Monday, June 27, 2016

Summer 2016...

Gonna keep this post short and simply wish everyone a rewarding summer on whatever level you want to approach that.  I will be taking a bit of a break from traveling until this fall, when I will be touring the UK for the first time in some years.  I’m looking forward to that and will share more details as we get closer.

So that means I will be in NYC all of July and August, available for private lessons to saxophonists in particular although musicians on any instrument are welcome for improvisation lessons.  Please contact me via e-mail for more information.

In other news, I recently tried the new Selmer saxophone reeds and was very impressed.  I personally find many so called “jazz” style reeds to color the sound somewhat artificially towards something louder and brighter.  So I appreciate that these reeds, which are not made towards any particular style of playing, seem to allow the natural sound of the instrument to emerge, balanced and well proportioned, naturally vibrant but with a dark, focused core that has a bit more density than many other brands I’ve tried.  I was impressed enough to accept the Selmer company’s offer to become an official endorser of these reeds. Thank you Selmer!

Also, I’d like to remind you not to let the summer pass without picking up a copy of “Trio Willisau Live”.  If you don’t know what that is please read all about it here.

I kind of feel that posting on the blog should require something a bit more substantial than any of this.  But after that lengthy interview I did for Point of Departure last month I have the feeling there’s going to be little to say for awhile.  Kind of emptied my head on that one.  So I’ll simply offer something short and obvious, not original to me, but something that I remind myself of from time to time, as an improvisor. And that is…just start from where you are.

Enjoy your summer…

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Point of Departure Interview…

The online music journal “Point of Departure” has just published a rather extensive interview that I’m happy to share with you. I appreciate POD for offering a space in which to get a bit deeper into this whole music/life thing. Areas of focus: comfort zones, jazz as “the truth”, established practices, repertoire, studio versus live, state of the industry, technology, creativity and simply being human. Read the interview HERE.

And a reminder that:

The CD sale commemorating the release of the new recording TRIO WILLISAU LIVE continues with the addition of a few back catalogue titles that have previously been unavailable. Have a look at the discography page for specific information on these titles.  You can order them here.

ARCANUM MODERNE Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black
VANISHING POINT Ellery Eskelin, Mat Maneri, Erik Friedlander, Mark Dresser, Matt Moran
TEN Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black, Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs


TRIO NEW YORK Ellery Eskelin, Gary Versace, Gerald Cleaver
is nearly sold out…there are less than 10 copies available!

And Finally...

A one time only special offer…I do have a very limited number of “out of print” titles that are not listed on the ordering page. Occasionally I put together packages of 30+ titles for folks who want the entire catalogue. I’m down to my last such “package offer”. It’s a very discounted deal for anyone interested but is sold only as a collection. Have a look at the ordering page for more information…

Monday, June 6, 2016

Paul Smoker

The first time I met and played with Paul Smoker must have been in 1987, just prior to Joint Venture’s first recording project.  Joint Venture was formed out of a series of regular sessions at drummer Phil Haynes’ Corner Store loft in Brooklyn.  We had a trio with bassist Drew Gress and Phil suggested we invite Paul to come in from Iowa (where he had been living and teaching) to make a recording with us.  Paul was Phil’s teacher at Coe College and Phil became part of Paul’s speed / power trio with bassist Ron Rohovit.  They had made an LP or two, one of them featuring Anthony Braxton as guest artist.  Phil told me all about Paul, we listened to the recordings and somehow it seemed right to do this even as it was something of a risk, agreeing to make a studio recording with someone I’d never played with.  Paul was also a good twenty years older than us so it wasn’t quite like inviting one of your peers to go along with a speculative deal.  I wasn’t even completely sure about the “do it yourself” thing myself but Phil was thinking big and talking persuasively.  We agree, Phil makes the call. Paul agrees and books his flight, joining us a couple of weeks later to rehearse and get acquainted.

The night arrives and in comes Paul, tall guy, cowboy hat, cigarette. And of course his trumpet. His image would seem to match his reputation for candor and directness.  You could be forgiven for feeling a bit intimidated although he was also very relaxed and genuine, no games.  This is our first meeting.  A little small talk and now we’re gonna play.  I suggested we try “Just in Time”.  Paul kind of scoffed, in a good natured way, but still, tinged with a bit of incredulity and probably deeper down, a sense of WTF!?!  I think he may have wanted to give me a hard time but was giving me the benefit of the doubt instead.  So after a bit of hemming and hawing, subtle posturing and a couple of well placed sighs he reached back into the memory banks as we counted off the tune.  What came out of his horn could not have been more at odds with the attitude expressed just moments before. Total commitment, unabashed, emotionally engaged and dealing with the tune on multiple levels at once.

After this ended we kind of took a few minutes to let it all sink in.  A pretty intense performance for a first time meeting.  Almost a bit of a shock. Nothing much to say afterwards. Paul gradually catches his breath and comes back to that attitude he was working on before, saying, in a somewhat confrontational tone, “Man, you know how long it’s been since I played Just in Time”?  Pause. “Yea, about five minutes ago”, I shot back. At that point Paul’s face lit up with a beautiful smile and we all laughed at the fact that in spite of all the protestations to the contrary, we still could not have imagined Paul Smoker (or anyone else for that matter) making “Just in Time” any more “real” than we had just witnessed.  At that moment I think we all realized that this “Joint Venture” might work pretty well.  The music and the connection was palpable and just cut through everything.

We kept the band going for three recordings on the enja records label, which helped us all get a start in the recording and touring business branching out as individual leaders over the years. Joint Venture had a unique chemistry, four musicians each with individual and strongly felt approaches to the music, exploring common ground while allowing ourselves to be pulled in other directions at the same time.  As a result of this healthy tension I think we were able to touch on that “whole is larger than the sum of the parts” kind of thing.  It’s really beautiful when something like that can happen.

So thanks Paul for sharing such a wonderful spirit in your life and music.  Many people loved you deeply and you live on through them and through their music.

Paul Smoker passed on May 14, 2016 at the age of 75.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Trio New York LIVE - Now Available!

It’s here now!  Order from the web site...

Trio New York LIVE…or in this case Trio Willisau LIVE

Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gary Versace - Hammond B3 organ
Gerry Hemingway - drums

Recorded live at the Jazz Festival Willisau, Switzerland, August, 2015

This new CD recording is from a live performance at the Willisau Festival in Switzerland last August.  I wrote a bit about the gig in a previous post and am very happy to report that hatOLOGY records has just released the project in their inimitable style and packaging, including a full color photograph of the band on an enclosed postcard. Hear our extended improvisations on "My Melancholy Baby", "Blue and Sentimental", "East of the Sun", "We See", and "I Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance With You".

So, get your hands on a copy and wrap your ears around the latest sounds from the New York / Willisau axis. Take this link to my official web page and have a look at all of the titles available for immediate world wide mail order.  To further commemorate this release I will be instituting a special sale, for a limited time only.  The standard price per CD is $15.  Choose any two discs for $25. Choose any three discs for $30. Very simple.

Please note that I have added a couple of additional titles to the CD ordering page:

TEN (from 2004, a series of improvisations from duos to sextet)
Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black, Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs
hatOLOGY 611 CD

LES INDIGNES (recorded in Amsterdam after a tour in 2011.  Very nice compositions from Celano and Baggiani plus improvisations)
Guillermo Celano - guitar
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Clemens Van Der Feen - double bass
Marcos Baggiani - drums

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Spring 2016 update...

This post can serve as a momentary place maker for the transition from winter into spring.  Let’s see…

In January, bassist Stephan Crump’s “Rhombal” was in the recording studio.  Stephan Crump, bass and compositions; Adam O'Farrill, trumpet; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Tyshawn Sorey, drums. The results of this session, “Brothers”, will be released in a couple of months.  Next NYC appearance by the group will be on April 22nd at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.  Here’s video from a live performance by the group, Stephan’s composition "Loose Bay”.

In February I had the chance to reconnect with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener and follow up on a project that we began in Zürich in 2011.  This group had a very particular sound from the very first time we played together.  Partly it’s to do with the fact that Christian plays the bass without an amplifier and that Michael played a set of drums that were a bit smaller than the standard sizes used in most groups.  This allowed me a bit more freedom to explore some other timbral possibilities on my instrument.  We also performed at the Willisau Festival in Switzerland later that same year which you can see a video clip of here. We played exclusively improvised concerts at that time but in hanging out together we discovered a mutual love of early jazz.  I kept that in mind over the years hoping that we might address that musically at some point.  As it happened, Christian recently spent six months in New York City which allowed us the luxury of getting together regularly to play some of this early material and think about how we might incorporate it into our sets.  Michael came to NYC for a few weeks in February and so we rehearsed extensively, did a concert in town and went into the recording studio soon after in order to document our work together.  Included are renditions of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp”, a Fat’s Waller composition and a couple of early jazz standards.  These are alternated with free improvisations so as to highlight aspects of both approaches to the music from a somewhat different perspective.  We hope this project will be released by year’s end.  The group will be performing in Europe in November of 2016.

