Brian Ellis Group: Escondido Sessions
El Paraiso Records

Brian Ellis & Brian Grainger: At Dusk
El Paraiso Records

Escondido native Brian Ellis demonstrates an impressive amount of versatility on these concurrent yet dramatically contrasting releases. Not only does the muso highlight different stylistic sides on the two albums, he also shows himself to be a pretty amazing multi-instrumentalist, with his guitar-playing ability featured on his folk collaboration with Brian Grainger and his keyboard skills on display in his free-form jazz sextet (these recordings aside, Ellis also plays guitar in the prog rock outfit Astra and saxophone in Psicomagia). Structurally, the albums differ, too: the group's Escondido Sessions presents four pieces only, two of them in the ten-minute zone, whereas At Dusk features ten short settings of varying folk-styled character. At thirty-six and forty-one minutes, respectively, the two releases are perfectly tailored for their twelve-inch vinyl presentations.

A preliminary scan of At Dusk's track list suggests the outdoorsy character of the material, with titles such as “Porchlight,” “Cedars,” and “Cabin Side” emblematic of the album's tone. Armed with acoustic guitars, hand drums, flutes, vintage synthesizers, and tape machines, Ellis and South Carolina ambient producer Brian Grainger (Milieu, Coppice Halifax) channel spirits associated with various schools, the Takoma school prominent among them. The ghost of Robbie Basho occasionally hovers close by in material that's tinged with psychedelia though never goes so far into that realm that the freak-folk label applies. With hand drums and flutes added to its acoustic guitars and soft synth textures, “Marble Moonbeam” swoons in an easeful manner that draws a connecting line to psychedelic folk yet does so gingerly.

In “At Dusk” and “Porchlight” the collection begins with stately meditations that augment Ellis's precise picking with Grainger's keyboard atmospheres. Here and elsewhere, the duo's serene pastoralia soothes the soul as it conjures scenes of remote forest cabins surrounded by still lakes and misty hillsides. Shadows do fall across parts of At Dusk: “Forest” sees the duo in rustic, folk-drone mode, with raw bowed expressions speckled with Ellis's jaunty picking, an evocative style “Dusty” picks up on and then extends into woodsier form with the addition of nocturnal synth enhancements. But for the most part, the album emphasizes music of hushed spirit designed to ease one's burdens, not intensify them. In contrast to the hint of psychedelia that emerges within some pieces, “Treesmoke” and “Night Beach” exude faint whiffs of prog in their aquatic keyboard accents. Regardless of the track in question, the combination of Ellis's raga-influenced playing and Grainger's hazy synth work makes for an extremely satisfying recording, one that promises to be as rewarding upon repeat visitations.

As mentioned, Escondido Sessions is a much different animal, a no-holds-barred plunge into free-wheeling jazz-rock redolent of the boundary-pushing output associated with Live Evil-era Miles and The Tony Williams Lifetime. Anything but polite lounge jazz, the recording stokes electric fire from the get-go. On this outing, Ellis lays down the six-string for a slew of keyboards—Fender Rhodes, Hammond L-122 Organ, Wurlitzer Electric Piano, Minimoog, and Moog Subphatty—and brings bassist Trevor Mast, saxophonist (alto and soprano) Patrick Shiroishi, drummer Michael Hams, percussionist David Hurle, and drummer/percussionist/guitarist Paul Marrone along for the ride.

The ostinato jam-styled “Via De Mi Rancho” inaugurates the recording with Shiroishi fluttering alongside Rhodes chords and a gradually deepening drum-and-percussion groove. As the moments advance, the group digs into the track's broiling rhythms with unbridled fervour, their roar mirrored in Shiroishi's aggressive squeals. With the saxophonist on soprano and the band channeling In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the intensity dials down for the opening minutes of “Too Late for Georgia's,” though it's not long before the percolating jazz-funk groove heats up. Hams and Mast acquit themselves well in holding down a track such as the Latin-inflected vamp “Memories of Pubby” without lapsing into rote repetition, and the percussionists add both muscle and colour to the material. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Escondido Sessions isn't its jazz-rock style or the ferocity of its attack but the restrained role Ellis adopts on the date. Sure, his colouristic Rhodes, organ, and synth contributions are plentiful, but it's Shiroishi who registers as the primary soloist and front-line presence. That in itself isn't a bad thing, though I'll confess I'm less partial to his Coltranesque bluster than his more controlled and melodic playing.

September 2015