Saturday, August 22, 2020

Saxophonist John Ellis and Playwright Andy Bragen Create a Jazz/Chamber Opera with "The Ice Siren"

The Ice Siren by John Ellis and Andy Bragen

In March of this year, the talented multi-reed musician/composer John Ellis released a recording of a unique jazz chamber/opera/musical theater inspired project that he completed and originally debuted live at the Jazz Gallery’s Large Composer’s Series back in May of 2009. The impressive hour-long composition was titled The Ice Siren, with music by Ellis and a libretto by playwright Andy Bragen, with whom he had previously collaborated on their freer formed 2007-piece Dreamscapes.

John Ellis yields from rural North Carolina and studied at North Carolina School of Arts in Winston-Salem. In 1993 the saxophonist went to New Orleans, absorbing the Delta’s vibe and eventually studying and playing with the pianist Ellis Marsalis. By 1997, the saxophonist relocated to New York City. As a talented sideman, he has worked for jazz artists like bassist John Patitucci, drummer Rudy Royston, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, altoist Miguel Zenon and seven-string guitar wizard Charlie Hunter to name a few.

I first saw Ellis back in 2011 when he was a member of composer Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society orchestra. I went to the BAM to experience the exciting, musical, and multi-media production of Brooklyn Babylon, with Argue’s expressive music, joined with “in time” graphic work of artist Danijel Zezalp. It was spectacular.

Right away Ellis’ playing caught my eye. He was obviously skilled at multiple reeds, with great tone, but he had an unassuming approach that made it all seem deceptively effortless. He was someone to watch.

With all his diverse musical experiences, there is no wonder that Ellis’ musical sound has absorbed the laid back qualities of his rural south, the spirit of the jazz tradition from New Orleans and has been invigorated by the edgy attack of modernism and hard bop from New York’s scene. To get a sense of his most recent saxophone work, I suggest Ellis’ recently released trio album When theWorld Was Young, which has six selections joyously played and featuring John Ellis’ sumptuous tone and  accompanied by Madison Rast on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums.

John Ellis When the World Was Young

Producing and composing for a challenging jazz chamber/opera project like 
The Ice Siren requires a more expansive set of skills and saxophonist Ellis and his score is impressive and effective. The story partially draws from the eeriness of a surreal nightmare, the relentless anxiety realized with a lost romance and the sorcery of being contacted by an otherworldly specter, yet maintaining an almost perverse sense of humor throughout it all. It is like a fractured musical fairy tale conceived by a mind that might very well have been Tim Burton's, but it is Ellis and Bragen's macabre and funny creation.

A distraught lover, whose dilemma is brought to life by Miles Griffith’s energized voice, mourns the loss of his deceased and beloved Melusina, captured with cool eloquence by the wispy voice of Gretchen Parlato. Melusina captivates him with her siren-like call. In a surreal nightmare, the ice siren mesmerizes him to join her in the depths of the frozen afterlife that is her eternal domain.

It is no doubt that Bragen and Ellis work marvelously together in this hybrid opera/ chamber jazz/ theatrical format. The words become alive and the story is energized by Griffith and Parlato’s fetching vocals. Ellis’ music masterfully employs an eleven-piece orchestra, which besides the two lead vocalists spins an eerie and convincing aural background for the story. The orchestra features Ellis on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet, Marcus Rojos on tuba (in lieu of bass), Mike Moreno on guitar, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, glockenspiel and chimes, Daniel Sadownick on drums and percussion, Daniel Friedman on additional percussion, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Hiroko Taguchi on violin, Oliver Manchon on violin, Todd Low, viola and is conducted by J.C. Sanford.

Listen to Ellis’ splendid arrangements like Parlato’s haunting voice on “Melusina’s Siren Song” with Ellis’ bass clarinet surrounded by gorgeous string arrangements in an eerie call to her lover. Or listen to the plaintive voice of Miles Griffith as he negotiates the difficult modulating lines on “She Knows Her Face,” answering his lover Melusina’s ghostly presence. Moreno’s frenetic guitar backed the sighing strings and a blustering Rojas’ tuba all build the scene. Dingman's ethereal vibes and Ellis' large toned tenor also creatively add to the mix. The story, the voices the music’s expressive arrangement are all there to offer an exploratory adventure to anyone listening.

It is so inspiring to see musicians expand their territories and challenge themselves by pushing the boundaries of where jazz, chamber music and tangentially related art forms like opera and theater can be so skillfully meshed.
A project like this also has the added reward of employing multiple skilled musicians which is an increasingly difficult achievement in this socially dividing era.

If you have only heard and enjoyed Ellis’ woodwind work with a plethora of jazz and pop artists, or in his own progressive group like Double Wide, then the arrival of this marvelous piece of his storytelling, The Ice Siren, is a worthwhile discovery. This project elevates John Ellis from his place as a formidable saxophonist and launches him into the realm of establishing himself as a talented large-format composer/arranger.