The latest album from the N’Orleans flavored John Ellis & Double-Wide, Puppet Mischief, kicks off like a powering up freight train. The tastily titled lead track, “Okra & Tomatoes”, opens solid and expands out in it’s 8 minutes into an epic poetic journey, that is delicate, tender, and introspective while, at the same time focused and driving. The secret weapon of the group, Matt Perrine, keeps the most powerful, solid bass lines flowing from his sousaphone and provides a foundation, along with drummer Jason Marsalis, that allows for master multi-instrumentalist Ellis to patiently tease out his melodies.
In addition to the superb playing throughout the album, the compositions, all by Ellis, are outstanding. That is for good reason, he has been at this for a long and dedicated while and has honed his chops with some of the best in the game including Ellis Marsalis and Charlie Hunter. In his writing, Ellis really has a knack for infusing that subtle New Orleans undercurrent into just about any flavor he is concocting.
On top of the 4-piece core, which includes newest band member and veteran Big Easy session master Brian Coogan on organ, there are 2 special guests who appear on various tracks and help more fully realize the compositional genius that is present throughout. Trombonist Alan Ferber adds a nice brass compliment and, along with harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, infuses a unique and uplifting vibe and texture to the album, as a whole, that helps define it as unique even within Ellis’ own magnificent catalogue.
There are some real gems on this deliberate and pointed monster of an album. The title track is a driving piece that just glides on top of Marsalis’ precise masterful drumming. Like most of the tracks, this one has many different sections that all compliment each other very well and give the players room to state their cases. In the middle of this track there is a very remarkably intricate web weaved by the harmonica, sousaphone, and drums that just leaves one with a jaw-on-the-floor, searching for words, kind of feeling. Immediately following that craziness is “Carousel” which hints directly at the classic Miles Davis definer, Bitches Brew, with that spirit peaking in and out of the drumming and organ in a very pronounced way.
The modern New York City signature jazz sound leaning “Dewey Dah” winds up slowly and resolves into a deep soulful progression that is like a warm swim on a cool night. Like with his previous album, Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow, Ellis chooses the most perfect song of the bunch to close out the set. “This Too Shall Pass” is an emotionally charged expression, full of longing and reflection, with Maret moaning and weeping while tearing down walls with his harmonica, before Ellis puts the perfect harmonic cherry on top of this fine, fine statement of decadent delights.