The inaugural 2016-17 season of the Jazz Arts Group Presents Series ends with a bang this week. John Ellis & Double-Wide, featuring Ellis on saxophones, Alan Ferber on trombone, Matt Perrine on sousaphone, Kendrick Scott on drums and Gary Versace on organ (and more) plays two shows at Notes on Friday, April 21st, at 7:30pm (tickets available here) and 9:30pm (tickets available here). Saxophonist, clarinetist, composer and bandleader Ellis has had a prolific career, releasing his own acclaimed albums as a leader and working with a cavalcade of artists including John Patitucci, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Miguel Zenón, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Charlie Hunter, and Sting. I was fortunate to have the chance to catch up with him on the phone on April 3rd before he traveled to take part in a week-long workshop in Singapore. Keep reading for Ellis’ thoughts on Double-Wide, other projects, and more, along with video of the band and some of his other endeavors.
Can you give us a general idea of what you and Double-Wide will be playing on the 21st?
JE: Our latest record is called Charm. Double-Wide has three albums, and next year it will be 10 years that we’ve been playing, on and off. That project kinda revolves around the sousaphone, so I’m very lucky that my friend who plays sousaphone, Matt Perrine, is coming up from New Orleans for the gig. We’ll probably play mostly stuff from Charm, and then a few things from Puppet Mischief, that was the one before that.
I understand that Kendrick Scott is sitting in for Jason Marsalis on the drums at the Columbus show?
JE: Right, Kendrick’s going to playing with us. We played at Dizzy’s with him, he’s done it a few times. Kendrick I’ve been playing with forever, probably since I was in college. You know, Jason actually lives in France now. He’s still around here and there, he still tries to be here a lot. But he lives in Orleans, “old” Orleans, no longer in New Orleans. So that changes the calculus in terms of getting him on gigs a little bit. But I think I’m going to play with him some in Europe over the summer.
Does Scott replacing Marsalis change the band’s approach at all?
JE: Sure, everybody has a distinctive personality. I would say the overall approach doesn’t really change, but the sound of the music changes somewhat. I would say the change of the sousaphone player changes the identity of the band probably more than any other instrument. That’s the hardest, [Perrine’s] so unusual, he’s so fantastically great. So, times that I’ve done it with people subbing for him, sometimes it’s more different. There’s a handful of drummers I’ve played with that are all equally badass, just different.
With the other projects and everything else you have going on, what keeps you coming back to Double-Wide?
JE: You know, that band’s kinda therapeutic for me. It’s super fun, there’s a lot of humor in it. It’s a different sound, it feels different to play that music in that configuration. I just really enjoy it. It’s a good question, because it’s definitely not super practical. You got a sousaphone player, and a B3 organ – it’s not the easiest thing to do. And a couple of guys live in different towns. But I just enjoy it, I really, really like it. I hope to just keep doing it. It would be awesome to get to the point where we could do it a lot more often. But even if we don’t do it all the time – all of us are doing so many different things – just to have it as a thing that keeps going, and try to do some stuff every year, that’s ideal. One of the difficulties of that particular project is just to do kind of informal gigs to grow the music, because people live in different towns. So I’ve been investigating how I might [grow the music]. Over the past year, basically since Charm came out, I’ve been playing more off-the-radar little gigs in Brooklyn and stuff, just with different people to try to learn the music better, think about what the band could be, just keep it going.
With that said, I assume your future plans are still up in the air?
JE: Always evolving. My next album has been recorded for a year, and it’s not a Double-Wide record. I juggle too many things – I love doing it, but it probably works against me in some kind of “career” way sometimes. I enjoy lots of things. I have this ongoing collaboration with this playwright named Andy Bragen – we did a record called MOBRO that came out a little while back. It has singers, and it’s exploring a narrative idea, so it’s music in the service of some kind of longer narration that’s not just about songs, but over a longer period of time, thinking about storytelling. The idea of storytelling in general is something that very much appeals to me in music. Distinctive personalities and things like that. Double-Wide has that too, of course. So this thing with the playwright, we did MOBRO and we have another one that’s actually slightly older in terms of when we wrote it that’s called The Ice Siren. That’s been recorded for about a year, but I’m just trying to mix it and get it finished. That will probably be the next thing that comes out.
I know you also have a bunch of other projects (as a sideman, etc.). How do you decide which projects to undertake?
JE: [Laughs] I would like to say it’s otherwise, but usually I take what comes. A lot of the things I’m doing I’ve been doing for a long time with people that I really like playing with. I’m playing a lot with a piano player named Helen Sung, I’ve been playing a lot with Dr. Lonnie Smith over the last couple years, I made a couple records with him. Kendrick Scott, he has a few records, and we play here and there too. We just played a gig in Los Angeles. My strategy up to this point has often been to work with other people, take the money I make working with other people, use it to do my own projects, then make myself completely broke, then work with other people and start all over again, make some more money and make another record of my own until I’m broke, and then do it again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. [Laughs] It’s interesting. It’s nice to imagine, and probably many people will try to tell you that the way that they’re doing things is the result of intense, super-intelligent planning and stuff like that. Certainly I’m doing a lot of that, but also it’s just that things happen. You meet people, you enjoy it, something leads to something else. I still work to make enough money to pay for my other projects. I like playing music a lot. So if I have the opportunity to play with people, and I’m not doing something else, I’ll usually do it. There’s just so much to learn from playing music, and from playing music with all different kinds of people, all different kinds of music. I have some friends that are less “blue collar” about it than me, where everything has to be sort of high art, but I’m not like that. I would rather be playing than not playing.
Anything else you’d like to say to people thinking about checking out your band?
JE: I hope they’ll enjoy it. I think this particular band is very unusual, there’s nothing quite like it. Hopefully if people come they’ll agree.