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John Ellis: Words and Tones

In his collaborations with playwright (and neighbor) Andy Bragen, the saxophonist taps into deep reserves of grief, horror, and humor

John Ellis
John Ellis (photo: Emra Islek)

Story Time

Ellis had already shown an interest in establishing narrative frameworks for his instrumental albums Roots, Branches and Leaves (2002) and One Foot in the Swamp (2005). In “trying something that felt emotionally powerful and connected to my life while coming up with a voice within jazz that feels honest,” he drew upon “the folk songs and church songs that were part of my childhood in the rural South.” He followed a different path on It’s You I Like (2012), a yin-yang program of six optimistic songs by Fred Rogers juxtaposed with three dark, introspective ones that evoked, as Ellis put it, “the tortured reality” of singer/songwriter Elliott Smith.

“I was impressed with both the intent of the language and how fearlessly earnest he was,” Ellis said of Mr. Rogers. “I see that as a sign of incredible courage. In this era, a clever, ironic outlook is ascendant among artists and musicians, which in some ways is less courageous than being earnest, which can set you up for accusations of being naive or corny.” In contrast, Ellis noted the “fragility” in Smith’s singing: “His songs speak to me emotionally. He opened himself up so much, so raw, but with beautiful melodies and classical harmony that can apply to a jazz setting.”

Earnestness, emotional transparency, and classical harmony all infuse The Ice Siren, which took shape in early 2009 after a second commission grant from the Jazz Gallery. In establishing the terms of engagement for this particular game, the partners decided to integrate the text with the notes and tones rather than render them separately, and to think about, as Ellis puts it, “scary and funny—and Tim Burton.” The result, in the words of guitarist Mike Moreno, is “a vibe of Sleeping Beauty but everyone’s dead.”

Asked to trace the origin of the haunting plot, Bragen—who immersed himself in scary films and books—again referred to his father’s passing. “I had some sense of it being an ongoing conversation with this person who left my life,” he said. He also mentioned the effect of the Southern Gothic ambience of Sewanee, Tennessee, the mountain town to which he’d temporarily relocated after receiving a fellowship from the Tennessee Williams estate. “They had me in a little house that might have been haunted, right on a little lake, where it’s foggy in the morning,” he said. “My girlfriend was in New York, and I would wake up very early.”

That The Ice Siren avoids the irony trap is due in large part to the interpretative skills of Griffith and Parlato, whose contrasting approaches make a lovely fit. “We left Miles space to improvise not just with the pitches, but the words,” Bragen said. “He’s a great distiller with an ability to get to the deeper part of a story.”

“He has a capacity to bring this kind of craziness, letting the monster out,” Ellis agreed. “Sometimes I’d see Andy visibly moved by whatever he came up with. Gretchen is capable of doing an incredibly wide range of things that don’t always get documented, and I was excited to put her in a situation that’s a little different than what she normally does.”

Ellis first interacted with Griffith on a recording project framed around the children’s book Baby Loves Jazz, written by Ropeadope Records founder Andy Hurwitz, who met Ellis during his six-year association with Charlie Hunter. The connection came after R&B singer Bilal Oliver, a New School classmate who had studied with Griffith, made a last-minute decision to pull out. “John called me at midnight and said, ‘The session’s in the morning; do you do children’s stuff?’” Griffith related. “I’d done jazz and children’s stuff since I was 17.

“John heard what I did on Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields, which is why he gave me pieces in Ice Siren that are at the top of my voice. I had to practice to expand my range. He’s a very easygoing bandleader who knows who he’s hiring and knows what kind of level you can get to—he’ll push that level so you can get there. Andy told me my character was a fool in love, who wasn’t putting two and two together. It took me a long time to understand why the flowers I was putting on the grave every week were dying so quickly. There’s a piece called ‘Cold’ where you have to feel like you’re down in the crypt, shivering, with just a T-shirt on. I’m known for a certain kind of antic thing—extreme sounds. They told me just to go for my antics.”

Trash Talk

Two years later, Ellis invited Griffith to sing on MOBRO, the third Ellis-Bragen collaboration in response to a composition grant from the Jazz Gallery, which presented it in 2011. The storyline (suggested by Bragen) revolves around a 1987 news story about a 3,000-ton barge-load of garbage that set off from New York Harbor to a North Carolina landfill to be converted into methane, and sailed aimlessly through the open seas looking for a port. “For five months, news helicopters recorded the barge’s every move, as it was turned away by scared government officials in six states and three countries,” The New York Times recounted in a “Retro Report” 25 years later.

“Once Andy presented it to me, I saw so many awesome things we could think about,” Ellis said. He noted that Griffith and fellow singers Johnaye Kendrick, Becca Stevens, and Sachal Vasandani represent the voice of the garbage as it experiences rejection during its “crazy, epic journey to all the places where the trash goes. It becomes an immigration story—that aspect has more resonance [now] than it did when we wrote it.” Scored for two trumpets, trombone, French horn, two guitars, bass, drums, voices-as-instruments, and Ellis on tenor and soprano saxophone, the piece feels jazzy, swinging, hot, brassy, New Orleans-ish.

MOBRO had a lot more room for improvisation than Ice Siren, which was more about highlighting the skills of the vocalists,” said Moreno, who paired off with blues/rock-oriented guitarist Ryan Scott for MOBRO. “On Ice Siren you felt the graveyard-ish Tim Burton theme, but MOBRO was animated, almost on the Muppets side—more fun-themed.”

This “rejection-recovery-enlightenment journey” (Ellis) was written during a residency that Bragen procured with a troupe called Theater Grottesco in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “We were staying in a mid-level hotel on the outskirts of Santa Fe, probably a five-minute walk from a half-abandoned mall, where they rehearsed in a former retail space,” Bragen said. “Every other day we’d meet with them and do some physical theater, improvisational stuff. They were fun to play with, but it became clear that we were actually writing a music piece, not a physical theater piece with music. Otherwise, we’d sit in a café where they were playing Michael Bublé songs and work on outlining an emotional map, section by section, which John wrote to. Then I’d respond with lyrics to fit what he wrote.”

Ellis decided to record MOBRO after the Jazz Gallery asked him to restage it in May 2014; Parade Light released the album in 2016. “I felt I’d put so much work into it, and it’s a heavy lift to get these things up to where you can perform them,” Ellis explained. “We performed MOBRO live twice and recorded it in one day. Both recordings happened because we were invited back.”

MOBRO is Ellis and Bragen’s last collaboration—so far. Both agreed that, as Bragen said, “we have to have that conversation now about what the next one is going to be and who is going to pay for it.” And both testified to the constructive benefits of their partnership.

“As artists in different fields, that are challenging fields for different reasons, I find our conversations inspiring because there are commonalities,” Bragen said. “In each field, you start to take certain things for granted in terms of how work gets made. As a playwright, when I see how musicians work, I think, ‘I can learn from that; why am I doing this in this way?’ So it’s been very important to my art, my writing, my thinking about my career and trajectory.”

Ellis seconded the sentiment. “Whenever I do things with Andy, it opens up other avenues,” he said. “Collaboration in general can be like that. We’re working with this person; we create automatically by designing a different kind of problem to solve than I’d create if I was just writing for myself. I like trying to think about that.” Originally Published

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.