Tenor Titan John Ellis Discusses Sound, Rhythm, and the Music Business
The gifted, versatile saxophonist/clarinetist/composer John Ellis occupies an imaginary (and extremely imaginative) space directly between the celebratory, welcoming spirit of New Orleans and the edgy, frantic streets of New York City. Both as the leader of his own eclectic projects and as an in-demand sideman for a mind-boggling number and variety of artists, Ellis expresses a keen intellect and easy virtuosity while maintaining a mischievous gleam in his eye and never letting tongue stray far from cheek. That combination is best showcased in Ellis’ eccentric combo Double-Wide, which recently released its third album, Charm, on Ellis’ own Parade Light Records. Ellis also leads his own quintet of A-list players, whose most recent release was the 2012 Criss Cross release It’s You I Like featuring songs by singer-songwriter Elliott Smith and legendary kids’ TV host Mr. Rogers. An ambitious composer as well as an agile musician, Ellis in recent years has composed three large-scale narrative pieces commissioned by The Jazz Gallery in collaboration with playwright Andy Bragen (“Dreamscapes”, “The Ice Siren”, and “MOBRO”). The second place winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition in 2002, Ellis has also established himself as one of New York’s premier tenor saxophonists, working with artists as diverse as John Patitucci, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Miguel Zenón, Darcy James Argue, Charlie Hunter, and Sting. His discography lists more than 100 album credits as a sideman, with more than a dozen released in 2014 alone. Ellis grew up in rural North Carolina and pursued his love of music to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and later to New Orleans, where he studied with jazz family patriarch Ellis Marsalis. Ellis released his debut album, The Language of Love, in 1996 and a year later relocated to New York City. Despite the move, the title of his 2005 album One Foot in the Swamp captures his continuing ties to the Bayou, which shines through in the southern-accented, gospel-tinged funk grooves of his music. Ellis has released nine albums as a leader, three of those featuring his urban carnival band Double-Wide.
ZS: What interested you in picking up the saxophone?
JE: I grew up in rural North Carolina, and we had the opportunity to start school band in 6th grade. There was a little presentation for kids where they showed us the instruments, and I loved the saxophone, but they told us it was the most expensive, so I ruled that out right away. I ended up playing clarinet for a year and then switching to the oboe in 7th grade. I didn’t really know what an oboe was, but I knew no one else in the band played it. I first played tenor saxophone in 9th grade when I joined the high school marching band, because you couldn’t march with an oboe. They let me borrow a school horn that was really busted up, but it was a lot of fun. The older I got, the more I was looking for an escape route from my small town, and I managed to get into the North Carolina School of the Arts as an oboe major in 10th grade. Around that time I was becoming very interested in jazz, and for my junior year I somehow convinced them to let me switch to the saxophone and still stay in the school. I didn’t see much future for myself as a jazz oboist, and playing in the orchestra wasn’t really something that appealed to me at the time.
ZS: What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the saxophonist you are today?
JE: Without a doubt my most important saxophone mentor was James Houlik, who was my teacher at The North Carolina School of the Arts from 1990 to 1993. He was the one who was brave enough to take the risk on me that allowed me to stay in the school. As a teacher, he had an extraordinary knack for finding pieces for his students that were just out of reach and then he would develop technical exercises based on the music. So learning technique was never for its own sake. I was also essentially a saxophone beginner when I started with him, but I had studied music fairly seriously on other instruments, so it was an unusual situation that allowed me to progress very quickly.
Although his primary focus was classical saxophone, and more specifically on helping to develop the repertoire for the classical tenor, he was very open to the idea that I wanted to play jazz. His main concern was that I played the saxophone well and didn’t use genre or style choices as an excuse to avoid the highest standards of instrumental excellence.
