Melding jazz with other idioms is a risky endeavor, one that often ends in a depletion of the music's greatest virtues. Much of the jazz-fusion of the 1970s synthesized the worst of jazz and the worst of rock into a watered-down sound. This can be pleasant enough, but how many of the genre's albums have the full-bodied kick and boozy head-rush of the early Stones or Miles's '60s quintet?
This isn't to say that great jazz can't converse with other genres—bands like Secret Society, the Bad Plus, and Jason Moran's Bandwagon look beyond Tin Pan Alley and bebop with strikingly good results—but the self-conscious packaging of jazz and other genres typically results in the expression of the lowest common denominator.
Mixing jazz with a non-musical partner is even more fraught, birthing sub-genres of jazz-dances, jazz-operas, and jazz-oratorios that usually leave me with nothing so much as the desire to head to Smalls or 55 Bar to hear the thing in its unalloyed, blowing-session form.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached last Friday's Jazz Gallery-CareFusion production of John Ellis's The Ice Siren, a jazz opera" that the saxophonist had premiered in 2009. From the get-go, Ellis sidestepped a few of the jazz plus" genre's most common pitfalls: he avoided the pretentious subject (choosing a macabre dead-alive romance instead of, oh, the Civil War and slavery) and he enlisted a killer rhythm section (bland jazz usually lacks a driving pulse). What he didn't quite manage to conquer was the genre's static formality, in which a music that relies on improvisation as propulsion sputters when it's given too cautious a script. Ellis engineered a few stylistic departures into a klezmer feel, but for most of its hour running time, The Ice Siren didn't stray far from its opening motif of mournful strings and singer Gretchen Parlato's high-pitched call. The sound itself had verve—the precision of Parlato and the strings balanced against singer Miles Griffith's wailing, scatting, and croaking—but as the story progressed and Griffith's character descended into a frozen purgatory, the music demanded an evolution that never came. Griffith fought the sameness with his pull-out-the-stops performance (he had a bit of James Carter's madcap intensity), but he couldn't shift the music's direction, only enliven its journey
What the music lacked, ironically, was John Ellis. For too much of The Ice Siren Ellis, the composer, relegated Ellis, the player, to a supporting role. When, halfway through the piece, Ellis fired off a characteristically strong-toned tenor sax solo, The Ice Siren took on a new dimension—the strings were placed in sharper relief, the rhythmic section sounded more buoyant, and groove crushed monotony. The down-home hornman (North Carolina-bred, New Orleans-schooled) had emerged from the depths of his composer-self, making an unfulfilled-yet-tantalizing promise that this fusion could yet bring out the best of both sides.