Jeff Ellwood’s new breakout CD is a collection of tracks that showcase a diversity of approaches on tenor sax. Called “The Sounds Around the House,” it features his tenor as the main speaker, and for a debut album, it showcases his strong appreciation of melody, his technical skills and an overall TLC for the art form.
The ensemble here plays like a family that shares in each other’s successes, and their affection for the music comes through in all colors in the piano, percussion and bass. The sax waxes lyrical in “Barcelona”, a series of uphills and downhills that give a nice flow to the track. In “The Honeymoon” there’s a killer melody that has sass and attitude and he plays it to the hilt. The piano solo takes off, and the sax returns the melody that soars outside the lines. For something more ethereal, “Provence” starts off breathing and sighing, soon supplanted with a wide, sweet vibe on sax that plays with the theme and is sprinkled prettily by piano. “Old School Blues” evokes the bop that Ellwood feels so comfortable in. The title track of this CD is a stunning and sensitive ballad that has the potential to be a modern-day classic, standing tall with other tenor masters.
How does it feel to come out with your debut album?
It feels great. There have been a lot of people encouraging me to do it for some time. One of the main reasons for doing it was to fulfill a promise to a friend of mine, Roger Shew, who unfortunately passed away from cancer. He and I talked a lot about doing a record and initially I had envisioned him playing on it with me, but things unfortunately didn’t work out that way. The last track on the CD “For Roger” is for him. He was a bass player, so it’s fitting that I did a duo with one of his favorite bass players, Darek Oles.
What inspired the title “The Sounds Around the House”?
I stumbled across this old Alec Wilder standard The Sounds Around the House. After we recorded it, we all looked at each other and said that’s the name of the record. As a coincidence it I have a colleague I work with at the college I teach at [Mt. San Antonio College] who is an amazing photographer. I saw the photo I used for the CD cover a few days before we recorded, so I had that vision in the back of my head when recording the tune.
Did you have a particular vibe in mind when you wrote the album?
I am a musician whose main focus is melody. The vibe was to play tunes that weren’t complicated for the sake of being complicated. Within those parameters, you can play music that gives varying levels of energy. I don’t write a ton of songs so I reached out to people whose compositions I admire. People like Alan Pasqua, Dick Oatts, Rick Margitza. Also, for me, melody drives improvisation. For me to be inspired to play on the tune, I have to love more than just the chord changes. They melody is the driving force.
What was the most challenging aspect of production (minus COVID)? What was the most enjoyable?
Luckily there weren’t any challenges is the production. This came together really easy. Picking the tunes was probably the biggest challenge because there are so many tunes I love. The recording engineer Tally Sherwood at Tritone Studio made it so easy to just come in and play. He knows what a jazz record should sound like. The most enjoyable aspect was just getting in there and playing without any preconceived idea about what was going to happen.
How did you meet your band members and what do they bring to your desired sound?
I was fortunate to meet Alan Pasqua in 2003 when I was a participant at the Henry Mancini Institute. Alan came in to give a clinic and fortunately he liked my playing and asked me to join is quartet. I played with Alan for six or seven years. Those years were essential in my growth as a musician. That group taught me how to let the music breathe. It forced me out of musical clichés and, most importantly, what it was like to play with musicians with no agenda. They listened and were there to support me on my musical journey. Darek Oles was also in the quartet, so it was a no-brainer that I would call them to play on my record. Joe LaBarbera is an absolute legend and I played with him in a variety of situations and he’s always was so swinging that I knew that I had to have his presence.
Do you have a favorite between soprano and tenor? How do you choose the right one for each song?
I only play tenor on this CD and mostly only do. I have chosen to put all my effort into one horn and really develop my own voice on that particular horn. I never really wanted to be a multi-reed player. I was always inspired by musicians like Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Michael Brecker, Rick Margitza and Jerry Bergonzi. I mostly heard them play one horn, and being so identifiable on it made me follow that same path. That ultimately can be problematic trying to have a career as a working musician, which was the reason I chose to go into education. It allows me the freedom to play the way I want to play and be true to my artistic vision.
What’s the most important thing you learned from your music training? What was the most useless?
I don’t know if I can think of useless things. Those useless things inform what I find to be useful. The most important thing I’ve learn from my training and musical journey: Less is more!
What non-musical themes/ideas did you want to convey with the new CD?
Things don’t have to be complicated to be good. There is beauty in simplicity. Search for things on a deeper level and present them with passion and honesty.
Where and how have you been performing during the lockdown?
I haven’t been doing much of anything except for occasionally posting some videos on Facebook or Instagram. There is a great group on Facebook called Jam of the Week that focuses on a new tune or composer every week, so it gives me something to play. Because of that I either learn a new tune, dust off one I used to know or just play a tune I already know. It’s one way to get some music to the people and give me something to shed.
Do you have upcoming gigs scheduled for 2021?
I have nothing scheduled. I have a full-time job running a college jazz program, so 2021 is mainly focused on how to get back into the classroom and get my program up and running again.
What is your advice to colleagues and friends about persevering in these difficult times?
I don’t have anything profound to say except keep your head up and take the time to really see what is important in your life.
How does music enhance your life?
Music defines everything that I am. It gives me purpose. More importantly, I hope that my music can enhance another person’s life. My goal every day as an educator in to inspire people to see things on a deeper level, work hard, be passionate and develop their own sense of purpose through music, even if they don’t make music their life’s path.
For more information visit https://www.jeffellwood.net.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) 2020 Debbie Burke