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John Ellis & Double Wide: Charm

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If you’re curious what marvels await you on John Ellis & Double-Wide’s Charm, consider the title, along with the fact that this is the quintet’s third album. Tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Ellis’ latest is a heady stew of unparalleled musicianship and melodic inspiration.

The bulk of Charm‘s tracks were written by Ellis during a Make Jazz Fellowship at Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center, and his West Coast sojourn produced 10 exhilarating compositions. “Snake Handler,” driven by Ellis’ tenor, Alan Ferber’s trombone and Gary Versace on organ, slithers like its namesake reptile. “Barbed Wire Britches” is all bite, while “Horse Won’t Trot” lopes along at a woozy yet dignified pace, abetted by Jason Marsalis’ clip-clopping drums. “Old Hotel” blends the cabaret lamentations of Versace’s accordion with a rolling, funeral-march cadence from Marsalis, and the funky “Booker” serves up a melody you’ll happily find stuck in your head for days.

As an instrumentalist Ellis is assured, his solos clean yet structurally unpredictable. Ferber, on his first outing as a full-fledged Double-Wider (he guested on the band’s 2010 album, Puppet Mischief), locks in with Ellis like a Siamese twin, and Marsalis and sousaphonist Matt Perrine offer precise yet playful rhythm support. On the hard-chugging “High and Mighty,” Perrine solos with the surprising agility of a trumpeter, and he finds a bold showcase on the wacky “International Tuba Day,” which plays like a long-lost Raymond Scott recording (Versace’s organ breaks here are genuinely hilarious).

But make no mistake: John Ellis & Double-Wide are as serious as your life, a fact made clear by album-closer “Yearn.” Its church-inflected lines swell with unfulfilled desire; the unresolved coda sends the listener out on an ambiguous footing. Like the strange hat-and-suited creature on its cover, Charm is a rare beast: an authentically artful grand old time.

Originally Published