‘A Special’ John Ellis Solo 

by Russ Nolan

Note: it takes a minute before the manuscript focuses on YouTube. The PDF can be downloaded here.

How many of you remember the classic children’s TV show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’? Well, even if some of you didn’t grow up watching it, everyone will appreciate John Ellis’ recent Criss Cross Jazz release featuring six classic Fred Rogers songs with wonderful arrangements.  It’s a complete recording and highly recommended.

Each one of John’s solos could be a worthy transcription from this record, but I chose ‘You Are Special’ for several reasons:

1)     It’s a complete solo in three choruses. Very conversational, lyrical, and yet effortlessly infuses modern harmony. Along with his time, his technique is flawless but used judiciously in service to the music.

2)     Although there is no chord instrument, John is very clear about the harmony without being bound by it. Matt Penman (bass) provides a strong foundation as well. More than a few instrumentalists lose focus without the support of chords—it’s easy to do…

3)     ‘It’s not easy being ‘Green’ ‘ –yes, a different TV reference—but it sure is easy playing with Rodney Green! Dang, how can anyone not sound their best with him in the band? I love the interplay throughout, especially mm. 71-75.

4)     Notice John’s rhythmic Whole Step modulation leading into the 3rd Chorus (mm. 82-85). Creative harmonic and rhythmic superimpositions are the mark of an exciting improviser.

Whether as a leader or a first-call sideman, John always delivers a top quality performance on all levels, from his mastery of the instrument, the music material, and one can feel a little helpin’ of his Southern Gentleman charm! I can’t wait for the next one!

John-Ellis- It's You I Like-alt


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1 Comment
  1. I love this. I was John’s manager for a spell, during the time of his three-cd deal with Hyena/Ryko (Joel Dorn/Kevin Calabro).
    Actually what sent me here today was a totally random topic: there was an early review of John’s session that the snarky writer said something about the band being too stiff and that they must have left the hangers in their suit jackets, which we took to be a reference to the attire worn by Wyntom Marsalis’ orchestra although besides being in New Orleans for a while, John had no connection to that group — Jason Marsalis was his drummer, tho. But my response was also that John and his friends wore knit ski caps on stage more than pork pie hats. While looking for jazz guys wearing knit caps (i.e. like Pearl Jam more than Lester Young. Yet here he has a brimmed hat.

    He is under-rated, even still.

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