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John Ellis: Roots, Branches and Leaves

Anyone with a craving for late-period Jazz Messengers could do worse than tenorist John Ellis’ Roots, Branches and Leaves (Fresh Sounds New Talent), which is more than anything a sharply played, glossy simulacrum of post-Shorter-era Blakey. Ellis’ tunes are ambitious enough, particularly from a formal standpoint, and his playing is polished and pretty. “John Brown’s Gun,” “Nowny Dreams” and “The Lonely Jesus” feature close-to-the-mike vocals by neosouler Bilal Oliver; whether or not they can be judged a success depends upon the listener’s patience with vocalese. I have little, I’m afraid. The band (Jason Marsalis, drums; Roland Guerin, bass; Aaron Goldberg, piano; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; and Oliver, vocals) is hypercompetent, and the production values are top-notch. It’s all extremely well done and slicker than snot. The problem is, these guys play like they’re afraid of getting their clothes wrinkled (Marsalis in particular could listen to Billy Hart’s work on Tim Armacost’s album or Michel Lambert on Carrier’s and learn a thing or two about fire). I’d encourage them to take the coat hangers out of their suits before puttin’ them on, but I doubt they’d listen.

Originally Published