JOHN ELLIS & DOUBLE WIDE
March 4, 2010
by J Hunter
Here’s a tip: If you see me going into any concert space on a weeknight, drop whatever you’re doing and follow me inside. At my advancing age, covering a show on a school night is not on the agenda any more… unless, of course, something potentially monstrous is going to happen. In that light, the opportunity to see John Ellis & Double Wide in a club like Red Square was something that could not be passed up – and if it weren’t for some miraculous electrical work, the show might not have happened.
Ellis’ first recording with Double Wide, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow (Hyena, 2008) made my Top 10 list a couple of years ago with a sound I can only call “NOLA Alternative”: The former Charlie Hunter sideman took the kind of challenging alt-jazz springing from the new breed of New Orleans jazzer (Stanton Moore, Christian Scott, Skerik, Bobby Previte), and then mixed in Matt Perrine’s booming sousaphone to give the proceedings an Old School brass band texture. That disc was way too much fun, so when I heard Ellis was bringing the “drop tour” for Double Wide’s new release Puppet Mischief (ObliqSound, 2010) to Albany, I told myself, “Sleep is overrated!”
The thing is, though, technical issues nearly blew up the show. The power cord for Brian Coogan’s Wurlitzer went AWOL after Double Wide’s gig in Philadelphia, and even though Ellis had brought a bigger lineup than he had on No Tomorrow (Ellis was pleased to tell us that this was “the exact band from the disc.”), the keyboard is a key voice in the sound Ellis has created. Fortunately, Coogan and the road manager had seen a few episodes of MacGyver, so they jury-rigged another power cable and got the Wurly going. The cob-job did come with a fairly loud ground hum, but that just added to the punk-jazz atmosphere, and the delay in show time meant the late-arriving crowd was starting to build when Ellis counted the group into the opener “Okra & Tomatoes.”
Although Ellis can do subtle with the best of them, watching him blow like an erupting volcano is an amazing sight to see and hear. It’s not just loud, it’s good, and I mean REALLY good, with notes coming in short bursts and massive floods, all with this deep dark harmonic that whispers, “Come over to the Dark Side, Luke!” On “Dewy Dah”, he showed he can not only fly high, but he can operate at that height, launching lines that were fast and rich. On top of his technical expertise, Ellis’ writing is infinitely exciting and always comes with a heaping side order of mojo. The title track of Mischief danced out of the box after a terrific free opening by Coogan and trombonist Alan Ferber, and the closer “Break Tune” left the crowd completely slack-jawed.
Given the last-minute machinations that Coogan had to go through to get his instrument working, it was a wonder he could make any contribution at all. Therefore, the blistering electric piano sound he brought on every tune was an absolute knockout. It buzzed, it sizzled, and it completely obliterated the high-water marks Gary Versace had made on No Tomorrow. If Coogan is smart, he’ll carry that jury-rig everywhere he goes from now on. There was nothing jury-rigged about Gregoire Maret’s passionate harmonica work. Looking like a Yale freshman that had fallen in with a Grunge band, his solo on the encore “This Too Shall Pass” just kept winding up and up and up!
Then there was Ellis’ not-so-secret weapon – drummer Jason Marsalis, who could turn out to be the most interesting member of NOLA’s royal family: His last disc Music Update featured Marsalis on vibes, an instrument he only took up a few years ago, and he did damn well. Here, he was behind his regular kit, and he was nothing short of titanic. The spare foundation they made for “Puppet” kept the piece moving forward while giving Coogan and Ferber space to work, and Marsalis’ utterly tore it up in the clear on “Héroes de Acción.”
With a band this hot and music this exciting, it’s no wonder John Ellis & Double Wide left the crowd screaming like banshees. That screaming stayed in my head for a long time, but I didn’t mind. Like I said: Sleep is overrated.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.