Album Review | 'Bizet: Carmen in Jazz' 

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The world of jazz has had its share of unlikely – but great – mashups. Just listen to Cannonball Adderley’s entire album exploring “Fiddler on the Roof.” But, with “Bizet: Carmen in Jazz,” multireedist John Ellis enters the rarely traversed territory where opera meets jazz. Ellis’s quartet, which includes Eastman School of Music Professor Gary Versace on piano, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Jason Marsalis, is more than up to the task.

Ellis wastes no time in establishing his prowess with “Habanera,” playing a lively, lilting soprano sax solo. (“Habanera,” Bizet’s best-known aria, is actually lifted from “El Arreglito,” by Sebastián Yradier. Bizet thought it was a folk tune, so we’ll forgive him.)

“Toreador,” Bizet’s other greatest hit, finds Ellis playing the first section on tenor sax before switching to soprano for a decidedly New Orleans-inspired take on the more well-known theme. Between the two sections, Rogers takes the spotlight for one of his solid bass solos.

The two standout tunes are “Seguidilla” and “Gypsy Song.” The transition from opera to jazz calls for melodic and rhythmic changes, but Bizet’s chord structures underlying these two great arias prove to be ripe for inspired improvisation. “Seguidilla” features some powerhouse drumming by Marsalis, while “Gypsy Song” offers Versace a chance to stretch out wonderfully on the keyboard.

“Flower Song,” an aria sung by the male lead in “Carmen,” is presented here in duet form, with evocative counterpoint between Versace’s elegant piano and Ellis’s gorgeous sax.

Ellis is superb throughout, shaping his imaginative solos on tenor or soprano sax and on bass clarinet for the pensive final track, “Card Song.” Versace is the second star, whether providing distinctive accompaniment or adventurous solos. Ellis’s arrangements are unique throughout and, happily, in this version of “Carmen,” the music remains great but no one has to die.

Ron Netsky is a contributing writer to CITY.
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