in the aisles of any church. Although I'm not sure there are many churches, no matter how liberal, that would encourage sousaphone leads from their band. There was a kind of sensuality and wild abandonment that the combination of it and the organ generated that wouldn't go over well, especially when they were supporting some of Jason's wilder leads.
In fact the majority of the songs on the disc would encourage a kind of dancing that would be more at place outside of than in the aisles of a church. No matter how gospel influenced, or sounding, the organ playing might be, there's a wildness of spirit that this disc encourages one to feel that would send shivers up the spine of most clergy. Listen to the underlying rhythm of track three, "Dream And Mosh," and the way each instrument's lead spirals almost out of control as its propelled forward by Marsalis' drums pounding insistence, only to catch itself at the last minute as the grounding influence of the sousaphone brings it back to earth, and you'll understand why.
Just when you think these guys are going to take you off into outer space with the wildness of their playing, along comes "I Miss You Molly," the fourth track. Gary Versace's organ and John's saxophone show how a song can be poignant without being mawkishly sentimental. Both the saxophone and the organ have been turned into cliches by too many players when it comes to love songs, so it's wonderful to hear them played in a manner that generates genuine emotion. They both allow their instruments to become conduits for feelings so we really experience the sensation of loss that accompanies missing somebody.
Aside from their honesty and their penchant for a wildness of spirit, what I most appreciated about the music on Dance Like There's No Tomorrow was the sense of humour behind some of the songs. Titles like "Three Legged Tango In Jackson Square" and "Zydeco Clowns On The Lam" give you a fair idea of the mindset involved here. Even better though is the fact that these two songs actually live up to their titles in terms of humour. I'm not talking about obvious stuff like making farting noises with the sousaphone, or something equally juvenile, but witty and intelligent takes on the forms of music mentioned in the titles.
Everyone knows that a tango when performed well is one of the most sensual dances around, so the idea of a three legged tango – along the lines of a three-legged race held at a children's sports day – is as absurd as it is unlikely. Somehow they manage to capture that spirit in the music when they play it, and you can almost picture two people trying to dance a tango with two of their legs tied together. While that might sound strange enough, with "Zydeco Clowns On The Lam" they take absurdity to another level. Picture zydeco music as performed by circus freaks from a Fellini film and you'll have a good idea of what's happening with this piece of music. It's inspired brilliance, and you'll never hear zydeco music in quite the same way again.
Dance Like There's No Tomorrow by John Ellis & Double-wide is an album of great jazz music performed by innovative and daring musicians. It's firmly rooted in the history of the genre and daring enough to go places that no one else I've heard has gone before. On top of that it's a lot of fun to listen to, and if you let it, it will let you dance like you've never danced before.