Looking ahead at the performance schedule, I’ll be in Europe for two weeks in May with Jozef Dumoulin and the Red Hill Orchestra.  That’s Jozef on Fender Rhodes piano & compositions, myself on tenor saxophone and Dan Weiss on drums.  Really nice combination of textural elements and multi-directional rhythmic propulsion.  Here is a track called "The Gate" from Jozef’s recording “Trust”. This is where we'll be in May 2016:

May 4th, De Werf, Brugge BELGIUM. May 5th, Le Bocal, Apt FRANCE. May 6th, Festival Koa, Montpellier FRANCE. May 8th, Le Périscope, Lyon FRANCE. May 9th, De Singer, Rijkevorsel BELGIUM. May 10th, Bravo, Brussels BELGIUM. May 11th, Le Petit Faucheux, Tours FRANCE. May 12, Jamboree, Barcelona SPAIN. May 13th, Valencia SPAIN. May 14th, Bogui Jazz Club, Madrid SPAIN. And for all of you folks in the Big Apple...May 25th, (le) poisson rouge, NYC

When not traveling I enjoy taking advantage of the many offerings of contemporary chamber music that are available in New York City.  One of my very favorite ensembles is the Argento Chamber Ensemble.  Very often after their concerts there is a question and answer period in which the audience can speak with the composers and performers.  I always enjoy these although they do present some potential challenges to the participants.  One such occurrence took place after the ensemble’s performance at the Brooklyn Library last month.  The program featured works by Tristan Murail, Huck Hodge, Oliver Schneller, Bert Van Herck and Oliver Schneller. I had the impression that a significant portion of the audience may not have been accustomed to modern chamber music and some of the questions reflected that.  This is an excellent opportunity for the ensemble to get feedback from listeners and for listeners to gain insight into the processes involved in creating this music.  One of the great things about New York audiences is that you are liable to get some very forthright opinions, especially if folks feel challenged.  I was encouraged by the feeling that while some may have struggled with what they were hearing, overall, seeing the musicians on stage and hearing a series of different pieces allowed for a more intuitive sense of what is going on.  I’m a firm believer that we do not need to understand the music we hear on an intellectual level in order to “hear” it.  Of course, some knowledge about the traditions involved and the intent of the composers may well enhance the experience.  I could also point out that our knowledge of what we are hearing may also be a kind of filter than can actually diminish our perceptions of what we are hearing if we are not careful. Toward the end of this session, after about twenty minutes of discussion, a woman in the back stood up and shared her experiences of the concert in some of the most starkly negative terms I could imagine.  It was not as if she was criticizing the proceedings, it was clear that she was sincere in what she was saying and how she felt.  After describing the desolate and bleak landscape conjured by the sounds she heard she wrapped it all up by asking, imploring even, “where is the love?”  That really got everyone’s attention.  After a momentarily uncomfortable pause each person on the panel offered an equally sincere and compassionate take on what their personal experiences and intentions were with regard to music making.  This got to the crux of everything really, in a way that we do not often encounter in public settings like this.  The emphasis on intellectualization and technical terminology was set aside for a very heartfelt and affirming exploration of why we make music.  In spite of any differences in approach between the panelists there was clearly a deep commonality shared among them. And it is  this commonality that points to the essence of what makes music such a powerful force in our lives.  It can go by many names but past the conditioned and superficial associations we may have with certain sounds, music generally speaks to something beyond or larger than our sense of self.  Something we may not even fully understand.  We may feel it quite strongly and yet how we respond to it can be varied and unpredictable, deeply positive or deeply negative or anywhere in between.  But it is reaching us.  So walking home after the concert with friends we discussed the issue and came away feeling that in fact asking “where is the love” does not mean that this audience member didn’t "get" the music.  I think she did, and quite strongly, in spite of the fact that I did not relate to her reaction.  And as we know, there is no correct reaction.  It was affirming to have been witness to that conversation.  I might also point out that there is sometimes a kind of trite attitude concerning the idea of provoking an audience into having a strong reaction and then associating some kind of merit to such work on the basis of that.  Personally I find controversy and provocation to be highly overrated without something deeper underneath it.  But a genuine challenge, one that does in fact come from love, is a rare thing to encounter and be open to.  I commend that listener for bringing up the question.  There was one final question after that one, actually more of a testimonial, on the part of a very elderly woman who was sitting in the front row.  I could tell that she also was not a devotee of modern music but her response was highly energized and very positive toward what she had heard.  She continued speaking for some minutes on the importance of this kind of forward looking activity in our culture and she related the experience to a number of topics although we could not always clearly understand what she was saying.  But she was excited.  After some time her husband put his hand on her back in order to signal that maybe she should finish but she kept right on going.  At a certain point one of the staff from the library who was leading the event kindly stepped over to motion for the microphone but she just waved him away.  All in all a wonderful affirmation that this music is not restricted to experts or aficionados.  It speaks to anyone who will listen.

Every other year I do a week long teaching residency at my Alma Mater, Towson University in Baltimore.  Each time, we’ve taken up a particular theme or investigation.  The first year, I worked with the improvisation ensemble in developing a concert.  The second year I brought a batch of my own compositions from over the years and adapted them to a student ensemble for their concert.  The third year was devoted to the exploration of “swing” as a creative act in which the jazz ensemble presented a concert of early jazz works from Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington.  This year’s theme was chamber music containing improvisation and took place this past March.  In discussing the idea with Dave Ballou (who runs the program at Towson) I described for him my idea about commissioning a chamber music composition in a modern  classical idiom that would feature an improvising soloist.  (This is something I’d already set in motion and have been working towards for a couple of years now and hopefully in 2017 we may have the results.) Dave, being a wonderful composer in addition to a great instrumentalist (check out Dave’s new “Solo Trumpet” recording) offered to write a piece for student ensemble (actually, recent alumni as it turned out) for us to tackle on this residency.  I’ve been working with a so called “classical” set up on saxophone in my practice (Rascher mouthpiece, Vandoren reed and Buescher tenor, for my fellow saxophone geeks) and this was a great opportunity to give this idea some momentum.  Without writing a "jazz meets classical" piece Dave’s sensitivities as a fellow improvisor made for a work that allowed great flexibility in my approach.  Rather than working with highly restricted materials as prescribed by the composer (often the approach in chamber music that uses improvisation) I was allowed to have a compositional voice, meaning that my role might shift freely from being “inside” the ensemble to a more front a center “soloist” voice as I felt the need.  For this performance I stuck rather close to the material at hand but I can easily see many more possibilities of approach in future performances.  Maybe we’ll even get to record this.  Until then, here is some audio from the concert.  Recorded sound is not optimal but I think it’s worth offering.  It is an eight movement composition for two violins, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, piano and tenor saxophone. The first is movement four.  The second is an excerpt from movement one leading into movement six.


It’s called “For 7 instruments and Ellery Eskelin” and is dedicated to pianist Reynaldo Reyes who taught at Towson from 1962 until just this year, passing away some months ago at the age of 82.  Mr. Reyes accompanied me on my very first recital at Towson, in 1978.  I wish I could recall the name of what we played but it was a rather thorny piece of modern classical music for saxophone and piano and he sight read it perfectly on the first rehearsal.  He was known for doing that.  A wonderful musician and teacher who will be dearly missed.

As part of my activities I’m asked to present a mid-week concert of my own music.  Being that the the focus was on chamber music I thought it only appropriate to invite pianist Sylvie Courvoisier to perform in duo.  We’ve been doing duo concerts (as well as trio concerts with Parisian cellist Vincent Courtois) since around 2000.  This was our first concert in about a year or so and it was great to catch up musically and see what we had each been up to in the interim.  Here’s an example, a bonus track “Number 19”,  from our recording “Every So Often”.

