Saxophonist John Ellis’ Mobro, a concept album in collaboration with librettist Andy Bragen, is a radical departure from his previous release, the contemporary postbop date It’s You I Like, but it never veers too far into avant-garde territory; it’s too melodically centered and plaintively lyrical, with personnel including vocalist Becca Stevens, trumpeter Shane Endsley and guitarist Mike Moreno straddling downtown, folk and straight-ahead sub-genres. Though it is a dense recording—by the third track, “Storm,” vocalist Miles Griffith unleashes ferocious, glottal vocal fry, and Ellis’ orchestration tilts towards Maria Schneider at her most discordant—it is often mellow. Ellis’ brand of chamber jazz stems more from narrative structure than third-stream polytonality.
The album’s dynamic ebb and flow was inspired by the journey of the Mobro 4000, a barge that made headlines in 1987 when it hauled more than 3,000 tons of garbage down the Eastern Seaboard, unable to dispose of its sizable load. Ellis’ compositional devices reflect the titular vessel’s journey. The opener, “Anticipation,” leads off with a Copland-esque textured brass chorale that gradually escalates in tempo and dissonance, resolving into the ethereal voicings and cymbal play of “Sailing,” which introduces Bragen’s stirring lyrics. In contrast to the frenetic brass modulations and Ellis’ angular playing on “Mutiny/Rebellion,” the subdued “Doldrums” consists almost entirely of furtive whispers and atmospheric sound design by Roberto Carlos Lange that seems to reverberate from the hull of a ship. At journey’s end, the dirge-like solemnity of the loping midtempo ballad “Mourning” pairs guitarists Moreno and Ryan Scott with Stevens’ sea-battered vibrato and a keening rejoinder from Ellis. Finally, the exuberant trad-jazz closer, “Celebration,” a return to the tonic, proves that more than a quarter-century later, one man’s trash is another’s sonic treasure.