Planet Jazz was founded by the unsung New York drummer Johnny Ellis, who died in 1999 at age 44. But thanks to Ellis’ erstwhile bandmates, this dynamic straightahead combo continues, giving us In Orbit. Five of the disc’s eight tracks were penned by Ellis, and their titles alone—“The Cow Is Now,” “The Lemur Is a Dreamer,” “The Squirrel Is a Girl”—say much about the late composer’s eccentric vibe. Pianist Spike Wilner offers a personal remembrance in his aptly phrased liner notes.
Appearing with Wilner on In Orbit are several other leading lights of the New York scene: trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, tenor saxist Grant Stewart, guitarist Peter Bernstein and bassist Neal Miner, with Joe Strasser ably filling in for the departed Ellis. The mood is buoyant, the charts tradition-minded but full of odd angles and diversions. As soloists and as a band, these players bring commitment and ingenuity to the Ellis material, including a spirited midtempo opener, a fast “Rhythm” changes variant, a waltz and a ballad. Wilner also contributes crafty arrangements of Charlie Shavers’ “Dawn on the Desert” (shades of Horace Silver) and Hampton Hawes’ “Sonora.” The session ends with Duke and Johnny Hodges’ “Dual Highway,” a bluesy and laid-back sendoff.