Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin‘s been around forever and has made about six thousand albums, many as part of a trio with keyboardist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black, though he’s worked with lots of other Downtown New York folks (Joey Baron, Marc Ribot, Bobby Previte) and tons of other people—too many to list here, frankly. These two albums are very different from each other, yet his voice cuts through at all times, recognizable and welcome. He’s got some fuzziness around the edges of his notes, allowing him to get romantic when he wants to, but he can blow up a post-Ayler storm when he feels like it, too.
The Gerry Hemingway Quintet features a two-horn front line (Eskelin on tenor, and Oscar Noriega on alto sax, clarinet, and/or bass clarinet), electric guitarist Terrence McManus, and bassist Kermit Driscoll switching between upright and electric, plus Hemingway in the back, hammering away. He’s a forceful drummer, opening Riptide‘s title track with a slowly building avalanche that would make most grindcore players flex their wrists in wincing sympathy, and caroming the band off the walls throughout the rest of the track with a clattering barrage of snare and stomping kick, as Eskelin blats and skronks his way through a solo that would have had ’em pounding the bar at the old Knitting Factory. On “Gitar,” Hemingway plays fuzzy harmonica, and the reed players join him, letting notes slowly ooze from the bells of their instruments as Driscoll bows ominous, cello-like lines. It’s a nicely atmospheric piece, a break from some of the more active music being played throughout the majority of Riptide. Overall, this is a Downtown-friendly album – it doesn’t swing particularly hard, and some of the melodies tootle along in a klezmer-ish fashion, but there’s groove, too, and Hemingway and Driscoll are a rhythm team, not just two dudes who happen to be playing in the same room at the same time. Best of all, it’s got an emphatic insistence that’s more than welcome in the current era of horn players whose solos never seem to resolve – they just drift to a halt.
Eskelin shows his romantic side on another drummer-led disc, Harris Eisenstadt‘s September Trio, where the two men are joined by pianist Angelica Sanchez. It’s a moody disc of slow-burning ballads, titled “September 1” through “September 7.” There are a few eruptions—on the fourth and sixth tracks, the band begins to fragment the music into jagged abstraction, and they get quite loud on the two-minute “September 7″—but generally speaking, it’s a subdued session, befitting the month it’s named after. Eisenstadt is a much less assertive player than Hemingway, working with brushes a lot, and Sanchez never tries to drive the music in one direction or another, preferring to ornament and filigree rather than going all in with the left hand.
Either one of these CDs would make an excellent “blind” listen—you don’t have to be a devotee of Eskelin, Hemingway, Eisenstadt, or anyone else featured to enjoy this music. I’m certainly not; I was totally ignorant of most of these players when I popped each disc in the player, and I came away extremely impressed. You also don’t have to be a fan of unremitting abstraction—there’s plenty of hard, swinging jazz here, stuff that’ll be immediately recognizable as such even to a listener whose idea of jazz is half-formed, mostly by 1960s TV themes. And each album works on its own; the presence of Eskelin is the only thing that links them. So check out one, or both. They’re both really good.
Also highly recommended is Eskelin’s most recent recording as a leader, “Trio New York”, with organist Gary Versace and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
Ellery is my favorite tenor working today – he can play in any context, like Satoko Fujii’s NY big band. I just wish he would record with larger groups more often.