One Foot in the Swamp – John Ellis
Hyena Records 9330
The last time I saw saxophonist John Ellis, he looked — beatnik jazzhead, small, wire-rimmed glasses, short-brimmed hat resting a half-inch off-center, a thin goatee, groomed carefully over the course of several months and inches — just as he sounds on his debut solo record, One Foot in the Swamp: like a stereotypical jazz obsessive. Having spent as much of his life studying jazz as playing it, Ellis tackles his music both intellectually and emotionally, and the dynamic, democratic line-up on One Foot in the Swamp gives voice to Ellis’ passion, compressing the genre’s history into 60-plus minutes of near flawless jazz.
Contemporary sounds mix with bop-era swing on "Bonus Round," which takes the listener on a long-time jazz man's first trip to the Caribbean. Keyboardist Aaron Goldberg and bassist Roland Guerin let things spiral into free searching before reigning Nicholas Payton's weirdo effects back into the Golden Age and closing with the opening riff. "Seeing Mice" wanders over similar ground atop Goldberg's soft melody. As Ellis settles in, drummer Jason Marsalis takes the wheel, but trumpeter Nicholas Payton and harmonicaist Gregoire Maret prefer back roads. The compromise is an easy, bounding cruise down a smooth, scenic road and over the horizon.
Guitarist John Scofield lends his distinct sound to the sunny day, front porch funk of "Happy" and "One for the Kelpers," and Ellis' low moan breathes heavily out the door of a Harlem jazz club on "Country Girls," floating on the breeze beyond the frenzy of the Manhattan streets to a quiet kitchen where beans and ham are warming on the stove. "Sippin' Cider" takes the party further south as Marsalis' Dixieland snare beat leads the band's Mardi Gras parade down Bourbon Street before turning right onto 5th Avenue then left down Main Street, U.S.A.
Two tracks in particular, though, show the ensemble's dynamism. Maret opens the slow, hesitant blues of "Work in Progress" before Goldberg finds a playful break amidst his indiscriminate twinklings. Ellis follows as Marsalis' snare accents the others' searching until he settles in on a frantic bebop shuffle. An ambient void opens and is immediately filled by Ellis, then Goldberg, then Payton. On "Chalmette Shawarma," Payton and Ellis lead the way through pointed exclamations and boundless wandering as Goldberg sprays a thin fog over Marsalis and Guerin's steady rhythm. As Marsalis picks up, so does Ellis, blowing soul, but Marsalis leaves the frontman behind to hook up with Payton, who freaks out atop Goldberg's thinly veiled melody.
The musicians on One Foot in the Swamp play together like family, sensing when to lead, when to follow, when to compromise and when to stand ground. Point and counterpoint flow seamlessly, building energy and texture, and everyone gets his chance to speak. Though his career to this point has been spent mostly as a sideman, most notably in Charlie Hunter’s trio, John Ellis couldn’t hope to start his career as a composer and bandleader much better than he does on this record. One Foot in the Swamp balances classic bop and contemporary jazz, mixing 60s swing with abstract expressionism, big melodies with broken beats, into the best jazz record so far this year.