One foot in the swamp
John Ellis

Saxophonist John Ellis has had one foot in the swamp for a long time. Moving to New Orleans shortly after high school, he's studied with Ellis Marsalis and Harold Battiste, and toured with Walter Payton. His rhythm section here is comprised of Crescent City native drummer Jason Marsalis (one of Ellis Marsalis's talented progeny) and bassist Roland Guerin, each of whom have employed John Ellis in their own bands.

Walter Payton's son Nicholas brings his electronically harmonized trumpet to a half-dozen of the tracks, and Ellis provides him with the sort of spacescapes heard on Payton's own "Sonic trance" album. John Scofield's immediately recognizable guitar work is heard on two cuts, and Gregoire Maret, with whom Ellis has played in Charlie Hunter's band, further stakes his claim as the harmonica's post-funk standard bearer.

That Ellis is willing to surround himself with such strong individual voices is a testament to his own strengths as a player and leader. His tenor work is strong and snappy, and his voice-like soprano floats over the groove. The album has a couple of New Orleans-style funky butt jams, a nice Sunday afternoon-sounding song with no solos, and stretch room based on hummable melodies and interesting grooves.

Soul prayers
Rich Harney & Alex Coke

That jazz has roots in gospel should come as a surprise to no one; the journey from Sunday morning to Saturday night is well-documented. But the book on jazz's influence on gospel continues to be written and Alex Coke and Rich Harney contribute chapter and verse with this re-release of their 2003 album.

Neither leader is a stranger to sacred settings. Harney is a regular Sunday morning church pianist and anyone who has heard Coke play "Where you there?" with Tina Marsh at St. James Episcopal's Good Friday Project will not easily forget the experience. The soul and swing that Coke and Harney bring to these spirituals make for uplifting results.

"Wade in the water" is re-cast as a latin cooker and "Motherless child" is told as a late-night ballad. "When the stars begin to fall" is the release's most infectious cut, with Coke's big-boned tenor, Harney's tasteful block-chord solo and bassist Evan Arredondo and drummer Brad Evilsizer reaching deep into the pocket for an effortless stroll. James Fenner provides effective percussion accents on several cuts, engaging in a whistle conversation with Coke's flute on Harney's "Let the children sing."

The recording sound is sparklingly clear with each instrument distinct, and the record weighs in at nearly 70 minutes, appropriate for top-flight musicians playing at their fullest. This is music that will move the person in the last pew or the back booth.