In 1993, I moved to New Orleans to try to learn more about jazz. Ellis Marsalis and Harold Battiste had just recently started a program at UNO, and many of my NCSA friends who were just a little older had already headed down there to try to learn from them. The teaching approach of Harold and Ellis was very apprenticeship oriented, and I consider them both among the greatest teacher/mentors I ever had. Soon I was playing in Ellis’ band, and I did my first road gigs with his quartet when I was 18. I left the school after just one year, as I had lots of performing opportunities around the city, and I was learning more from those experiences at that time. I finished up my formal studies from 1997-1999 at The New School, just after I moved to NYC. There were many great teachers there, but my main mentors were George Garzone, who was my primary saxophone teacher during those years, and Robert Sadin, who inspired me to write more ambitious and involved pieces (such as MOBRO and The Ice Siren) and to approach studying and composing “classical” music with fearlessness, imagination, and as a process of discovery – more like an improviser.
ZS: What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JE: This could really be seen as two different and important questions. The first involves honesty and style – the “your” sound part. How do you develop a voice or personal style? How do you learn language? The second question is more basic, but also connected to the first: How does one develop a good sound? What are ways to work on tone production? Probably the tendency is to talk too much about the first question and not work hard enough on facing the second, so I’ll give one answer to this second question and leave the first for another time.
When I was studying with Mr Houlik, he introduced me to the concept of practicing the overtone series, and to the book “Top Tones for the Saxophone” by Sigurd Rascher. I wasn’t able to play in the altissimo register at all, which was very frustrating. I discovered that I could focus on the first three partials (so from the lowest Bb that would be: Bb one octave above, F a 5th above that, and Bb two octaves above) and just try to perfect them without worrying about playing higher. I spent about a year when I was in high school playing the following overtone exercise for at least 45 minutes every day:
1) Long tones with the tongue on low Bb. Play the fundamental (low Bb) many times in a row and hold the note for as long as possible. Breathe deeply and slowly (I like to imagine the breath starting from the bottom of my feet). Focus on making the note beginning as clear as possible as it’s very easy for this note to bark out and be out of control. Sometimes it’s useful to set a number, almost like reps in weightlifting – ‘I’m going to play the low Bb 15 times in a row’, for example
2) Play the first three partials (or whichever ones you can play) without the tongue and try to make the note beginning as clear as possible and exactly where you intend it – this is partly an exercise in being honest with yourself. Did the note start where I meant for it to? Did it start later? Be focused on the clearest possible note beginning without the tongue, but hold out the notes for as long as possible. Don’t allow yourself to descend into that hiccupping, short-breath, rapid-fire, beat-your head-against-the-wall approach that so many of us fall into when working on overtones.
3) Once you’re feeling good about clear note beginnings with no tongue, add long tones with extreme crescendo and decrescendo. So, still with no tongue, start the note from the quietest possible dynamic and then smoothly and over the longest possible amount of time, increase the volume. So you will be at your loudest when the note ends (and when you have the least air). Then reverse it, so start the note (again with no tongue) at your loudest possible dynamic and slowly and smoothly decrescendo over the longest possible amount of time.
This will help with tonal imagination, intonation, breath support, tongue position and vocalization, uniform tone color, dynamic control, etc. It also will help you play in the altissimo, but think about the high notes as a less important secondary byproduct of developing a more profound overall connection to the saxophone.
ZS: What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JE: My thinking on rhythm starts from a couple assumptions. One is that rhythm has a point of view – this essentially means that we orient ourselves by pulse or weight and that influences how we perceive the rhythm around us. The simplest way to demonstrate this is with the basic 2 against 3 polyrhythm. Clap 3 in your hands for every 2 that you stomp with your feet. Then count out loud to 3 over and over in sync with your hands. Without changing your clapping or stomping, count to 2 (or 4) in sync with your feet. Go back and forth from the 2 side to the 3 side without changing what your hands or feet are doing. If you can orient yourself to experiencing the 2 from the 3 side and the 3 from the 2 side, you’ll see what I mean about point of view. This pertains to polyrhythms but also to just playing in 4 – it’s a very different experience to orient yourself to the upbeats (2 and 4) v.s. half notes or quarter notes or whole notes. Often notation can lead us to a limited view of pulse options, much more limited than if we’re just figuring things out by ear. The more options you have with pulse the more rhythmically interactive you can be with the musicians you’re playing with. Another possibly obvious assumption is that rhythm is the most important of the three elements of music. Strangely it’s often the one given the least amount of focus in institutionalized jazz education, at least when I was in school. Mostly rhythm is talked about in generalities – you’re rushing, you’re dragging, you have bad time, you have good time. Or even worse, as mystical innate qualities that you’re born with and can’t change – “you either have it or you don’t.” In my own practice I look for ways to work on rhythm that involve keeping track of ‘this’ against ‘that’, as saxophonists can only play one note at a time and don’t easily get the feeling of playing two or three simultaneous rhythmic interactive parts. I do a lot of hands plus feet plus singing (or playing) exercises, often focused on isolating triplets against bell patterns and things like that. I look for rhythmic problems that have clear right and wrong solutions, that are more like juggling or dancing. Then I practice tunes incorporating the rhythmic things I’m working on, where I can play any pitches I want to but I have to play specific rhythms and keep track of the form. This can start to separate your relationship to a song from the vocabulary you’ve memorized – the rhythm starts to lead rather than the pitches, and it’s very liberating. If anyone wants to hear more specifics about this, feel free to reach out to me directly.