Other activities during the week involved working with students on how to learn the song “Cherokee” (in which at one point while listening to student performances of this tune involving questionable note choices I had to point out “your ear would never let you do that!”), a series of private lessons on a range of issues (probably my favorite thing to do) and coaching the improvisation ensemble (in which we explored each musician's natural tendencies and discovered what things made them uncomfortable).  Actually, being uncomfortable in these situations is not a bad thing.  We used uncomfortability (not a real word but for sure a real feeling) as a way to address strengths and weaknesses. This became a way of fine tuning the entire ensemble's sensitivities so as to best allow each musician the opportunity to fully contribute to the music. Some players are more naturally supportive while others more naturally assertive.  And of course you don’t want too many of one or the other. Both in being true to themselves and by having to carry the music at any time, often unexpectedly, showed us quite clearly that there is no place to hide, neither in being too passive nor in being too aggressive.

There were many discussions during the week and after each concert there was a question and answer period in which students and members of the listening public could discuss the performances.  As in the case of the question and answer session that I referred to above, there were folks in attendance that were not all that familiar with the kind of music being presented. I was told by someone in the audience that as the improvisation ensemble started playing a couple sitting behind them was heard to be discussing “what kind of music is this” and “maybe the second half will have some Charlie Parker jazz”.  They stuck around and seemed to enjoy Dave Ballou’s chamber music piece even though that would certainly not qualify as “Charlie Parker jazz”.  After the duo concert with Sylvie I sensed during the discussion that perhaps this was a challenging concert for some folks.  We do our very best to “tell a story” in our improvisations, to play structurally and compositionally.  But I had to ask “did anyone completely loose the thread of the music?”  Fortunately one person raised their hand and said as much. This lead to a fruitful discussion about how to communicate in music and what is being communicated. Personally I cannot second guess what I think will work in any given situation and so it reminded me (again) to trust the music completely.  And so I come away from this experience encouraged and asking myself, is there really a separation between listener and music?  It certainly doesn’t seem that way, no matter the myriad responses that we all have in any given situation.  Whether you thought it was good or bad, liked it or not, reached you or didn’t, all that seems less important than the knowledge that there is always something more.

I enjoy these residencies more with each one that I do.  Pianist Bill Murray (founder of the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency) deserves our deep appreciation for setting this all in motion.  Plus everyone at Towson including Dave Ballou and Jim McFalls.  And each and every student and alumni who took part.  It was rewarding on so many levels.  Thank you.

There was also one off-campus event that I want to mention.  On Tuesday of that week I got to sub for Dave Ballou on his regular gig at Bertha’s with the Mike Kuhl Trio (Mike on drums along with Jeff Reed on bass).  Bertha’s has been around for I don’t know how long.  It’s situated in Fell’s Point in Baltimore, close to the harbor just east of downtown.  When I was living in Baltimore (I left in 1981) this area was a bit deserted at night and seemed to carry the heavy feeling of lost seafaring days along the old docks and bars that lined the low buildings and cobbled streets.  It’s more brightly lit these days and a center of nightlife but you can still get a sense of the ghosts of Fell’s Point, maybe even that of Edgar Allen Poe himself.  It’s great to see that some of these old joints have not changed all that much from what I remembered. Dark inside, old instruments hanging from the rafters, vintage furnishings. And speaking of vintage, in visiting the men’s room you’re confronted with the largest and possibly oldest urinal still in use in America.  Or at least that was my impression.  Rising up from the floor to the height of a grown man it’s like an enormous white porcelain coffin stood on it’s end.  Interacting with history is what that felt like.

Playing at Bertha’s was a ton of fun.  I also got to see my friend and fellow tenor saxophonist from my Towson University days, Brad Collins.  We played together in Hank Levy’s ensemble and had not seen each other in thirty five years!  Brad plays around Baltimore a lot so check him out.  This was a straight up jazz gig, calling tunes as we went, of the kind I did frequently all around Baltimore at one time.  In fact, somewhere in the second set it occurred to me that I used to play John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues” on every single jazz gig I ever did in town. My good friend and fellow tenor player Tom McCormick taught it to me back in the day.  So I called the tune and as we played I could feel just what it was like playing places like Bertha’s in the late ‘70s.  Tom and I had another good friend and tenorist named Mike Carrick who was older than us and instilled much in the way of the Baltimore tradition to our approach at that time.  Mike would say to me, “yea man, you got that Baltimore honkin’ thing!”  That made me feel good.  So I couldn’t help but let loose with Mike in mind.  Mike passed a few years ago but his spirit is still strong among those who remember him.

As I’m writing this, after being back home for a couple of weeks, I received some very sad news about the passing of another musician who was in Baltimore at that time, bassist and composer Terry Plumeri who was also a formative influence on us younger musicians.  I played a number of times with Terry, once in a trio with drummer Harold White (who had also played in Horace Silver’s band) and another memorable occasion at a Fell’s Point jazz club called The Bandstand, which was my first real opportunity in town to lead a group for a weekend at a club that also headlined New York artists. Terry had recorded in the early ‘70s making an LP called “He Who Lives in Many Places” with Herbie Hancock, John Abercrombie and Eric Gravatt.  Terry also toured for some years with Roberta Flack.  After leaving Baltimore Terry composed for film and symphony orchestras around the world. His signature sound on the bass was his arco playing.  This is a photo of Terry as I remember him from those days.  Here is a video of Terry in recent years doing a solo contrabass piece called “The Caves of Peacock Springs”. While we have access to no end of recordings and documentation of this musical tradition I’m convinced that it is the spirit of musicians playing together, learning from each other and sharing their lives with each other that makes this a living tradition.  Each one who passes has had an effect on those around them, and that is the real spirit of what keeps this alive.  Never take that for granted, not even for a moment.  Thanks Terry.

Monday, March 28, 2016

One of My Favorite Spots in NYC…

I had been out of town for a week so I was looking forward to resuming my daily morning routine at the local coffee place, Cupcake Cafe, on 9th Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan.  An “old New York” type of establishment, of the kind that is becoming increasingly scarce, it’s on a street containing some of the the last remaining examples of old New York establishments in Hell’s Kitchen, such as the “Sea Breeze Fish Market” (one of the oldest fish markets in New York City) and the “International Grocery” which sells all kinds of spices and imported foods.

At the Cupcake I can sit for as long as I want, have a conversation with pretty much anyone there or more often just sit in silence.  This has been my ritual for some time now.  Order an espresso and sit with my small porcelain cup and saucer unapologetically doing nothing for twenty minutes, half an hour or sometimes more. No reading, no phone, no computer, no headphones.  That’s almost treasonous to admit in NYC.  But I think this may be the most important part of my day since once I get home and get to work I often have a certain difficulty establishing office hours and juggling tasks in a home setting.  On days without rehearsals or teaching, practicing is a constant, but there is always business to do.  The business of “independent artist” means there are a lot of “hats” to wear.  Fortunately I like hats but I tend not to change them every five minutes.  The “to do” list gets reprioritized, a half dozen things get done and a half dozen more get added.  I have until late afternoon until things shift into family mode.  So these potentially fractured days need some grounding and this morning ritual sets the stage nicely.

This particular day I approach the Cafe and see that the gate is down over the large window facing Ninth Avenue.  There is a brightly colored hand written sign posted about being “closed for renovations” with a series of cheery and clever reasons of just why that is.  All of which make the phrase “closed for renovations” seem ominous.  The gate to the door was open and someone I didn’t recognize came out, walking purposefully, talking on a cell phone.  Through the window of the closed door I looked in and saw Mike, the owner and ever present host standing in his usual position behind the counter.  He saw me and shook his head from side to side, waving his hands.  Then he gave me the cut-throat signal, hand sideways across the neck.

There we have it.  Closed on this day for sure.  As I walked to another place for coffee I ran into a couple of neighborhood folks who frequent the cafe.  They were both certain that the place had closed for good but I had to know for sure. Once I got home I called the cafe and Mike picked up.  “So it’s true?” I asked.  True and final as it turned out.  Mike explained that the situation was complicated, involving lawyers and other properties.  “And the sign saying renovations?”  “That’s bullshit” he said.  I told him how much I appreciated the place and we agreed that it was indeed unique.  He must have been in the midst of dealing with it all since he broke off the call rather suddenly.  Which was not unusual.  I’d heard Mike’s gruff demeanor speaking on the phone and with customers for many years.  Sometimes a new person would walk in and ask for tea and Mike would ask “what kind do you want?” in such a way as to frighten them so badly that they often left.  In fact, I think I went there regularly for at least six months before Mike did more than grunt at me.  But I could tell he was a good guy and over time he opened up.  He even became more relaxed with new customers, still gruff but in a charming way.  Often I would walk in and Mike would start talking to me as if in mid thought, on a subject that might take me a few minutes to discern. Sometimes I didn’t really know what he was talking about.  But over time it became clear that he knew pretty much everything about what was going on in the city. When Mike would engage in the occasional conversation with a group of regulars he could completely light up over some subject concerning sports or culture.

