Photo from here
English keyboardist John Escreet has a lot of ideas, and the talent to channel them to tape (OK, more likely hard drive). None of his albums—there have been six to date—feels like a rote gesture or a simple sequel to its predecessor; every time he enters the studio, he’s got a concept in mind, and executes it with focus and precision. He’s well-respected by his peers, too, regularly bringing in high-quality collaborators including alto saxophonist David Binney, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.
Escreet’s debut album, 2008’s Consequences, released on Posi-Tone (buy it from Amazon), featured the aforementioned three players along with bassist Matt Brewer; a mixed bag, it kicked off with a three-part, 30-minute avant-garde suite before shifting to more conventional, melodic post-bop material, including a version of Andrew Hill‘s “No Doubt.” His next album, 2010’s Don’t Fight the Inevitable (buy it from Amazon), was made for the Mythology label and saw Nasheet Waits take over the drum chair, and was in some ways a moodier and more intense album, its compositions balancing rumbling, jagged melodies with passages of quite abstract soloing. Electronic sounds also began to creep into the music, mostly at the margins. In 2011, he released two albums—The Age We Live In, and Exception to the Rule. The former, on Mythology again, was made with an expanded ensemble including Binney, trumpeter Brad Mason, trombonist Max Seigel, guitarist Wayne Krantz, bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and strings from Christian Howe. It’s easily the most electronic album Escreet’s recorded to date, somewhere between Return To Forever and ’90s jazz-funk; he played electric keyboards almost exclusively throughout, particularly Fender Rhodes, and consequently it might be the easiest entry point for a newcomer to his music. (Buy it from Amazon.)
Exception to the Rule, released on Criss Cross Jazz (buy it from Amazon), could have been expected to be more conservative than Age, but it was actually a somewhat more challenging listen. With the band down to a quartet—himself, Binney, Waits, and bassist Eivind Opsvik—the music was arranged in a typical modern jazz style, with Escreet back on piano, but Binney contributed haunted-house electronics as well as saxophone, and Opsvik was a dark, rumbling presence. It’s Escreet’s darkest album overall, from the blue-tinted cover photo of him staring glassy-eyed at the listener to track titles like “Redeye,” “Electrotherapy,” “Collapse,” “The Water is Tasting Worse,” “They Can See” and “Escape Hatch”; it’s an ominous, creeping disc, but well worth exploring at length. He followed it up with 2013’s Sabotage and Celebration (buy it from Amazon) for the Whirlwind label, on which he was joined by some frequent collaborators (Binney, Brewer) but a slew of new faces as well: tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Shane Endsley, trombonist Josh Roseman, guitarist Adam Rogers, a string quartet, and on the album’s final track, vocalists Genevieve Artadi, Louis Cole and Nina Geiger. The broad sonic canvas allows for everything from a romantic string intro to a dual-sax eruption (on the nearly 12-minute title track) that’s by far the most ferocious thing I’ve ever heard Binney or Potter play.
Escreet’s latest album, Sound, Space and Structures (buy it from Amazon), is his debut for the Sunnyside label, and marks the studio debut of a trio he’s been playing live with for some time: bassist John Hébert and Sorey on drums. They’re joined by saxophonist Evan Parker, with whom they performed in New York last September, entering the studio a week after the gig. Though Parker came to the project at Escreet’s invitation, it’s clearly the older man’s personality dominating the music. Instead of discrete compositions, as on every previous album the pianist has recorded, Sound, Space and Structures offers a nine-part suite with tracks labeled simply “Part I” through “Part IX,” and all indications are that the music was fully improvised, as is Parker’s wont.
He doesn’t appear until “Part II”; the album opens with a trio convulsion in Matthew Shipp/Cecil Taylor mode, Escreet pounding the piano into submission as Hébert and Sorey jackhammer the ground behind him. When Parker shows up, he’s first heard on soprano sax, and listeners familiar with his work will know what that means: circular breathing, and lots of it. He’s an absolute master of his own lungs, extending his ribbons of notes long past the point that you might cease to believe you’re hearing a wind-powered instrument. The pianist, who clearly idolizes Parker, provides able and complementary accompaniment, matching him in terms of speed and intensity.
When Parker’s heard on tenor, later in the album, the entire shape of the music changes. He takes more pauses on the bigger horn, chopping the notes into phrases with beginnings and ends—on “Part VII,” things get positively swinging (in a still-free manner); he sounds almost like Wayne Shorter at times. At nearly nine minutes, it’s the album’s longest section, and its high point. Afterward, there’s a comedown, as “Part VIII” is so restrained it’s almost silent; the players seem like they’re polishing their instruments rather than playing them. But the album’s final track finds Parker picking up the soprano for one final, epic outburst lasting nearly two and a half minutes. When Escreet takes a solo, it’s almost maniacally repetitive, working a flurry of notes over and over again as Sorey delicately taps the hi-hat in order to slowly bring the music back down to earth. And then it’s over.
While Sound, Space and Structures is unique in John Escreet‘s catalog to date, and to a large degree dominated by Evan Parker, it’s clearly still the product of a focused musical mind. It shouldn’t be the first Escreet album anyone hears, but it should absolutely be heard outside the beard-and-fuzzy-sweater improv-with-a-capital-I crowd.
Stream a full live set by Escreet, Parker, Hébert and Sorey: