Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Podcast conversation...

Clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman has been posting a growing collection of podcasts on his website 5049 Records, informal (and extensive) conversations with improvising musicians here in New York City. Jeremiah has a way of getting below the surface in these talks, being both humorous and disarming even when touching on some of the more serious aspects of artistic life.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeremiah in episode 44.

Listen here...

Friday, January 17, 2014

First Blog Post(s) of 2014

Having not posted all that regularly of late I’ll take this opportunity to try and catch things up a bit.  This is really about eight posts of material in one…

New Year’s Resolution
Why Improvisation?  That’s a question worth revisiting from time to time, which likely sounds strange coming from someone who considers themselves an improvisor above all else.  After all, improvisation is a process that seems to net results that could not have been achieved though other means.  But the reason I ask myself this question stems from my desire to make improvisations that have the concision and structural integrity of notated compositions.  While being quite satisfied with the process, and with much of the work I’ve done in this area, comparisons are unavoidable whenever attending a chamber music concert of contemporary music.  Texturally there can be quite a lot of overlap between contemporary improvisation and contemporary composition.  And yet there are certain pieces encountered from time to time that really inspire this drive towards even greater concision and organization in my improvised work.  Some of the chamber music concerts in the city have afforded the opportunity to meet and speak with composers and performers.  It would seem that over time the worlds of contemporary concert music and improvised music have come closer together.  Composers and performers of contemporary concert music seem to have a greater awareness of the kind of work that goes under the name of jazz and or new music, in which composition intersects with improvisation in myriad ways.  In my circles, composing one’s own music is expected if not required.  Personally I’ve not done much composing beyond the immediate necessities required to otherwise serve largely improvised settings.  In coming to realize just how many talented composers are out there the time seems right to take advantage of this situation.  The goal this year will be to commission a composition for saxophone and chamber ensemble.  I’m currently researching and familiarizing myself with the work of various composers (many of whom are new to me) and will begin moving on this project in the coming months.

“Trio New York” European Tour 
Trio New York” (with Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ and Gerald Cleaver on drums) made it’s second European tour this past October.  We continue to focus on just a handful of standards at a time, going deeply under the surface, presenting them in varying ways, all arrived at spontaneously in performance.  Never dictating that a tune be played in any particular tempo or time-feel, never deciding in advance how any tune will be treated, or what song we may arrive at, once we settle on a tune there is no guarantee that we will even follow any type of preconceived protocol in terms of it’s form.  So what kind of guidelines or determining factors come into play in such a process?  Simply that the music should breathe, always sounding and feeling good, no matter what is being played at any given moment.  Rather than fit our ideas into the structure of a song we may choose to alter the song’s structure to better accommodate our ideas.  It takes time for a band to develop the kind of rapport necessary for this type of approach.  We’ve been playing for almost four years now and it’s very gratifying to experience the kind of musical development that happens on tour.  Onward…

Solo Concert and Recording
There’s something about solo concerts…recently one of my students gave a solo clarinet recital here in NYC, mainly for friends and family.  He had played music when younger then stopped for many years, picking the instrument up again as an adult.  It was very affirming, not only for him but for us listeners sharing the experience.  He played for the joy and challenge of the experience, pushing himself past perceived limitations, making music with what he had and maintaining connection with the audience the entire time.  It’s an elemental yet profound dynamic that never fails to impress me.

My first solo concert took place at the Old Knitting Factory (NYC) in 1991.  Playing solo saxophone for an hour is a special challenge and not one that I might normally have made time for.  It’s a bit intimidating. The motivation for this concert came as the result of the distress felt upon looking into my datebook, facing a three month period of nothing.  After some thought, deciding that this time may actually be of some benefit if used wisely, I made a date with the Knitting Factory to do a solo concert having absolutely no idea how to accomplish putting together such a program.  Of course I kept that last part to myself.  Starting from scratch in the practice room each night with the horn, a clock and a tape recorder, I slowly began to reassess many musical questions and concepts that had previously been taken for granted.  What is a phrase?  What is a piece of music?  During this period I did not to play with any other musicians at all, even casually, so as to focus this experience with full intensity.  After the concert took place and the process of playing with other musicians began anew it was surprising to find that the work that took place during this three month period had a dramatic effect on the way I played in ensembles.  An unexpected result that continues to resonate even these many years later.  This solo program was documented on the recording “Premonition - Solo Tenor Saxophone” (limited copies of which are available for mail order).  Over the years there have been many more solo concerts, all based upon the concepts developed in that three month period.  The last one took place in Paris in May of 2009.  Later that year I became consumed with making some fundamental changes with my approach to the saxophone.  If you’ve been reading this blog (the first entry being April 2010 ) you’ll know that this process of reconsidering issues of sound has been almost like relearning the saxophone from the very beginning.  That can be a daunting challenge especially in the middle of many different types of musical commitments.  Not only was there a steep learning curve involving the new (old) instrument but my musical conception was changing as well.  It’s been about four years now. With the transition phase well behind me a new solo concert program remained as an unmet challenge.  The idea was just as intimidating as it was the first time, maybe even more so.