The place was decidedly rustic, furnished with many antique pieces of equipment, including an old style wooden ice box for the milk.  Chairs were sometimes in need of repair and wobbly.  There were a couple of old church pews along the wall and a huge marble table in the middle of the room.  A bakery was in the back.  Their pies were some of the best I’ve had.  The radio was often tuned to WKCR or WFUV (local independent stations for jazz or alternative music) or was off entirely which I loved even more. Sometimes business appeared to be slow but they seemed to get a steady flow of cake orders for parties and such.  Above all it was authentic. As was Mike.  The folks who came in regularly, writers, artists, musicians, actors, neighborhood workers and the occasional traveler killing time in between buses (it was across from the Port Authority Bus Station) gave the place a special ambiance that I always knew never to take for granted.

The Cupcake Cafe had been around for about thirty years although it started in another location down the block.  At one time it was very popular but somehow I never clicked with the place when it was so active. I’d only been coming in for the past four or five years and was often concerned about the health of the business given the little things I’d occasionally hear Mike say.  My feeling is that they had a good run but that the real estate game must have caught up with them finally.  I don’t really know.  But I'm going to have to take my morning rumination somewhere else.  I knew this day would come. These kinds of places are almost too good to be true any longer.  I will have to do my best to keep that state of mind with me.  Thanks for all the good years Mike.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Paul Bley…on the subject of playing forever…

Upon hearing the news of pianist Paul Bley’s passing on January 3rd, 2016...

I met Paul Bley at the Ravenna Jazz Festival in Italy sometime in the early ‘90s.  He was playing with Steve Swallow and Jimmy Giuffre.  I was there with Joey Baron’s group “Baron Down” and we were sharing the bill with them.  The concert took place at the Teatro Alighieri, a beautiful opera house built in the 1800’s.  It was great to hear them play and Paul was very complementary towards us.  After the concert I was walking back to the hotel, taking my time as the streets were active and it was nice to see what was going on.  Along the way I happened to glance into a coffee shop and to my surprise saw Paul standing alone in the back having a coffee.  I really wanted to talk to him about a musical issue that was on my mind so I went over and said hello and we began chatting.  I explained that for some years I had been investigating ways to play rhythmically free while retaining the harmonic form of a song in time, something that I hadn’t heard that many people do. I told him that I’d been trying to trace the impetus of this idea and that I had the feeling that he was the guy to ask.

While it’s a bit problematic to single out one person I had always suspected that Paul was at least close to the source of this.  He had played with Ornette Coleman very early on in his career. Ornette Coleman’s phrasing was very organic to my ear, insinuating a freer sense of harmony by virtue of his melodies and how they were placed.  Paul also played with Sonny Rollins, who on the other hand was right on it with respect to the harmony but with an amazingly flexible time feel and use of phrasing that bordered on free.  I remember driving home late one night after a gig in Baltimore and hearing a long cut by Sonny on the radio, a twenty minute vamp on one chord.  His playing was powerful and his ideas were abundant, a fountain of imagination.  But his phrasing was loose to the point that it almost sounded drunk, except that the nuances were very detailed and his timing was incredibly precise.  I almost had to stop the car just to listen.  It made a big impression on me.

I’ve told the story a number of times about how this idea of loose and organic phrasing combined with an exact sense of time and harmony came together for me one afternoon at a jam session.  And how that same evening I had the opportunity to sit in on a gig with Paul Motian (a long time collaborator with Paul Bley) which catalyzed the whole thing in a “never look back” kind of way. You can read about this in more detail in a previous post that I wrote about Paul Motian.  And so in looking to find out where this all might have come from I began listening and tracing more deeply some of the musical currents that lead up to it.  In retrospect, I can hear this going all the way back to Louis Armstrong.  But somehow it seems to have gotten lost amid the mostly eighth note oriented approach to jazz playing that dominated when I was coming up (and in many ways still does).  But there was this one “modern” recording that particularly stood out, “Sonny Meets Hawk” from 1963.  I’d never heard Sonny Rollins play quite the way he does on this recording, rather startling, and I’ve always wondered what was going on there.  Did it have something to do with Coleman Hawkins’ presence? How could that not affect a person, especially another saxophonist? Paul Bley plays on this date and his solo on “All the Things You Are” was equally startling and multidimensional.

So I spelled all of this out for Paul Bley right there in the coffee shop. And I asked “what was the dynamic between Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins?  And “where did this way of playing come from that I heard in your solo?” I think these were the only questions I asked.  It was certainly all I said for the next hour or so.  Paul took my questions and spun an elaborate and somewhat confusing (though I didn’t dare interrupt) story that began with his time on the road with Sonny Rollins and gradually morphed, spilling into all kinds of other tangental areas finally ending with the proclamation that in six months time the CD will be dead and we’ll all be forced to create visual imagery to go along with our music, just to stay in business (this was 1994). It was a wild ride, hugely entertaining if not somewhat illogical and contradictory at many turns.  And I never got a straight answer to my question.  I’m not sure he even addressed it.  But I do remember very vividly his description of what it felt like playing in Sonny’s band.  He said they were playing every night plus these matinee gigs on Sunday afternoons.  He spoke about how over the period of some weeks Sonny kept upping the ante during his solos and how it made Paul feel in trying to keep up.  Sonny would play longer and longer solos in which the intensity went unabated.  It got to the point where Paul felt that the attitude became one of playing forever.  When Sonny was playing, he was simply going to play forever.  And when it was time for Paul to play he was in turn going to have to play forever as well.  Imagine that kind of commitment. Forever.  I’m going to play forever.  There are a lot of ways you could take that, both positively or negatively, seriously or not.  But it was almost as if he were reliving the experience in telling it to me.  I was kind of in awe of this even as I was also a little confused.

To be honest I’m still unsure what he really meant or what he may have been trying to get at.  But it’s a great thing to wonder about.  Now, in thinking about Paul Bley’s passing, twenty years later and moving through the imaginary barrier between one year and the next, is it time to reflect? Or time to look ahead?  To sum up the past or forecast the future doesn’t seem right somehow.  Lately I’m beginning to feel more and more as if it’s all right here, right now. Nothing’s missing.  In spending that bemused hour with Paul I could only make sense of what he was saying as a flow. But what was he getting at? Perhaps he was just being mischievous but I sensed more than that.  That’s why I didn’t want to interrupt him.  I knew there was something special in his story telling, something in between the lines, and I knew I might miss it if I wasn’t paying close attention. And here I am, still wondering.  Best not to try and sum it all up.  Being a little confused can be good.  Things are messy, agendas are many.  And yet there is truth all around us.  Learn from what’s right in front of you, an idea that I try and instill in my students.  Good to keep reminding myself as well.  Thanks Paul.

For those who read Italian there is a review of that evening’s concert.

Rodd Keith plays...Tenderly

Here’s a short excerpt of a recording of my father Rodd Keith, playing piano sometime in the mid 1950’s. He was around the age of twenty and largely self-taught.  I don’t have many examples of his music other than the song-poem material that’s drawn a certain amount of attention.  I’ve always been told there was much more to him and this early example perhaps points to that.  It would have only been a few years prior to the time my mother and he played music together.  They even did a television program in Kansas in the late 50’s.  I always wondered what that sounded like.  Maybe a little bit like this…

“The Soul of Baltimore”

I mention my hometown of Baltimore not infrequently.  The experience of growing up there has left an indelible impression in ways that I’m still working out, even after thirty-plus years in New York City.  I often speak of my mother, who played organ in nightclubs throughout the city in the early ‘60s. Not jazz clubs but lounges.  With lots of drinking. She was there strictly for the music and to make her living.  But there’s no getting around the fact that the reputation that many of these clubs had was not completely underserved. There was often a criminal element around the edges.  Or at least you didn’t have to go far to find it.  And yet the ways in which the musical and social culture interacted with every other walk of life…religious, workaday, political, educational, you name it…were much more fluid than not.  Boundaries were not always cleanly delineated.

