The Name Game: John Ellis And Olivier Manchon
by Patrick Jarenwattananon
Here's a good reminder of why it pays to pay attention to who's in the band.
Some time ago, I built for Web this studio performance with My Brightest Diamond, from WNYC's Soundcheck. Besides being an exhibition for the phenomenal voice (and compositional talents) of lead singer Shara Worden, that session also featured a string quartet including violinist Olivier Manchon. That name kept popping up -- in Sufjan Stevens' string section for one, and in creating indie pop with his wife in the band Clare and the Reasons. By this point, I was picturing some conservatory-trained composer who fell in with the indie-rock crowd, and found himself with one foot in each world.
So I perked up when I saw Manchon made a solo record on ObliqSound, a label known for progressive jazz and its cousins. And reading the press material, I saw that it was basically a modified string quartet album featuring the improvisations of a fellow Brooklyn musician in saxophonist John Ellis (and a few others). Strings + John Ellis I know to be a winning combination, and it is again here. Here's "Come Back," from Olivier Manchon's new Orchestre de Chambre Miniature, Vol. 1:
"Come Back," from Olivier Manchon, Orchestre de Chambre Miniature, Vol. 1 (ObliqSound). Olivier Manchon, violin; Hiroko Taguchi, viola; Christopher Hoffman, cello; Alan Hampton, bass; John Ellis, tenor saxophone. Released Feb. 9, 2010.
Turns out that Manchon studied jazz at Berklee, and even cut a self-released jazz album with what would become the Lionel Loueke trio (who I am presuming he met at Berklee). "Come Back" and other Orchestre Miniature songs are on that record too. But his orchestral pop tendencies are also grounded in plenty of experience: he's spent plenty of time in Broadway pits, and according to the Montreal Mirror, considers Van Dyke Parks -- king of orchestral pop arranging, if there ever was one -- his mentor. It makes for a jazz/classical hybrid in the vein of Stan Getz's Focus -- which I consider to be a good thing.
But enough with the setup already. Little of it would work without Ellis, whose sweet-and-sour tone is one of the most recognizable of the modern era. And -- will you look at that -- John Ellis has his own ObliqSound record out today too.
Puppet Mischief is the second album from John Ellis and Double-Wide. It's a somewhat unconventional band -- sax, organ, sousaphone, drums -- whose other members live in New Orleans. Ellis spent some formative years there too, and is proud of his time. This is key to the band's aesthetic; hear the title track:
"Puppet Mischief," from John Ellis and Double-Wide, Puppet Mischief (ObliqSound). John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Brian Coogan, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone; Jason Marsalis, drums; Gregoire Maret, harmonica. Released Feb. 23, 2010.
That groove says parade, but the instrumentation and composition around it -- it's a bit whimsically off-kilter, no? The sousaphone line feels like the bass of a brass band, but the groove swings like modern jazz -- and where are the other horns? Why does the "B" section resolve so unexpectedly into that ostinato tuba thump? What's with the spare background to the harmonica solo? Other songs on Puppet Mischief, and on the somewhat-overlooked Dance Like There's No Tomorrow, play up the New-Orleans-with-a-twist idea even further -- but never too far. See also: The Checkout studio session with John Ellis.
And above it all, John Ellis soars. There's something about his fingerpainting lyricism, combined with his unique massage of his attack, that would be right at home working on standards. But he decides instead to write peg-legged settings for his own band, and also acquits himself in front of an unconventional chamber string ensemble. We're richer for it.
Finally, to tie off this name-game loop: do check out the phenomenal harmonica solo from Gregoire Maret. (Yes, that's right: "phenomenal harmonica solo.") If the press notes are to believed, Maret is a good friend of Olivier Manchon -- and makes a guest appearance on that album too.
Related At NPR Music: John Ellis and Double-Wide on JazzSet. His essay about the New Orleans Saints. And playing with Anne Mette Iversen's string quartet project. Meanwhile, Olivier Manchon with Clare and the Reasons. And playing with My Brightest Diamond.
8:51 PM ET | 02-23-2010 | permalink