Feeling Good

Howard Fishman on Jerome Ellis

Ronald Peet and Jerome Ellis.

I DON'T KNOW WHETHER THERE IS ANY HOPE FOR OUR FUTURE, but if there is, it might be in experiences like the apartment concerts that composer/performer Jerome Ellis recently hosted in his 240-square-foot abode, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill. 

I became aware of Ellis through his work with the writer and musician James Harrison Monaco. The two collaborate as “James and Jerome” in lecture-performances that effortlessly combine esoteric history, ecstatic storytelling, virtuosic music, art, theory, theater, and improvisation. (Their new show, The Conversationalists, begins a run at the Bushwick Starr on January 8.) Having attended various iterations of that project, I was intrigued to learn that Ellis was giving a series of private concerts in his apartment, and delighted when he asked whether I might be open to joining a few of my fellow artists to sing in a short psalm at one of them (full disclosure: I was not paid for my services, nor was my participation promoted in any way).

I’d never heard Ellis’s solo stuff, so I didn’t know whether he played a particular kind of music (happily, he does not—I’ll get to that in a moment). I had also never been to Ellis’s apartment, where he has now lived for a little over two years. Two hundred and forty square feet is not a lot of feet; I can tell you from experience that it feels even smaller when an audience of about thirty jams into it, taking up every available surface. Arriving early to run through my part, I found myself seated tightly against one wall, knee to knee with the person beside me. As more smiling people shuttled in (including a disproportionate number of luminaries from the downtown theater scene, among them Dave Malloy, André De Shields, and Flako Jimenez, their mouths slightly agape at the size of the environs but all good-naturedly negotiating space), the apartment began to feel like the L train at rush hour. I began to make some mental prognostications: I kept a vigilant eye on the ever-changing obstacle path to the door. Looking at my watch, I began a countdown of the remaining minutes I would have to steel myself against the challenging physical circumstances. I even tried to telekinetically will the people nearest the windows to prop them open (it worked).

Jerome Ellis performing with Clover Rudd.

The show was scheduled to begin at 8 PM. At a few minutes past the hour, a little girl with blonde curls and a purple cape was gently deposited onto the bench in front of Ellis’s spinet. She sat Buddha-like in the center of the assemblage, an archaic smile on her face, her calm and stillness remarkable. Occasionally, she placed her small fingers on the piano keys in front of her, but rather than pounding on them in attention-seeking fashion, she would press them softly, listening to the sounds of just one or two or three notes at a time. Then she would stop, and once more gaze imperturbably around the room—not speaking, not crying, not seeming to want for anything. Slowly, imperceptibly, she absorbed the focus of the entire room; a silence descended upon and enveloped us as we watched her, and she us. Somehow, she received our collective attention, and simply held it.

Her name was Clover, Ellis soon explained. She is one of his piano students (in addition to teaching and performing, Ellis works as a professional piano tuner, and as a Portuguese translator). Clover would be turning three in a few days, and we were all going to sing “Happy Birthday” to her, which we then did, happily. Ellis then asked Clover if she would like to play a song with him, and I thought I felt the room twitch. She nodded, and said she wanted to play “The Donut Song,” and Ellis, seated next to her on the bench, began a bouncy rhythm in the piano’s bass. The lyrics to the song were a catalogue of the various things that Clover likes: donuts, chocolate, turkey. Another thing that Clover liked was her horsey, a stuffed animal that her mother then passed to Ellis so that the horse might be allowed to play the piano too. Just when W. C. Fields’s caveat about animals and children sprang to mind, something happened: Ellis and Clover segued into a shared improvisation. Together, they made sounds on the piano that sounded neither random nor absurd. Instead, the music sounded intentional; the duo were listening to one another and communicating back and forth. It was a subtly skillful way to begin the evening, a kind of invocation—a setting of stakes for what was to come: something that was going to have to do with the surrendering of expectations, with the dispensing of cynicism, with trust, and with faith.

Clover then had to go home and go to sleep. But before she left, Ellis asked her a question, one he was invested in hearing her response to: “Do you feel good?” Clover smiled widely and replied that she did, before exiting stage left.

James Harrison Monaco (piano), Jerome Ellis (flute), Haruna Lee (flute), and Ronald Peet (voice).

Introducing the formal part of the program, Ellis explained that the first segment was a two-part work in progress based on Psalm 42 from Myles Coverdale's 1535 English translation of the Bible. He began the piece on piano, a simple, hymnlike melody stated with big, open church chords. The unabashed lyricism and sentiment of the music seemed to give notice: We were being led into a new country, one with its own vocabulary, its own tongue.