Being a musician afforded me the opportunity to see life from a number of perspectives, sometimes contradictory and confusing, that I don’t think most folks get to experience.  If I was a writer I think I’d try and do a book on Baltimore, from the 50’s or so on up. I may have said this before somewhere, that while in Baltimore it’s hard to imagine anything outside of Baltimore.  And when outside of Baltimore it’s hard to imagine Baltimore as having been a real place, almost having been part of my imagination.  But it’s quite a real place.  And it’s quite unique in my estimation. In looking back there is much to value although while living there I often found a certain kind of frustration with limitations that I could not fully understand.  I sometimes do research on the musical and social fabric of the city. I’m fascinated with history as it was lived on the streets, the kind that does not always find expression in history books chronicling the main events and important figures of past generations.  There were many people who were integral to the culture of Baltimore who’s stories may never be properly told.

And so when I come across something that speaks from this place I like to share it.  Especially when the content resonates directly with what is still happening in Baltimore. The University of Baltimore hosts archival material on line including this WMAR-TV documentary from 1968 called “The Soul of Baltimore”.  It’s a time capsule of sorts in which civil rights activist Walter P. Carter speaks at length on conditions in the city from a number of perspectives. If you can get past some of the narration Mr. Carter goes into some depth in his own words on a range of subjects including the role of jazz in Baltimore.  In fact there are a couple of short excerpts of a live concert from the Left Bank Jazz Society by saxophonist Lee Konitz with Eddie Gomez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums (at 5:25 - 6:26 and again at 14:36 - 16:01). He also speaks of Coltrane’s last concert having taken place at the Left Bank.

Here's the link:  “The Soul of Baltimore” 1968

Thursday, October 1, 2015

“Trio New York” Live at the Willisau Jazz Festival

Some years ago I got a call from my friend, drummer Bobby Previte, asking me if I knew that there was a poster with my name on it hanging in the architecture and design gallery of the Museum of Modern Art here in NYC.  In fact I hadn’t known and thought it rather odd and unlikely.  Bobby said it was from Willisau (Switzerland), a poster for a concert I did with Dutch drummer Han Bennink.  So I gathered the family and we walked through midtown, found our way to the gallery and there it was. Turns out the poster was made by Niklaus Troxler.  Niklaus Troxler has produced countless concerts in Willisau over the past four or more decades.  And he’s made his own concert posters for each one of them as well.  I knew they were wonderful posters but I did not realize that Niklaus’ work was showing in galleries around the globe.  In fact he has won many awards for them over the years.  And so here were some of his posters on view at MOMA.  I was impressed and flattered that one of my own concerts was represented.  Taking a moment to assure that my young son (he was about nine or ten at the time) fully appreciated the import of this I looked over and said, “so what do you think of that?”  Without missing a beat he replied, “that’s nice, can we get something to eat now?”  Keeping priorities in order.

Photo of Trio New York by Adrian Baer, NZZ

I first played the Willisau festival in 1997 with a group formed to perform music associated with the great saxophonist Gene Ammons (with Marc Ribot on guitar and Kenny Wolleson on drums).  We recorded “The Sun Died” for Soul Note records (which is available on iTunes).  I’ve played in Willisau at least a dozen times, as I was reminded by Niklaus this past August.  The forward looking festival is now produced by his nephew Arno Troxler, who had invited me to bring “Trio New York” to perform on the festival this year.  As we were sitting down to dinner Niklaus proudly showed me a book titled “WILLISAU AND ALL THAT JAZZ - A Visual History 1966 – 2013” which was recently published chronicling the scene there since 1966 containing over 700 pages with many beautiful photographs as well as his concert poster reproductions.  It simply amazes me that a small town in Europe can host, nurture and develop such a deep and long running celebration of musical art and culture and document it in a way that so often eludes us here in the States.

We see many friends and familiar faces each time in Willisau and it’s always nice to reconnect with folks over the years.  This very warm and relaxed feeling combined with a heightened energy and awareness of the special nature of this annual event makes playing there very easy. One of the nice things about the festival is that it is not maxed out with so many bands that one is overwhelmed or unable to hear everything that is presented.  When it was our time to play we hit the stage and started in on the music without even thinking twice. I formed “Trio New York” in 2010 along with Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ.  The drum chair has been occupied by a great many wonderful drummers; Tyshawn Sorey, Ted Poor, Tom Rainey, Nasheet Waits, Gerry Hemingway, Jochen Ruckert, Rudy Royston and Gerald Cleaver (who is on both of the band’s recordings). Each of these musicians brings a different chemistry to the band. For this occasion I invited Gerry Hemingway to reconnect with the group. I have about twenty years of experience playing with Gerry and so that’s a pretty deep bond to draw from. The concert was recorded for Swiss Radio and the combination of good vibes and good technical acumen on the part of the recording engineers resulted in a document that I think is worth sharing.  We’re already underway with getting that mixed and mastered for a spring release on hatOLOGY records. I’ll be making plenty of noise about it when the time comes so do stay tuned…



posters by Niklaus Troxler

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Summer 2015 - Listening to the Audience…

Enjoying the summer here in New York City. Consciously taking a slower pace. This helps with daily saxophone practice. It also serves to deepen my engagement with everything that is right in front of me.

In May I traveled to Australia (for the first time) with pianist and composer Marc Hannaford (his group with trumpeter Scott Tinkler and drummer Tom Rainey). Marc and Scott are both from Melbourne although Marc has been living in NYC for the past couple of years pursuing his PhD at Columbia University. We recorded a program of Marc’s music in 2014 and this tour was our first real opportunity to develop the music over the course of multiple performances. We played Melbourne, Hobart, Canberra and Sydney. The music scene in Australia seems vibrant and audiences were very enthusiastic all around.  The same could be said for Aussie folks in general.

Also had the chance to do some teaching workshops which I find to be an increasingly rewarding and important aspect of propagating the art. I enjoyed all of the workshops however there was one, at Monash University in Melbourne, that was particularly memorable. A question was asked about free improvisation. I can’t recall the question exactly but I think it had to do with a perceived problem about just what was being communicated in performance, particularly with a potentially challenging type of music. It was one of those questions that is too general for a pat answer and yet it was a sincere question and I could sense that this student was somehow stuck or troubled by it. So I responded by posing my own questions about the nature of music making from a performers standpoint and from a listener’s standpoint, eventually arriving at the question of “what is the essential quality that makes for a great communicator?” Students responded with their ideas and I kept asking more questions, attempting to design a line of inquiry even if I was not completely sure where we would wind up. This process gained some traction, more and more students began to offer ideas and at a certain point one student became so excited she decided that the only way to address the discussion was to play something at the piano. Unable to hold herself back, she invited the student who posed the initial question (a drummer) to join her.

At this point the inquiry went from being an intellectual process to an experiential one. And were there any answers? Hard to say since I can’t even remember all the questions. But with a clear and directed intent our pianist got her point across to everyone in the room and our drummer seemed to have gotten his head around something that he may not have completely understood but definitely felt. And what I do remember, very vividly, is sharing with the students this experience of “finding out” through doing something, together. Doing the workshop (teacher and students), doing the line of inquiry (speakers and listeners), doing the music (musicians and listeners). It was during this process that I realized the entire workshop could be summed up with one word.  Attention.  That’s what we were really talking about and that’s what we were really doing. That was the lesson. Whatever the original problem was, it was faced directly. Whatever that essential communicative quality is, shared by great musicians or great orators or great actors, it has everything to do with attention. The attention of the musicians guides the attention of the audience.  The attention of the audience guides the attention of the musicians. It’s in this space that our questions got addressed, in a deeper, non-verbal way. I might have described such a process to them but what good is that really? Limited at best, just like this blog post. But it is interesting, in that this process does not stop when the music is over. Our attention guides every aspect of our lives, from the smallest things to the largest.  In thinking about the role of music in the world, in the context of so many urgent issues, it seems we may have a potential model for how to approach things.

To play music is an act of giving. And likewise, to listen to music is also an act of giving. The idea that I, as a listener, am to be completely satisfied in terms of getting what I want is limited. I’m there to participate, to serve the situation. And the idea that I, as a musician, will play only for myself is also limited if not absurd. We’re both, musicians and listeners, looking for some form of truth as experienced together. As listeners we often say to the musicians, “thanks for the music”. And the musicians usually respond by saying “thanks for being here”. A simple recognition of an interdependent dynamic. I grew up in Baltimore and often played in African American jazz clubs where this dynamic was always in full effect. Listeners were active, physically and vocally. Participation was essential, you could hear and feel the audience helping the music along.  And it made you play better. And if you didn’t play well you’d hear about it. I was about nineteen years old the first time I went to the Bird Cage Lounge to sit in with saxophone great Mickey Fields. I thought I was really showing everybody something only to have a member of the audience tell me “you need to slow down!” I was a little taken aback but I knew it was coming from a place of love for the music.  And it was a larger lesson as well, showing that it wasn’t just about me, it was about every person and everything that was going on in that room. And there was a lot going on in that room. Everyone played their role. I just happened to be the guy with a saxophone. We were at each other’s service. And we were all at the service of the music. And the music was at the service of our lives. I considered it a privilege to be there.

