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Robert Ellis

Jewly Hight | May 23, 2014

Somewhere Between Jazz and Alt-country

Artists promoting new music can expect to be quizzed about why they made this or that creative decision, but Robert Ellis is gearing up for extra explaining as he releases The Lights from the Chemical Plant, his stellar second album on New West. Photographs, Ellis’s previous set, introduced alt-country fans outside his native Texas to a twentysomething troubadour with two main modes: articulately confessional fingerpicker and Willie Nelson mimicking bandleader. Organized into Side A and Side B, it couldn’t have presented a clearer map of his sensibilities. By those standards, his new stuff is completely off the grid, in finessed pop territory. Jazzy guitar licks bubble up from the bridge during Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and an otherwise pensive original, “Houston,” ends in a frenzied free jazz vamp. Talk shop with Ellis—who, by the way, was picking apart the syncopated layers of Doc Watson’s legendary fingerstyle guitar playing as early as sixth grade—and the stylistic surprises start to make a certain kind of sense. “I’m a big fan of pop music and country music,” he says. “But me and the guys in my band are also really big free jazz fans and straight-ahead jazz fans. I’ve been into that stuff since I was a kid…I really wanted to be a jazz guitarist, and I was going to try to go to school for it. Those plans fell through because school wasn’t really my thing. But jazz is still a big part of my life. You know, I still study and practice every day.” And between his varied chops and restless intelligence, Ellis would much rather stretch out—way out—than fall into a rut.