ZS: Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
JE: Truthfully, I hate the music business. But I love music. My suggestion is don’t think of a life in music as a business. I think you have to be smart, you have to be strategic, you have to make sure you’re not being taken advantage of, you have to search for some way to sustain yourself (and these are real and difficult issues) but you don’t want to let the pursuit of money and business-type thinking rule you. It will destroy your art. I was attracted to this life because I felt it more as a calling and a chance to be a life-long learner. Every time I have some disappointment the first thing I ask myself is how can I improve, how can I get better. If you can maintain your child-like love for music in the midst of the chaos and general unfairness of the changing music business you will have deep and lasting musical relationships and you will find others who are creative and relentlessly pursuing beauty. The collapse of recorded music as a potential revenue stream has definitely thrown all of our lives into disarray, but even more than ever we should be striving to make exactly the music we want to make. The sad truth is that the records we’re making probably won’t sell no matter what they are, so let’s make sure they’re as honest and timeless as possible, that we can look back on them in 200 years and say, “that’s the best and most honest work we could possibly have done at that time.”
ZS: Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JE: Lots, here’s a few off the top of my head: Kenny Dorham “Quiet Kenny” “Jerome Kern Showboat”, Anderson .Paak “Malibu”, Jimmy Giuffre, “New York Concerts”, James Booker “Junco Partner” Albert Ayler “Love Cry” Eddie Harris, “The In Sound”
ZS: What’s the next musical frontier for you?
JE: Good question. I still mostly make my living playing and recording with other people, but I love making my own records, and I’m always trying to perform more as a leader. 2016 marks my 20th year recording my own records, and I just recorded my 10th record as a leader at the end of March. This one is a piece called “The Ice Siren”, and I wrote it way back in 2009. A commission from The Jazz Gallery, it was created in collaboration with playwright Andy Bragen, and it’s an hour-long narrative work featuring string quartet, tuba, percussion, guitar, vibes, and two vocalists. I started my own record label in 2014 called Parade Light Records, and this will be my third release on that label. My most recent release, “Charm”, came out last September, and it features my New Orleans oriented group called Double-Wide. I’ll also be touring Japan with a trio featuring Kendrick Scott and Yasushi Nakamura in June. As I sideman, I’m playing fairly often in the bands of Kendrick Scott, Helen Sung, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Darcy James Argue, Alan Ferber, and many others.
ZS: What’s your current setup?
Soprano: Yamaha 675
Tenor: Selmer Mark VI 1963
KB Redwood brass
Soprano: Aizen SO 7
Tenor: old Morgan 8L refaced by Adam Niewood
Soprano: Marca 3
Tenor: Rigotti 3.5 medium
Soprano: Francois Louis Pure Brass Ligature
Tenor: Abelet Bubinga Ligature
KB Saxophone Services and JL Woodwind Repair
John Ellis YouTube
John Ellis Website
September 18, 2018 @ 3:18 pm
I had the privilege of trading fours with John some years ago when he visited University of New Orleans. He is truly a gifted artist and doesn’t get the recognition that he should. I love most everything about his playing and aspire to be as true an artist as he is.