And that’s a word that has come to the fore recently in our shared national conversations, although in a different context. Privilege as it relates to inequality, insensitivity, injustice. But there is a connection I think. I don’t pretend to offer any answers but I can think of some questions. What’s important? Where is our attention? Using music as a model to frame this issue may be of limited usefulness. But music is an essential aspect of being human, even if you don’t play it. So I think it’s OK. I’m a musician, that’s my skill, that’s what I do, that’s all I’ve got. I sometimes ask myself if that’s enough. Trying to see the bigger picture is never ending. There are blind spots. Like where you think you are and where others may see you from their perspectives. In playing music, we keep track of what we’re doing at the same time that we keep track of what the music is doing. That’s the only way things can function. Outside of music, in society, our attention needs to be engaged similarly. We have to keep track of what we’re doing at the same time as we keep track of what’s going on around us. And in fact there’s really no separation between the two. Except by virtue of blind spots, inadvertent or willful. And the consequences can be dire.

Again, no answers. I really don’t have much to say. We've all got our own work to do, our own part to play. Better to pay attention and be engaged, because every situation is fluid. Getting back to music, some audiences are more demonstrative and some less so. When I started to travel and do concert tours I used to think that quieter audiences were somehow not digging the music. But I would always stick around afterwards and chat with people only to find that there was a multitude of responses and that often times these quieter audiences were deeply engaged in listening. So I had to learn how to listen to them during the concerts as well. I had to change my perspective, not think of the audience as separate. We’re all individuals with our own thoughts and feelings. And yet when we do something together we often get a glimpse of that larger picture. All it takes is our attention, at all levels and across every interaction, large and small.

Gerry Hemingway Residency at The Stone, NYC

I first heard drummer Gerry Hemingway playing with Anthony Braxton’s quartet (along with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Mark Dresser) at the Knitting Factory in the early 1990s.  I was later introduced to Gerry musically through Mark Dresser and from there I was invited to play in Gerry’s newly formed quartet (with Mark Dresser and trombonist Robin Eubanks) beginning what would be a long and continuing relationship right up to the present day.  Gerry has always seemed to thrive on the “full plate” concept of juggling multiple projects complete with all of their attendant responsibilities. Writing tons of music, extending himself in every way, getting things organized, booking his own tours, mixing his own recordings.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.  But I’m grateful that he finds these kinds of situations to be so energizing as so much great music has come out of his efforts.

Gerry will be doing a week long residency at The Stone in NYC from July 28th to August 2nd.  I’ll be taking part in four projects during this week, the final one being my own group, “Trio New York” with Gerry on drums.

Thursday, July 30th at 8 pm, “Songs” 
Lisa Sokolov - voice
Michael Winsch - piano
Terry McManus - guitar
Brad Jones - bass
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Thursday, July 30th at 10 pm, “Riptide” Quintet 
Oscar Noriega - alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Terrence McManus - guitar
Brad Jones - bass
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Saturday, August 1st at 10 pm, “Quartet” 
Herb Robertson - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Mark Helias - bass
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Sunday, August 2nd at 8 pm, “Trio New York”
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gary Versace - organ
Gerry Hemingway - drums

See the entire schedule on Gerry's Website.

Summer Festivals in Europe

JazzFestival Willisau (Switzerland) & Saalfelden Jazzfestival (Austria)

Both of these festivals have been important annual events presenting contemporary jazz since the 1970’s. Both take place in small, beautiful European towns and draw an international audience. I'm looking forward to revisiting each of these festivals, seeing old friends and making new ones. For anyone traveling the continent this summer either of these events would be worth going out of your way for.

Friday, August, 28th
Willisau, Switzerland

      Trio New York 
      Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
      Gary Versace - Hammond B3
      Gerry Hemingway - drums

Saturday, August 29th
Saalfelden, Austria

      Angelica Sanchez Quintet

      Angelica Sanchez - pianist and composer
      Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
      Marc Ducret - guitar
      Drew Gress - bass
      Tom Rainey - drums

More hatOLOGY catalogue available…

I mentioned some time ago that all of the recordings I’ve done for the hatOLOGY label would eventually become available on iTunes. As of now, almost all of them, otherwise long out of print, are waiting for your ears

on clean feed records:
Mirage - Ellery Eskelin, Susan Alcorn, Michael Formanek

on Soul Note Records:
Figure of Speech - Ellery Eskelin, Joe Daley, Arto Tuncboyaciyan
The Sun Died - Ellery Eskelin, Marc Ribot. Kenny Wolleson

on Songlines Recordings:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Jazz Trash

on prime source recordings:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Jessica Constable & Philippe Gelda / Quiet Music

on hatOLOGY records:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / One Great Day
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / The Secret Museum
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Five Other Pieces (+2)
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Erik Friedlander & Joe Daley / Ramifications
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / 12 (+1) Imaginary Views
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs & Jessica Constable / Ten
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / One Great Night...Live

Forms / Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress, Phil Haynes
Vanishing Point / Ellery Eskelin, Mat Maneri, Erik Friedlander, Mark Dresser & Matt Moran
Dissonant Characters / Ellery Eskelin, Han Bennink

still to come:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Kulak 29 & 30
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Arcanum Moderne

I also have physical copies of some of these titles as well as “Trio New York” and “Trio New York II” which are only available in CD form.  You can order those directly from my web site.

New Projects Department...

I also want to call attention to a new and developing project from bassist and composer Stephan Crump. This band shows great promise.  We’ll be playing at Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, NYC on Saturday, October 10th, 2015.

Stephan Crump’s Rhombal

Stephan Crump - bassist and composer
Adam O’Farrill - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Tyshawn Sorey - drums

photo by Bonnie Wright

Saturday, May 16, 2015

SOLO Live at Snugs / 61 Local

New Release...“Live at Snugs / 61 Local”…now available by direct mail order from my website…

The hatHUT label (based in Switzerland) has been steadily producing recordings since 1975, nearly forty years of documenting the creative music scene. I’ve released over a dozen projects with the label since 1996, representing the bulk of my recorded output. Continuing in this relationship I’m very pleased to present this new release, a live solo saxophone recording made this past December in Brooklyn, NY as part of the Snugs concert series at 61 Local, produced by Anabel Anderson.

My first solo concert took place in 1992. In developing these performances over the years I often explored some of the further reaches of the saxophone. This solo performance represents a somewhat different approach, giving me a chance to work more deeply with the instrument’s core qualities, taking inspiration from the words of Hector Berlioz after hearing the saxophone for the first time:

“La voix du saxophone…Son principal mérite, selon moi, est dans la beauté variée de son accent, tantôt grave et calme, tantôt passionné, tantôt rêveur, ou mélancolique, ou vague, comme l’écho affaibli d’un écho, comme les plaintes indistinctes de la brise dans les bois, et mieux encore, comme les vibrations mystérieuses d’une cloche, longtemps après qu’elle a été frappée. Aucun autre instrument de musique existant, à moi connu, ne possède cette curieuse sonorité placée sur la limite du silence.”  Hector Berlioz, Le Journal des Débats (21 april 1849)

“The voice of the saxophone…Its chief merit, in my opinion, is in the varied beauty of its accent, sometimes serious and quiet, sometimes passionate, sometimes dreamy or melancholy or vague like the faint echo of an echo, as indistinct laments breeze in the woods, and even better, as the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it was hit. No other existing musical instrument, known to me, has this strange sound placed on the edge of silence .”  Hector Berlioz, Le Journal des Débats (April 21st, 1849)

Order ELLERY ESKELIN - Solo Live at Snugs / 61Local on CD, from the website for world-wide mail order via Pay Pal.  Price is $15 USD.

~limited time sale offer~

For a limited time we are offering a “2 for $25” sale. Order a copy of SOLO LIVE AT SNUGS and chose any other item on the order page and get both for $25. Be sure to use the “2 for $25” Pay Pal sale button. Then simply mention your second choice item in the additional notes field of the Pay Pal order page.

