The Sounds Around the House
Sometimes a musician can get comfortable as an in-demand sideman and it takes a little push to step forward as a leader. Such is the case with tenor saxophonist Jeff Ellwood who steps into that role for the first time with The Sounds Around the House. In his case, it took a promise to a dying friend, Ellwood having made that promise to bass player Roger Shew, his bandmate and friend who passed far too young in 2016. Shew knew that he wouldn’t be around but encouraged to take the step. Ellwood had built his reputation in Southern California as a consummate improviser and had a history with various luminaries but most importantly as a key member of Alan Pasqua’s band for seven years. Pasqua returns the favor by playing piano, co-producing with Ellwood, and contributing three of the compositions.
Together, he and Pasqua recruited some of the area’s best players including master reedist Bob Sheppard who duets with Ellwood on Dick Oatts’ “King Henry” in the tradition of ‘tenor madness,’ albeit a solemn ballad. The rhythm tandem of bassist Darek Oles and Bill Evans’ last drummer, Joe LaBarbera round out the accompaniment for that tune and serve to round out the backing quartet for most of the project. Ellwood delivers robust tone, with an accent on melody. The chemistry between he and Pasqua is palpable and the weighting of the album toward ballad material, somewhat evokes s the style of Ben Webster although, of course, Webster has his own unique breathy tone. Ellwood is a straight-ahead player whose tone more resembles Dexter Gordon or Hank Mobley.
Ellwood opens with his original, “U-R,” a contrafact based on “All the Things You Are,” a perennial favorite among tenor players. The first of Pasqua’s compositions, the gorgeous ballad “Agrodolche” follows, a tune that Ellwood played while in Pasqua’s band. The two play the theme in unison, and trade leads with their own quiet statements as Oles has his own lyrical lines underneath. The tempos picks up on the second Pasqua tune, “Old School Blues,” which shifts back and forth between major and minor blues, featuring especially nice Ellwood delivery in the lower registers, and economical solo spots for the rhythm sections. The third Pasqua piece “Barcelona,” comes in the second half, another familiar tune from his days in Pasqua’s band but one he wanted to reinvent slightly.
The highly melodic “Provence,” written by Rick Margitza, a major influence on Ellwood, is another at ballad tempo as is the title track, a gorgeous lesser-known standard by Alec Wilder and Johnny Mercer, first recorded in 1976 by Dick Haymes. This is where the echoes of Ben Webster come into play, most prominently, although as alluded to, Ellwood’s tone is sharper and more precise compared to the breathy sensual type of the former. Nonetheless, similar feelings can attribute to both when listening to this delicate rendering.
The requisite tempo change comes with “King Henry” as Ellwood and Sheppard engage in a friendly cutting session much the way Oatts did when he recorded the tune with fellow tenorist, Jerry Bergonzi. LaBarbera creates quite a stir behind them, for the album’s most energetic track by far. Ellwood also performs a composition from Oles, “The Honeymoon,” a bright swinger, that also gives the bassist and drummer opportunities to make their own bold statements, as Ellwood, seemingly uncharacteristically shows his chops in screeches and squawks for the only time. Just the two of them collaborate reverently on the closer, “For Roger,” written by L.A. pianist and organist Joe Bagg for Roger Shew, with Oles, perhaps Shew’s favorite bassist, taking that part.
For pure, melodic tenor saxophone playing and sensitive accompaniment from the band members, this is as good as you’ll find. Let’s hope we hear more from Ellwood as a leader as this one of the strongest efforts led by any tenor saxophonist this writer has heard this year.
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