Genres are, to an extent, languages, codified by their originators and trailblazers and then perpetuated and refined by the practitioners who follow. At the majority of genre concerts, these agreed-upon languages often make themselves known from the very opening moments of any given show. They may be spoken with a particular dialect (bebop, baroque, punk), but the linguistic foundation they rest on is an established one. Familiar motifs and gestures are heard. If we as an audience have even a passing familiarity of the form, we can unconsciously find our brains going to work on other things. We’ve been here before. We know how this goes. Because there are other programs that are running in the backgrounds of our minds, we can divert some attention to them: What’s happening tomorrow? When am I going to have time to do my laundry? Where would I travel to if I had the time to get away, and what can I do about the fact that I don’t have time to get away? 

Something far different happens when an artist chooses to depart from notions of genre and style. We’re required to use more of our consciousness, tuning out the internal background noise and putting our powers of perception, our various receptors, to use. We observe body language, listen to tone of voice, watch for subtleties of facial expression, sense another’s energy. Isn’t this one of the pleasures of traveling to unknown places? Every moment seems alive, as we forget about the mundane particulars of the past and future and instead bring all forces to bear on what we are experiencing in the present moment.

Jerome Ellis (piano), Haruna Lee (flute), and Ronald Peet (voice).

Ellis is an athletic performer, his sometimes jerky, sometimes flowing movements a kind of dance fueled by his music. He sways; he bows; he makes gestures that seem to be somewhere between conducting and blessing himself. He makes sounds with his mouth, sometimes humming, sometimes singing. His relationship to the piano (“This is not a very good one,” he told us) is visceral: He would variously seem to embrace it, and then attack it with animal ferocity. Sometimes it seemed as though the keyboard might be invisibly on fire, given the way that he would lean far away from it and then strike just one key, then another, quickly withdrawing his fingers for fear that they may be burned off. None of this seemed forced or gratuitous. He appeared genuinely in the service of his muse, hypnotized by it, in some kind of divine trance. 

What makes Ellis’s work different from other contemporary improvised music is its overt, openhearted spirituality, its repetition (“Deep repetition is very important to me,” he said), its spareness, its invitation to mystery. I could say that I heard strains of jazz, of gospel, of popular song, of colors that were variously romantic or discordant, but those were only things that I could hold on to, and the experience I had was more about letting go. 

In the first piece, Ellis paused long enough to hand a flute to a young audience member seated in the front row. They turned out to be the theater-maker Haruna Lee, who proceeded to play a repetitive motif Ellis had set to accompany his piano playing. Like Clover’s appearance, it was dramatic, simple, and not at all cloying. Because of the atmosphere that had been created in the room, it seemed entirely within reason to think that whomever Ellis handed a flute to would of course be able to play it beautifully. 

The second portion of the piece was devoted to the Psalm lyric “Like as the stag desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.” After a solo piano introduction that seemed to reference Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” a young man suddenly stood up and began to sing, vocalizing on variations on the main lyric, and also asking the question: “Where is now thy god?” This was the performer Ronald Peet. The teal mesh tank top he wore was identical to the one Ellis had on, creating a sense that a vision had appeared, Ellis having summoned forth his twin. Peet’s improvised, musical repetition of the words were variously sung in praise, in supplication, as a challenge, as a celebration.

Jerome Ellis reads aloud from the Vulgate Bible.

As the piece developed and gained momentum, Ellis’s “James and Jerome” collaborator Monaco popped out of his seat in the audience to take over the angular piano part, one that seemed to draw on the jumpy, dance-like rhythms of the Caribbean, where both Ellis’s and Peet’s parents were born (“So many upbeats,” Monaco laughed when he was done), and Ellis joined Lee on second flute. This combination of piano, human voice, flutes, and eventually percussion with Ellis’s keening tenor saxophone built to ecstatic effect. (At a second iteration of the concert's program the following week, vocalist Starr Busby joined the ensemble.)

In the interval that followed, Ellis spoke about the influence of his maternal grandfather, a reverend who just celebrated his ninety-ninth birthday. Ellis, who is thirty, said that he’d been made to memorize Psalm 23 at age five, and that it had been a constant in his life ever since. He humorously recalled that as a child he had understood the words “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” to mean “The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want the Lord”— a contradiction that had never troubled him—and that he thought might have something to do with his complicated relationship to religion. No original music survives for any of the Psalms; the composition he wanted to explore this evening was a setting by the English cathedral organist Charles Hylton Stewart. 

Ellis had first heard the setting in 2016, in an Evensong service at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights (“I wanted to hear some music,” he said). He explained that it had become a musical touchstone for him ever since, something he had listened to thousands of times, occasionally putting a recording of it on when he got home at around 6 PM, and then allowing it to play on repeat while he ate, bathed, and read, until after midnight. Before he cued the voices that would sing the piece this evening, Ellis noted that in the Stewart version, the final two lines—the ones that invoke the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—had been tacked onto the original Hebrew verses, repurposing it as a squarely Christian paean, something Ellis called “an act of violence.”


James Harrison Monaco, Haruna Lee, and Ronald Peet.

Five voices then joined to sing the psalm (one part was doubled), Ellis imparting instruction to repeat until cued to stop. It began a cappella; then Ellis began layering in piano, electronic loops of what sounded like a reverb-heavy organ, his own flute, and finally, yet another apparition from the audience, the violinist Shu Wang, who improvised long, sensuous lines over the whole. The effect of the various musical and theatrical elements pushed this moment into a rarefied emotional territory, equal parts melancholy, desirous, longing, holy, and wonder. As its conclusion, Ellis paused to pour olive oil into a small cup and, after asking whether anyone in the room would be uncomfortable with his doing so, proceeded to anoint everyone in the room, one by one.

Our foreheads glistening, at last we listened to the final installment of the evening, a short, quiet piece that Ellis performed on tenor saxophone, blowing it into the guts of the piano while Peet held down the instrument’s sustain pedal, creating a meditative, ghostly effect. In the silence that followed it, Ellis asked us, as he’d asked Clover: “Do you feel good?” We did.

I had long ago ceased to be troubled by claustrophobia; if anything, the music had served to expand the space in the room. I’d also lost all track of time, or any care about it. As Jason Robards once recalled about a conversation he’d had with Ralph Richardson while both were backstage during a run of one of Eugene O’Neill’s marathon-length plays: “If we do it right,” Richardson had said, hours become “like minutes.” “We break time. . . We break space, and it’s our time to dream. We have to be able to dream.” By the time Ellis had finished his final, quiet notes of the evening, time had long since been broken, and dreaming had long since commenced. He had left the Earth and taken us with him.

Jerome Ellis anoints an audience member with olive oil.

Does performance have to happen in intimate physical settings if it is to wipe out the boundaries that exist between artist and audience, between us and ourselves, between space and time? It’s not a requirement, but it sure helps. When I think of the most profound experiences I’ve had as an audience member, I realize many of them have taken place in small rooms. In recent times, I’m thinking about hearing some other comrades: the brilliant improvisers Shahzad Ismaily and Mathias Kunzli performing together at Pete’s Candy Store; Andy Statman (another musician without stylistic boundaries) holding court with his trio in the basement of the Charles Street Synagogue in the West Village; the soulful violinist and singer Charlie Burnham at Jalopy in Red Hook. I’m thinking about seeing writer/performer Alexander Nemser’s immersive one-man show at KGB Bar, and about Margarete, a kind of live documentary included in the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater last year, where I and fourteen other audience members listened to the Polish writer/performer Janek Turkowski give a haunting lecture on the impermanence of objects. I’m thinking about the subversive playwright and performer Ed Schmidt, who has routinely given performances in his own apartment with an audience capacity of twenty, and about Sarah Kipp’s thrillingly disturbing performance art at a now-defunct loft salon in Williamsburg. I’m thinking about limited-seating theatrical runs like David Cromer’s indelible Our Town at the Barrow Street Theater, and Ivo von Hove’s explosive, in-your-face rendering of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage at New York Theatre Workshop. Going further back in time, I’m thinking about being in my late teens and taking the train into Manhattan to hear Doc Cheatham sing “I Want A Little Girl,” backed by his combo at the long-gone Sweet Basil, and about Peter “Doc” Temple leading the Tar River Boys through renditions of “Freight Train” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” on his front porch in Tarboro, North Carolina. I’m thinking about the formative years I spent living and playing music in New Orleans, when I would regularly listen to pianist/composer Scott Kirby perform his unclassifiable compositions like “Ravenna” and “Edmund’s Dream” in a dilapidated piano workshop on Magazine Street, and the alternately surly and Cheshire cat–grinning Butch Trivette, who delivered his unique mix of Cajun, country, blues, and gospel music as though his life depended on it in places like the Dragon’s Den and Checkpoint Charlie’s. And I’m thinking about driving across Pontchartrain to the little village of Abita Springs, Louisiana, home to the Piney Woods Opry, to hear Bob and June Lambert, a husband and wife duo, sing old country songs, their close harmonies a container of over six decades of experience, love, and heartbreak. These kinds of encounters are as meaningful to me as any major life event; in some ways, I can map my personal history through them.

What all of these performances had in common, other than that they took place in modest surroundings, was an utter lack of pretense. Like my experience at Jerome Ellis’s apartment concert, there was a tacit agreement that no hierarchy existed between performer and listener, that everyone mattered. The audience was neither condescended nor catered to. We were treated as an essential component, part of a shared, emotional experience. For those minute-like hours in a tiny Clinton Hill apartment, what Ellis was able to manifest felt like much more than a show, more than the sum of its parts. It felt like hope, like grace. It felt like a miracle. We had been able to dream.