Click here to go to the website and order your copy.

Watch the Promotional Video and listen to an excerpt of “Unwritten Rule” from SOLO Live at Snugs / 61 Local:

Ellery Eskelin - Solo Live at Snugs / 61 Local
Recorded live at 61 Local in Brooklyn, NY by Jon Rosenberg on December 1st, 2013. All selections by Ellery Eskelin.  Tuhtah Publishing/Suisa.  Produced by Ellery Eskelin.  Executive production by Werner X. Uehlinger. hatOLOGY 731 CD.

Turning a Phrase 13:52
State of Mind 11:25
Unwritten Rule 10:29
Weave / Warp and Woof         14:40
Total Time 50:29

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spring 2015...

Meredith Monk and Friends at Carnegie Hall

Composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer (and maybe more, I’m not sure) Meredith Monk has been creating work in New York City for fifty years.  To my mind she has created an entire artistic world of her own and yet it is a world that speaks beyond stylistic or aesthetic conventions and connects to the world at large in a very direct engagement with our senses and emotions. When I was first confronted with her music (WNYC radio played her music often in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s) I did not understand it nor did I connect well with it. That’s embarrassing for me to say but it’s the truth. Her music utilized the voice in ways that I had never heard in any musical context before, sometimes sounding silly and childlike other times exaggerated and humorous and other times startling and nearly frightening. Her music also made heavy use of repetition, something I was not used to and in fact rather resistant to. But every time I heard her music it took possession of my entire attention.  I could not ignore it.  On one level I wanted to reject it and tried to justify thinking that it was somehow not valid. But the problem that it presented was too big to dismiss.  I couldn’t rationalize it away.  But I still couldn’t figure it out and it remained a somewhat frustrating experience whenever it came on the radio.  I listened to WNYC almost daily at that time and her music was being played regularly so this went on for some months.  Then one day, for what reason I’ll never be able to say, the whole thing changed.  Her music came on unexpectedly just as it had many times before.  But this time it made total sense.  Not only that, it spoke to me on a direct and emotional level that cut through any questions or intellectualizations. It wasn’t necessary to figure any thing out, it was OBVIOUS! How could I have missed it? What was my problem? From that point on her music made total sense and opened up a whole world of new issues with which to work through in my own music. Reexamining the role of memory, perception, time and proportion (things I had previously taken for granted) have led to a deeper appreciation for and awareness of the potential for music to resonate in ways I had not known possible. It’s even influenced my own compositional process.

This kind of musical awakening does not happen frequently. I think of myself as open minded and accepting of possibilities even if they do not particularly resonate with me. So it’s rare that I hear something and react with strong aversion.  Before that it was probably my first encounter with John Coltrane’s recording “Interstellar Space”. I was probably 14 years old and had been playing the horn for three or four years. I had already heard “Giant Steps” and loved that. But I had never heard music like he and Rashid Ali were making and more to the point, I couldn’t imagine why he was making a lot of the same kinds of sounds that I was trying to avoid making on the saxophone. I couldn’t understand how that was intentional. So I put the record away for a few years and kept practicing. At some point in high school I decided to revisit this record and gave it a spin. This time I heard the music. And it was a musical experience unlike anything I had experienced before. I realized he was making use of every potential sound he could get out of the instrument, maybe even trying for some that didn’t quite come out but you could feel what he was feeling. That level of communicative power was astonishing and revelatory.  It was as if he was confronting the big questions of life right there in the moment of playing the saxophone.

Likewise, in Meredith Monk’s music the use of the voice was deceptive at first, due to my expectations. In retrospect I think it was a recognition that the voice was being used like an instrument that changed my perspective that day. Not that she uses the voice to imitate instruments, in fact quite the opposite.  She embraces the most fundamental and essential qualities of the voice and yet organizes the sounds and events in ways that reflect abstract processes often used in instrumental music. Because vocal sounds in general are so personal we often regard them differently than instrumental sounds (which ironically often strive for a vocal quality). And in Meredith’s case, the way she structures her music seems to distill these personal essences, heightening their potency.

These kinds of moments are powerful and memorable. Sometimes we tend to equate a certain greatness to the music because of the power of these experiences. But that would be a bit of a trap. The music is what it it is. What changed was my relationship to it. And over time my feelings for Meredith Monk’s music and John Coltrane’s music has deepened such that it helps me connect with that thing that we all have in common even as we express it it different ways, though different cultural experiences and different traditions. Our shared humanity. It would be tempting to associate these unnamable qualities with particular sounds or approaches but the beauty of music is often encountering the unexpected. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out someone or something comes along and turns it all on it’s head. Then again, not all music does that and it would be a mistake to place a certain value (or lack of value) on the fact that you got your world rocked or not.  So I appreciate these moments even as I do not want to be trapped by chasing them. I may never have another experience like those, which is fine. To expect that would be an imposition on music and on myself.  These moments were simply sudden openings, personal to me at the time. Yours will be different. The fact that they were dramatic should not influence my expectations on other music heard at other times.  To do so would be to miss the opportunity to open in those moments. So the lesson is not to attach to the opening, but to continue to be open and continue to learn. And so for that continued opportunity I say, thank you Meredith!

I mention all of this in order to provide some background regarding a recent concert that I participated in at Carnegie Hall.  First off, it was my first time performing there so there’s that. And I live close enough so that I could walk to the gig, that’s always cool. But the real thrill was to be able to participate in a large scale presentation of the music of Meredith Monk along with a broad cross section of New York’s musical community, all of whom are deeply inspired by her work over these many years. Participants included Bang on a Can All-Stars (Ashley Bathgate, Cello - Robert Black, Bass - Vicky Chow, Piano - David Cossin, Percussion - Mark Stewart, Guitars - Ken Thomson, Clarinets), Don Byron, Future Quest (Theo Bleckmann, Vocals - Ellery Eskelin, Saxophone - John Hollenbeck, Percussion - Tony Malaby, Saxophone - Erik Deutsch, Organ), Ha-Yang Kim, Lukas Ligeti, The M6, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Courtney Orlando, Cynthia Powell, Lee Ranoldo, Todd Reynolds, Nadia Sirota, DJ Spooky, Young People's Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, Artistic Director), John Zorn, Cyro Baptista and was hosted by John Schaefer of WNYC radio. And of course Meredith Monk performed as well.

The project I participated in is called “Future Quest” and was put together by percussionist John Hollenbeck and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, both of whom have been members of Meredith’s ensemble for many years.  Erik Deutsch played organ and Tony Malaby and myself played saxophones. This is a group of improvisors at heart and yet there is little improvisation involved in the music. Improvisors usually want to take existing material and work with it, often dramatically changing the material in the process. But in this case we wanted to stay as close to the essence of the music as possible. The lesson for the improvisor in a situation like this is to learn how to inhabit the material, how to inhabit a melody, how to deliver it simply as what it is, not with additional commentary or ornamentation. Future Quest first performed at the Whitney Museum in 2009 as part of a similar presentation and has performed a number of times since then and I’m always reminded of this important lesson.  It’s consistently been one of the most rewarding musical experiences I’ve been a part of.

(Photograph of Future Quest by Steven Pisano)

Down Under...Australia 

In a previous post I mentioned a new project led by pianist Marc Hannaford that we recorded here in New York City.  This group will soon be heading to Australia for a two week tour of concerts and teaching engagements.  Here’s the rundown, mate…

Marc Hannaford - piano, compositions
Scott Tinkler - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - saxophone
Tom Rainey - drums

Wednesday, May 27th - Hobart Conservatorium - Concert and Workshops
Thursday, May 28th - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day)
Friday, May 29th  - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day) + Sydney Improvised Music Association performance at Foundry 616 (evening)
Tuesday, June 2nd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop
Wednesday, June 3rd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Bennetts Lane Jazz Club
Thursday, June 4th - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop, Monash University Music Auditorium
Friday, June 5th - The Street Theater - Canberra

Here’s a track from the recording, “Framed”.  Available at BandCamp.

