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Debut album from Jeff Ellwood

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    Posted: 08 Nov 2020 at 8:24pm

Known as a consummate improviser with a compelling approach to the tenor saxophone, JEFF ELLWOOD has earned the respect and admiration of the heavyweights in the Southern California jazz community. Pianist Alan Pasqua has said that Ellwood “is one of my favorite tenor saxophonists on the planet," while Grammy-winning pianist Bill Cunliffe says that Ellwood “is his own man who always brings a fresh perspective to any project."

Although Ellwood appears on at least a dozen CDs and has performed on stage with Tony Bennett, James Moody, Joe Zawinal, Randy Brecker, Christian McBride, and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few, he had never released an album as a leader, despite the urging from fellow musicians and fans. It took a promise to a dying friend for Ellwood to release THE SOUNDS AROUND THE HOUSE, his debut CD. Ellwood made that promise to bass player Roger Shew, his bandmate and friend who passed away far too young in 2016. It was Shew’s exhortations, telling Ellwood that he regretted he wouldn’t be around to hear the album, that finally convinced to him to record this project.

Ellwood is a Southern California native who began playing sax at the age of 10, when a doctor recommended that he play a wind instrument to help with his asthma. He taught himself to play the alto sax by ear, and by the time he was in high school he was good enough to play in rock bands. By the age of 15, he was playing gigs in major rock clubs like the Whisky a Go Go. After graduating, Ellwood went to community college and began to seriously study music. Although he had a great sound on the sax, he had to learn music theory and reading to play in the school band. It was a nurturing environment that prepared him for his next big step in his music education, which was attending the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston.

At Berklee, Ellwood studied with many top musicians, including veteran jazzman George Garzone, who had a large and continuing impact on Ellwood’s approach to the sax. After graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree, he hung around Boston for a year, playing with a band called Red Time. When the leader of the band decided to take the group to New York, Ellwood decided to move back home to California, where he pursued a Master’s Degree in Performance at Cal State Fullerton. Today, he is the Director of instrumental Jazz Studies at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, CA, and an adjunct professor of jazz saxophone at Cal State Fullerton.

Ellwood credits piano great ALAN PASQUA for introducing him to the Southern California jazz community. Ellwood was accepted two years in a row to the prestigious Henry Mancini Institute where they select 75 musicians from all over the world to participate in the month-long institute held at UCLA. Ellwood met Alan Pasqua when he came to give an improvisation clinic to members of the Institute. Pasqua was blown away by Ellwood’s rendition of “Giant Steps” and invited him to his house to jam. Three weeks later, Ellwood become a member of Pasqua’s band, and ended up performing with the group for the next seven years.

Ellwood gathered some of the top West Coast jazz players for THE SOUNDS AROUND THE HOUSE, including Pasqua, who plays piano and co-produced the project. He also contributed three of his original tunes. Also joining Ellwood are master reed player BOB SHEPPARD, first-call bass player DAREK OLES, and Bill Evan’s last drummer, the inimitable JOE LaBARBERA.

Ellwood is an intuitive musician with a laser-like focus on melody. A true improviser, his solos take you in unexpected directions. The compositions he chose for this album attracted him because of their strong melodic underpinnings.

The tunes are of recent provenance by contemporary composers except for the title track, “The Sounds Around the House,” which is a lesser-done standard by Alec Wilder and Johnny Mercer. It was first recorded in 1976 by Dick Haymes.

Ellwood opens the CD with his composition, “U-R,” a contrafact he wrote based on “All the Things You Are,” one of his favorite melodies. Pasqua contributed three compositions to the album, “Agrodolce,” which Ellwood performed when he was part of Pasqua’s band; “Old School Blues,” which shifts back and forth between traditional major blues and minor blues; and “Barcelona,” which he played often with Pasqua’s band, but wanted to approach it again with fresh eyes after not playing it for many years.

Ellwood also includes “The Honeymoon” by Oles. It was first recorded by the Peter Erskine Trio, which also included Pasqua and Oles. Ellwood first heard the trio perform the song at Sam First, a jazz club a stone’s throw from LAX, and was immediately attracted to its moments of dramatic shift.

Ellwood also pays homage to Dick Oatts and Rick Margitza, two sax players who have had a big impact on his music, by performing their compositions. Oatts’ “King Henry” was originally performed by Oatts and Jerry Bergonzi. Ellwood asked Sheppard to join him on this tune as the second saxophone. “Provence” was written by Margitza, whom Ellwood says changed his life when he first met him when Ellwood was 18 years old.

Ellwood closes the album with “For Roger,” in honor of his friend Roger Shew, written by L.A. pianist and organist Joe Bagg. The tune is a fitting tribute, featuring just sax and Oles, perhaps Shew’s favorite bass player.

The level of musicianship on THE SOUNDS AROUND THE HOUSE is superlative. Each of the players is a world renowned leader in his own right. It is a level of musical excellence that befits a debut CD for a jazz artist as creative and inventive as Ellwood.

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THE SOUNDS AROUND THE HOUSE will be released November 30, 2020 and will be available on all platforms.

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