Bizet: Carmen In Jazz

John Ellis Quartet

Blue Room Music, 2023

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Full disclosure: I do not like opera. Never have. Certain people, like Andrea Bocelli, could sing the phone book and make me interested in every note, but when it comes to opera, I’ve just never developed a taste for it.

So, what am I doing reviewing Bizet: Carmen In Jazz, the latest release from jazz musician John Ellis, credited to John Ellis Quartet? Why would I review an album taking the music from Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera and giving it a new sound via the world of jazz? Simple: it intrigued me enough to give it a chance.

The truth is that you don’t need to be an aficionado of opera to appreciate what Ellis and his band do over the course of these six tracks. Opera purists, admittedly, might not take the same view as someone like me, who’s coming into the music cold… but the end result is a surprisingly enjoyable album.

The band—Ellis on saxophone and clarinet, pianist Gary Versace, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Jason Marsalis (yes, he’s related to Wynton and Branford) —takes music that even someone who’s never sat through an opera might occasionally recognize and, for lack of a better term, gives it a fresh coat of paint or two. The interplay between these four musicians is both tight and energetic; they seem like they are at home with these renditions as they would be with their own creations.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This all benefits works that are nearly 150 years old at the time of this review. Hearing songs like “Toreador” (which probably will be the one that has portions everyone will recognize), “Gypsy Song” and “Habanera” infused with a solid jazz backbone only serves to breathe new life into these works. And, while purists might clutch their pearls with shock, if it helps to renew interest in the source material, one could only see these efforts as a good thing.

If Bizet: Carmen In Jazz has any weakness, it’s that the overall material isn’t quite strong enough to keep the listener engaged to complete the disc in one sitting. Seeing that the album clocks in at just under 43 minutes, it might seem strange to break this disc up into two or three sessions. For myself, I found listening to two or three tracks, stepping away, then coming back to the disc only served to renew interest in the presentation, akin to the actual opera’s intermission.

Only the final track, “Card Song,” sees the energy level ebb. Again, recognizing this is more than likely due to the source material than any arrangement Ellis has done, it still feels like an odd way to close what otherwise had been a powerful effort.

The musicianship presented throughout the disc is top-notch. Marsalis’s bloodline is well-known in the jazz community, and he represents the legacies of his older brothers well. While Ellis, Versace and Rogers might not have names as well-known in the jazz world, efforts like this album should help correct that oversight.

Taking a chance on an album from artists one is not familiar with—covering a genre they are even less familiar with—is risky. Bizet: Carmen In Jazz proves that such a risk is well worth it this time around, and should rightfully serve as the calling card welcoming Ellis and his band into the mainstream jazz world.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2024 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Blue Room Music, and is used for informational purposes only.