Out West...Denver, Colorado

This past February I spent some time in Denver, Colorado doing workshops and teaching at Metro State University and University of Denver. Saxophonist Mark Harris is professor of saxophone and improvised studies at Metro State, trumpeter Ron Miles is the coordinator of Jazz Studies.  At University of Denver saxophonist Art Bouton is professor of saxophone and chair of the woodwind department.  Art and I attended Towson University in Baltimore together when Hank Levy ran the band.  Hank was a great writer with a signature sound and the band played his music exclusively. In fact, it was one of Hank Levy’s compositions, “Whiplash” that was used in the recent film of the same name. I hesitate to even mention that since the film portrayed a bizarre kind of boot camp - music school that in no way resembled anything that I could personally relate to in terms of learning and playing music.  Athletic, quasi militaristic and devoid of any joy or humanity and I’m not particularly sure what the point of the film was.  In any event, our time at Towson was rigorous but rewarding and joyful and there was a lot of love for Hank on the part of a great many people. He brought out the best in his bands in all of the most positive ways. I can only hope to bring some of that positive spirit with me when I visit music programs as a guest artist. Music has changed a bit since we were in school but music making is the same. I enjoyed the time in Denver, the students were very much engaged and enthusiastic.  Very easy to relate to and work with.  I’m also encouraged to see an awareness on the part of these programs that the needs of students today is also a bit different than in years past. As music changes, as the business of music changes, music programs need to serve these realities and offer solid foundational study with opportunities for creative and eclectic activity.  So kudos to both of these programs.

I also had the great fortune to connect with pianist Art Lande for two concerts in Denver, one at Dazzle Jazz Club and one at Metro State.  I’ve been aware of Art’s reputation for many years and so it was great to have this opportunity to make some music. Having never played together before I was hoping to have a chance to get together before the first concert and see how things felt, decide how we wanted to structure things.  But given the schedule we only had a brief amount of time at the club to do this before the actual concert.  Our plan was to improvise freely utilizing standards, something that I’ve been also doing with my group “Trio New York”.  Once the piano was set up and the stage cleared and ready to go Art played a few notes and I joined in.  Within five seconds I was completely assured.  It was as if we had been playing together for years.  Art and I both try and play with very clear phrasing and clarity of intent, mixing and matching ideas off of each other and never falling into default roles of solo and accompaniment. There were some almost telepathic moments that surprised us both. All in all a wonderful experience.  Thanks to everyone in Denver for making this happen!

And while I'm thinking of it, here is a rendition of Hank Levy’s composition “Whiplash” as performed by the Don Ellis band in 1973 (that’s more than forty years ago!)

Spirits Rejoice

Jason Bivins, musician, writer and professor of religious studies at North Carolina State University, has written a new book on the subject of jazz and American religion called “Spirits Rejoice” (named after the Albert Ayler recording).  The relationship between secular and sacred musical traditions in the United States runs deep and yet it’s generally not directly addressed in most musical criticism or discussion.  Given the potential complications it’s perhaps easy to see why that is.  Yet this is a deep part of our history no matter where you may see yourself in relation to the subject.  As such, I think a fuller understanding of this music requires that we look at this history in order to better understand where we are and how we got here.  Jason has done some considerable research and has reached out to the community of musicians (of which he is a part) for some fascinating insights into the many differences and commonalities of approach among musicians.  In the process we gain some insight into the music as well as the many traditions of religious practice taking place in America through the lens of improvisation.  I’m only half way through it but I can already sense that this is a necessary book.

I should mention that Jason and I got together one afternoon a few years ago for a discussion, which is referred to in the book. As much as I see and feel the connections between music and what we generally refer to as spirituality I’ve never been quite comfortable in compartmentalizing some experiences or activities as spiritual and others not. I get hung up on words and intellectualization. One of the beauties of playing music is that it’s non-verbal and even if there are lyrics involved there is a complexity of ideas and emotions that resists a completely literal interpretation. Jazz music in particular is one of the only things that made real sense to me in the world, something I recognized early on in life. As such my identity has been completely enmeshed with being a musician. If I had a religion it was jazz music. I’ve been playing long enough now that I can begin to entertain the idea of asking "who" it is that is playing. But I still don’t like to name things. At it’s best music is experiential and unnamable.  Same with life. I’ve sometimes struggled in order to create a music that integrates my perspectives and experiences, experiences that sometimes seemed at odds. But over time things seem to come together. You realize the continuity and reality of your life and you write your own story. To do that in the context of American music is to also be connected to a deep and powerful tradition, born out of the African American experience and yet speaking to our shared humanity as Americans and as world citizens around the globe. To talk about that story and that history invokes a great deal of pain.  But it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit in both suffering and in joy. Given that American music and American religion have an inextricable and complex relationship it seems impossible to talk about the music without addressing or at least being aware of the relationships. Jason’s book should move this conversation forward in a positive, productive and meaningful way.

Different But the Same

I’ve written before about “Different But the Same” (Dave Liebman - tenor saxophone, Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone, Tony Marino - bass, Jim Black - drums). We’ve been playing now for over ten years. We had such a great time on the last tour playing without any written music that we decided to go into the studio and do the same. Always good to document the growth of a band, we’ll see what happens with this. I’ve known Dave now since 1981 and so it’s been rewarding to see his continued artistic trajectory over these many tears, a true keeper of the flame. Dave was honored with a NEA Jazz Masters award in 2011 and recently there has been a book “What it Is - The Life of a Jazz Artist” that chronicles his life. It’s a rewarding read and offers a vivid portrait of New York City in the late 60’s and into the 70s.

More hatOLOGY on iTunes

I mentioned in a previous post that my catalogue of recordings done on the hatOLOGY label (over a period of more than ten years) will eventually be available in full on iTunes.  The first title “One Great Day…” (1996) has been up for some months and now there is also “One Great Night…Live” (2009).  Additionally two of the titles I’ve done in collaboration with fellow saxophonist David Liebman in the group “Different But the Same” are available.

One Great Night Live
Different But the Same - Renewal
Different But the Same - Non Sequiturs

The Art of Street Photography - Lee Friedlander

In one of my previous posts I mentioned seeing Lee Friedlander on the street here in town one morning. I’ve been a big fan of his work since seeing his retrospective at MOMA back in 2005. On that morning, passing him on Eighth avenue I wondered what he was seeing, what he was shooting. After all, he's been shooting urban portraits for fifty years. Given the almost romanticized filter through which we might see images from the 1960s the comparison to today's street scenes is jolting. In earlier photos of the city there was more of what we might call independent culture (shops and business) while today we see more of what we might call mass culture (chain stores, corporate advertising) such as we see all over the country and even abroad. Not to mention people on cell phones. Because of my attitude surrounding these things I sometimes recoil at the idea of taking photos in the city, especially in midtown. But there was Lee Friedlander with his camera doing just that. So I really wondered what he was shooting and would have loved to have seen whatever work he did that day.

This morning in the New York Times we got a chance to see what that might have been. In the Sunday magazine section there is an article on Friedlander (by Teju Cole) with about a dozen street shots, all centered on people and their cell phones. Here are a few quotes from the article that resonated:

“The Friedlander effect is properly encountered not in a single photo but in a group.”

This is something that struck me deeply when I saw the Friedlander retrospective. Sometimes the images seem chaotic or unintentional, dense with information and it may not be easy to make sense of what you are confronted with. But in seeing a group of his photos it becomes easier to see what is going on in common, his “voice” if you will.

“What makes Friedlander’s photos distinct is the scrupulous inclusiveness. He shows us the tangles, the interruptions, the mess, the disorder — all of it. His photographs should fall apart, but they don’t: The catholicity of optical description, and his wide-angle lens, large depth of field and subtle middle tones, hold them together. Everything is seen with a kind of ecstatic candor.”

But I disagree with the author on the following point: “But this time, out there on the street, he’s just another American glued to his gadget, thrilled by the passing scene. Like his subjects, Friedlander is not distracted but rather is deeply absorbed in the task at hand. He is a part of the flow that he records.”

In fact, there is a major difference in that Lee Friedlander is paying a great deal of attention to what’s going on around him. The people he is photographing on their phones are not. He is tuned in, they are tuned out. And that's something I find admirable beyond my respect for Lee Friedlander as an artist. How often do we really see what is in front of us, without interpretation and bias? Of course a great photograph does offer a point of view, an opinion. Maybe even a truth. But in order to find these things the photographer must be able to strip away their own attitudes and conditioning to see simply what is. In doing so they open the possibility of discovering something that they did not know was there. In seeing such work we are often astonished at what we miss in our everyday walks and travels. This is one of the reasons I love photography.

Getting close...

I’ve been mentioning the upcoming solo saxophone release “Solo Live at Snugs” for some months now.  We’re actually getting quite close to having the discs in hand.  I expect that to happen sometime in the first week of May.  Once I receive the shipment I’ll be making more noise about it and letting you know how to get your hands on a copy.