by Phil Freeman
I first became aware of saxophonist Wayne Escoffery in 2009, when I got his Uptown CD on Posi-Tone. It was a groove-oriented disc featuring organist Gary Versace, guitarist Avi Rothbard and drummer Jason Brown. I was late to the party; it was his fifth album. Furthermore, it was quite a departure from the straightforward, albeit modern, post-bop he’d been playing to that point. (There’s a good reason for that, as you’ll read below.) His style strikes me as synthesizing 1950s players like Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and the Dexter Gordon of albums like Daddy Plays the Horn and Dexter Blows Hot and Cool while moving the music forward via his own innovations, many of which come in the form of unexpected combinations of instruments. His albums Veneration and Hopes and Dreams, for example, eschew keyboards entirely in favor of a saxophone-vibes-bass-drums band that has an eerie, spacious feel at times. And on his latest album, he moves in exactly the opposite direction.
The Only Son of One, Escoffery’s debut for the Sunnyside label, will be in stores tomorrow. It features two keyboardists: Orrin Evans on piano and Fender Rhodes, and Adam Holzman (best known for his work in Miles Davis‘s late ’80s band) on synthesizers. They’re joined by Hans Glawischnig or Ricky Rodrigues (depending on the track) on bass, and Jason Brown’s back on drums. Every track is an Escoffery original, and the material is strongly autobiographical, relating to his childhood in England (he came to the US with his mother when he was eight) and his later inner conflicts with his father and the emotional legacy of that relationship. All this is explained in great detail in the album’s liner notes, written by novelist James McBride. And while this doubtless makes The Only Son of One sound like a ponderous, brooding disc, it’s actually a collection of melodic, intricately structured and skillfully improvised performances that shows every one of the players in the best possible light. The synthesizers, while initially jarring, sit comfortably alongside the other, more organic instruments, giving the music an occasionally otherworldly feel that keeps it from slipping into rote soul jazz. It’s not just Wayne Escoffery’s most personal album; it’s also his best yet.
And it’s not even his only release of 2012. Two weeks from now, on April 24, he can be heard on drummer Ben Riley‘s Grown Folks Music, also on Sunnyside, a collection of Thelonious Monk-penned (“Friday the 13th,” “Teo”) and Monk-identified (“Lulu’s Back in Town”) tunes featuring (again, depending on the track) guitarists Freddie Bryant and Avi Rothbard, and bassist Ray Drummond. No pianist. It’s an earthy, forcefully swinging set of classicist jazz, co-produced by Riley and Escoffery and intended to document a long-running live relationship between the two men.
Here’s a 15-minute video about the making of The Only Son of One:
An interview with Wayne Escoffery follows after the jump. (A longer version will appear in the upcoming sixth issue of Burning Ambulance magazine.)
The first record of yours I heard was Uptown on Posi-Tone, with organ and guitar, which is very different from anything else in your catalog. What made you decide to do that kind of album at that time?
Well, I’ll be completely honest with you—that was never supposed to be my recording. What happened was, a great friend of mine, Avi Rothbard, is the guitarist on that recording. And if you notice, at least half the songs on that recording are actually his compositions. Avi and I actually moved to New York together, and we used to play at a club called St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem. So Posi-Tone had approached me about a recording, but I couldn’t record for them as a leader because I was obligated to Joel Fields at Savant Records, so what I offered them was, I said, look, there’s this great guitar player, a friend of mine named Avi, and we play together a lot, we have an organ group together. And I’ve always wanted to record some organ music, because that’s kind of where I came from, so it would be a lot of fun for Avi and I to do a project together. So my idea was to have an Avi Rothbard-Wayne Escoffery group, so it would be co-led. But ultimately what ended up happening was due to some savvy business dealings, they put the record out as my recording. That’s why half the music is Avi’s music, because it was supposed to be a collaborative recording that actually featured Avi more than me, but I think they felt it was more marketable to make it my album. We all learn lessons in life, and I learned a big one for sure.
The new album, The Only Son of One, represents another stylistic shift from your earliest work. What made you decide to bring Adam Holzman in on synthesizer?
You know, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time, I just didn’t have the means. But in the last year and a half or so I’ve been writing a lot of music, and it was just in my ear. The music I was writing was really written for synthesizers, and also being inspired by Weather Report and Charles Fambrough and Miles, of course, I was writing for that more electric sound with keyboards and pads. I experimented with using the vibes to get that sound and bring me in that direction, and then working with Tom Harrell and his use of the Fender Rhodes quite a bit helped inspire I think more creativity in that realm, for me. I just had the idea of putting two keyboards together and seeing where it went, and I’ve gotta say, the first time we did it, it jelled right away. I’m just lucky that what I heard in my head worked. And I think the key element is picking the right two keyboard players, and I think someone with the experience that both of these guys have—both Orrin Evans and Adam Holzman—is essential. Also, picking people who don’t have ego problems is another essential element. And I think one of the skills I’m developing is the ability to pick good musicians, and I think I made a good choice. Orrin and Adam work really well together, they complement each other and they listen to each other, and they don’t have any ego problems. So that makes everything a lot easier.
The liner notes and the song titles tell a very autobiographical story, but how much of that do you think really gets communicated in instrumental music?
All the pieces really do come from the stories that I’m telling with them. “Banishment of the Lost Spirit” is really about banishment of a lost spirit. That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote the tune, that’s what I wrote it about. Same with “World of the Bardo.” All the titles really speak to the music. But with instrumental music, it doesn’t really matter what I think the songs mean. They’re gonna speak to the listener how they do, and the listener’s going to interpret them how they do. So I’m just telling you the listener what the music means to me and where it comes from. And it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that’s supposed to be thought about. I mean, I expect and I hope that the music is going to inspire other thoughts and other feelings in people. Music’s not one-dimensional.
You’ve also got the Ben Riley album coming out this month. How do you see yourself fitting into the tradition of saxophonists playing Thelonious Monk’s music, of John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin and Charlie Rouse?
Well, I’m really wary of putting myself in that sort of category, the lineage of Monk tenor players, so to speak. I’ve never really thought of myself that way. But I guess it’s somewhat inevitable, being that I am playing with Ben Riley and we are playing a lot of Monk’s music. It’s tricky, because one of the first jazz recordings I ever heard was the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Charlie Rouse and Frankie Dunlop. So I’ve always loved that music; I’ve spent a lot of time listening to that music and listening to Charlie Rouse. When I play with Ben, I try not to sound like Charlie Rouse; I try not to sound like anybody. But I do end up, I think, borrowing from people like him and whomever. Dexter Gordon, even, who I don’t know if ever played with Monk. I end up borrowing when I play Monk’s music, and it’s not intentional, I just end up borrowing from people that I’ve ingested, and it’s not intentional, and it’s not anything contrived, it just happens. And in some ways I do wish that—over the past few years, my time with Tom Harrell and the last few recordings, I feel I’ve really developed a personal sound and identity, and I try to hold true to that as much as I can, and I wish that I could hold true to that even more when I play with Ben, but ultimately I feel like I always end up borrowing a little bit more overtly from some of the names I just mentioned, like Charlie Rouse and Dexter Gordon and the like. But I don’t really do it in any other setting than with Ben, so it ends up being fun. And I like being able to play that kind of music, and I like being inspired to play in that sort of—to think about those people that I love so much, like Charlie or Dexter or Sonny Stitt or Gene Ammons. It is what it is.