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.)