Going Places

When mediocre albums happen to good musicians, who is to blame?

Still figuring out who he is
photo: Hyena Records
Still figuring out who he is

I played John Ellis's One Foot in the Swamp when it was released in January and might never have bothered with it again if I hadn't caught a nifty set by the young saxophonist and his rhythm section while vacationing in Northern California in July. The CD still strikes me as mediocre, but hearing Ellis live helped me diagnose the problem. He hasn't figured out who he is yet, and although this may have been the secret to his laudable versatility as a sideman with Charlie Hunter, it allows seasoned guest stars to dominate Ellis's debut as a leader—the tracks with guitarist John Scofield are funky and bumping, the ones with trumpeter Nicholas Payton modal and veering, the ones with Grégoire Maret's chromatic harmonica textural and meandering. It's a surprise to see Ellis himself listed as producer, because you can usually blame this sort of coming and going on some maven in a&r. What I take to be Ellis's true identity emerges on the final track, "Sippin' Cider," a folk song that was also a highlight of his set in California. Sonny Rollins comparisons should never be made lightly, and Ellis is no Olympian. But his big, lively sound on tenor, his melodic élan, and the bite of his comic asides in response to Jason Marsalis's crisp parade drums all reveal where Ellis is coming from while suggesting good places to go. The damn thing is so much fun you don't even mind too much when Ellis switches to ocarina near the end.

 
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