TVD Show of the Week: John Ellis and Double Wide at Snug Harbor, tonight, 8/2

The saxophonist will be performing two sets at 8 and 10 PM with his mostly New Orleans-based ensemble that features Matt Perrine and Jason Marsalis. Since I have been listening to his new album, It’s You I Like, I thought I would share my thoughts.

When I first listen to new music I usually do it blind. I don’t look at the liner notes, the players or the song titles. Theoretically this makes me a good candidate for a digital-only listener. But I like holding an album in my hand and eventually I like all that information. I also prefer the sound of the older technologies. Plus, listening on my computer seems too much like work.

When I first put on It’s You I Like, I was struck initially by its seemingly reductive nature. I thought the music harkened back to Ellis’ first album, The Language of Love, when he was just developing his craft and played mostly standards. There’s nothing overtly adventurous about it especially compared with my favorite of his recent efforts, Puppet Mischief.

The musicians play with impeccable taste—there’s an inventive guitarist, a stunning pianist and a killer rhythm section. Ellis sounds as good as ever. The songs sound like standards, but I didn’t recognize any of them save the last. It’s a solo sax version of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which was actually written by Mister Rogers himself. FYI—It’s an incredible version.

So after the first two listens, I pulled out the liner notes and discovered that most of the songs, including the title track, were written by Fred Rogers for his PBS program that was a staple of educational television for decades.

There are also three songs, including “Memory Lane,” the second cut and the first to feature guitarist Mike Moreno, which were written by Elliot Smith. I had never heard his music before and only knew what every person in the music industry knows about the troubled singer/songwriter. He died of stab wounds at the age of 34 that may or may not have been self-inflicted.

What all this adds up to is a concept album of sorts that plumbs the mysteries of two very different men. Ellis says in the liner notes, “I’d fantasized about doing more elaborate projects on each of them separately. Their music has resonated with me for different reasons and I felt they’d balance each other out…. It was an opportunity to record songs that feel like jazz songs, like standards, but aren’t traditionally known as such.”

If you listen to this album blind, you will most likely not recognize the songs (except the last) unless you are a serious devotee or either Rogers or Smith. But you will know that you are hearing a group of musicians that are at the top of their game exploring music in all of its myriad permutations.

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