New York to New Orleans: John Ellis talks Music

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Saxophonist, clarinetist and composer John Ellis has been based in Brooklyn for close to twenty years since he moved out of New Orleans after coming here to learn the music. But he maintained a strong relationship with New Orleans, specifically through his hybrid band Double-Wide, composed of organist Gary Versace, trombonist Alan Ferber and New Orleans’ own Jason Marsalis on drums and Matt Perrine on sousaphone.

This Thursday, Ellis will lead this line-up in presenting the music of Double-Wide’s last release, Charm, in two sets at Snug Harbor at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.


How do you sustain the relationships that makes these projects possible, with musicians of a band living in different cities ?

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. It takes a lot of effort. I love to come to New Orleans for reasons separate from this project. I lived here a couple times and I love being here. So I come here a couple times a year, at minimum. If I can come here more, that’s great. This band is something I’ve always loved doing and it definitely gives me an excuse to keep coming here.

But basically everything about this band is impractical, first for geographical reasons. There’s a sousaphone and a B3 organ in the band, which you can imagine is impractical for logistical reasons, to tour with those instruments… It’s better to have a clarinet, a washboard and a guitar.

There’s a lot of reasons why it doesn’t make sense to do this. But you know, I never really made anything that made sense I guess. I get a great deal of satisfaction from doing it. There’s really no other reason to do it. I’m not getting rich doing it, it’s costing me a lot of money to do it. It’s just something I really love to do, and it’s kind of hard to stop.


It sounds like it’s important to you personally to preserve that New Orleans part of your life.

Yeah. One way or another, with this band or not, there’s some kind of continual relationship with New Orleans that I plan to have for the rest of my life.

David Kunian who reviewed the album in this month’s issue of OffBeat speculated on all the different “Bookers” that the opening track of the record could be inspired from.

The first guess was really the right one. I like the idea that it could be all those other Bookers. But it was James Booker that I was thinking about. I had a composition fellowship at the beginning of 2014 and I had three months to write, which was a total luxury, I was in Santa Monica, waking up in the morning and putting on James Booker. It got to be kind of a habit. Some of the tunes on this album came out of that.


You like to incorporate new instrumentation in all the Double-Wide projects, you had the harmonica in the last one and now have the B-flat clarinet and Gary’s accordion here.

Orchestration is very important for this band. Color and mood are very important.

Every time I do this, I think about what hasn’t been done in terms of instrumentation. It’s not even so much about adding instruments but it’s this expressive potential of this particular instrumentation. That’s one the biggest things that’s fun about it. I feel like there’s different music in this group that I can discover, and I can’t really in other bands that I play with. Probably because it’s so humorous.

Humor is part of the point. A lot of the bands I play with are very serious, and that’s cool too. But it feels like therapy to do this project for me sometime.


It seems like this band is an outlet for you to still do great music but primarily have fun with it.

Yeah, it’s not just fun, but fun-ny, which isn’t typically how musicians always see themselves. But I enjoy that. It’s a release. To have something that I take very seriously still be kind of funny sometimes, that’s definitely a part of me that I don’t get to address as much in other settings.


Do you already have new ideas on what new sounds you’d like to add on to this project in the future?

I wrote a showpiece for Matt. It’s called “International Tuba Day,” it features him and it’s funny and his virtuosity comes out. I’m not sure who else could really play that.

So, the idea of having showpieces is really fun. It’d be fun to have that for other instruments as well. The other thing about the sousaphone, especially with the way Matt plays it, is that it acts mostly as a bass player. But the organ can do that too, so there’s more room to play with that. Just like ‘who’s playing bass’ and then move on to this horn brass family. I’ve done a lot of that but I can explore it more.


There are a couple tunes of this album that sound like there’s a strong European music influence implemented, did those ideas come out of touring overseas?

It’s funny, a lot of people feel that way. There’s the accordion. I just did some teaching in Italy and this kid was telling me that there’s something very Italian about this instrument. It’s interesting. It has to have something to do with the orchestration. It’s not conscious, but I think it’s true. I’m not sure why.

I have lots of friends who, as they work on something, are very conscious of what their influences are. They say “I’m manipulating this, I’m combining this with that…” I don’t have that kind of brain. I just kind of write what seems fun for me and then sometimes I have to figure out what the influences were, later.

I have been over to Europe a lot over the past 20 years. There’s European things in it, there’s New Orleans things in it, there’s New York things in it, there’s cinematic things in it.

You know, I mostly think about mood and color and tone. That’s more what motivates me. It’s less of a style-conscious thing asking “this is this style, this is this groove,” but more asking “what kind of moods do we have, how does this make me feel?”


How is the New York jazz audience receptive of New Orleans music today?

You know I’ve never been comfortable calling myself a New Orleans musician. I think there is a certain excitement over New Orleans things not just in New York but overseas. But I don’t think I really benefit from that very much.

There’s a certain thing about being a New Orleans musician that I actually take very seriously. And I’m not. I’m just someone who loves and cares a lot about New Orleans very deeply.

If people in New Orleans who really understand what it means to be a New Orleans musician embraced me, I would be in a spirit of gratitude. But I don’t consider myself that. Because I take that too seriously, you know. I wouldn’t want to fake that.

Part of what I like with this band is that what I’m doing and playing doesn’t really remind me of other things so much. It has to do with the orchestration I think. A lot of the sounds that we use are familiar sounds. But the blending of those instruments makes me feel like I’m in a different kind of space.


In an interview you gave in OffBeat in 2010, you talked about how important the influence of Harold Battiste’s teaching was to you. How did you react to his passing last June?

I came. It was important for me to be here for that. Harold was very generous to me. The older I get, the more grateful I feel, because he really didn’t have to be.

I feel incredibly grateful to him and to Ellis [Marsalis] for embracing me as a young musician in the music, and they hired me for things. My first record was on something Harold put together, I also played in Ellis’ band.

Harold gave me opportunities that I really didn’t feel ready for. I really loved him. He was a true mentor. I felt like I was getting exposed to something real and profound and deep and powerful. It was different than the things you find in other forms of institutionalized jazz environments. And I still feel like that. He’s a person who was on a path, and invites you to be on the path with him. I think it’s a beautiful way to teach.

But also he was very supportive of me throughout his life. I mean I’ve been coming down to play here every year since back then, so for more than twenty years. And he would come, say very kind things.


Any thought about the show on Thursday at Snug Harbor?

Well, for the rest of this year, this will be the only time the actual personnel from the record plays together. So, even the people in New York are going to miss out on that. I think it’s very special and I’m excited about that. I love it when it’s this band.

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