In December, Anabel Anderson extended an invitation to take part in her “Snugs Concert Series” of solo concerts at 61 Local in Brooklyn.  Without the invitation this certainly would not have happened when it did.  But sometimes a deadline is just the thing to spur creativity.  In this case there was a good month of daily preparation (this time without the social renunciation) including test recordings and assessments.  One significant difference for this program was the decision to improvise completely, with no plan, guide or material of any kind to rely upon.  The concert took place on December 1st, 2013 and was documented by audio engineer Jon Rosenberg.  A release is planned for later in the year. Stay tuned…

Towson University Residency (and questions regarding creativity…)
I’m looking very much forward to what will be my third residency at Towson University in Baltimore this April.  These residencies consist of a week’s worth of daily immersion in activities with the students culminating with a concert that we will have developed together.  The first residency (2010) focused on work with the improvisation ensemble.  The second year (2011) involved compositions that I had written over the course of my recorded output as adapted for a student group.  This year will see a different approach, that of dealing with swing through the performance of early jazz repertoire by Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.  This idea has already met with some surprise in as much as my reputation is not at all associated with early jazz music.  At least one student has raised the question of just how creative it is to play these old arrangements and investigate these early soloists.  So what’s the thinking on this?  Swing does not often get addressed in the context of so called “creative” improvising workshops.  It’s usually considered a style of music from the past.  And yet we perpetuate this association at the risk of cutting students off from an important reservoir of creativity.  By ignoring the issue of swing there is the tacit implication to students that it is not that important, vital or relevant to them.  I’m a firm believer that everything comes from rhythm and want students to realize just how many creative choices they have available to them at any point in time.  Placement, color, attack, decay, volume, texture…there are myriad considerations as to how to play a melody.  One of the most enjoyable lessons I’ve ever given was having a student explore every permutation in the delivery of the opening figure of Charles Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle” that he could think of.  I don’t think we got much past the first phrase or two for the entire hour.  It will be important to treat this as a creative process and not an exercise in idiomatic recreation.  There are many ways in which this could play out.  Look for a post residency recap in April.

Special Note: Also during that week will be a performance by “Trio New York” (with Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ and Nasheet Waits on drums) at Towson University’s Center for the Arts recital hall on Wednesday, April 2nd.  It will be especially meaningful to me to present this group in Baltimore, a true organ town at it’s core.  If you’re anywhere in the area please considering stopping by.

What I learned from my teachers…
My friend Ben Goldberg (clarinetist and composer) was just in town and we were having coffee at a neighborhood cafe along with saxophonist Bob Feldman.  In talking about some of the old music publishers in the city we got to joking over Ben’s comment that back in the day “there was only one jazz book” (“Improvising Jazz” by Jerry Coker, 1964).  Upon further reflection he and Bob thought of one more, “Bop Duets” by Bugs Bower, from 1946.  Quite a contrast to these days where there is so much information available.

The first jazz record I ever owned was a Dizzy Gillespie big band LP which my mother gave me from her collection when I was around eight years old.  There was a lot of information to process in that music and the record got played repeatedly.  At first following the bass parts, then the melodies (which were fast and complex) things began to line up.  Listening to the inner harmonies became fascinating.  And eventually I could even sing along with the solos.  In fact, I can pretty much remember that entire record these many years later.  Another early record in my collection was Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt’s “You Talk That Talk” which got worn out from constant use.  Rather than replacing it with a different title I bought another copy of the very same LP.  Fast forward to today and with so much available at the touch of a button it’s easy to go wide but perhaps not so deep.  With so many books and resources available there’s a danger in not doing this work on one’s own, thus not truly developing the essential skills required to be an improvisor. Memorizing from the page is not at all the same process as using your ears.  By using your ears you’ll facilitate making your own discoveries and personalize the material you are working with.  Many of the discoveries I’ve made for myself have involved ideas and concepts that have in fact been discovered by many others before me.  But encountering them through a process of aural investigation and experimentation (as opposed to wholesale acquisition from written sources) makes all the difference.

I was recently cleaning out some old papers when I came across some pages of manuscript written out for me by George Coleman and David Liebman as part of my lessons with them.  I was struck by just how basic this material was.  In the case of both of these musicians I was given just enough information and explanation to get me started on my own process of investigation.  They knew how to open my mind to the possibilities of what could be done, well beyond the material at hand.  That meant a lot of hard work but I feel very strongly that any substitute for this kind of work is merely a postponement of the inevitable.  Being faced with too much material can actually be a major distraction.  Best to find a teacher who can help focus your efforts.  With that in mind I thought it would be appropriate to relate some early experiences I had with my teachers.

Phil Woods
You may have already seen the concert listings from the Left Bank Jazz Society of Baltimore I posted on my website many years ago.  One of the most important music lessons I ever had took place at the Left Bank’s Famous Ballroom.  I went to see saxophonist Phil Woods perform with his quartet.  The year may have been 1979.  Being a teenager hanging at the Left Bank on a Sunday afternoon hearing some great music in a relaxed but exciting environment was an education in itself.  The prevailing attitude at that time was that jazz could not be taught and that you either had it or you didn’t.  I had been improvising completely by ear and while I was enrolled in a music program at Towson University the emphasis there was on classical music and music eduction.  The jazz ensemble was the entire reason many of us went to Towson but there was little to no instruction in improvisation.  We were more or less on our own.  I understood basic music theory but I didn’t know how to apply that to the saxophone.  So here I am face to face with Phil Woods and he’s playing everything that I wish I could play.  Not that I couldn’t play those lines off the page.  I had been reading the occasional Charlie Parker solo off of transcriptions since high school.  But to improvise fluently in that language was a major leap and I didn’t quite know how to go about learning to do that.  So I got up my nerve and decided to ask Phil Woods for a lesson.  I was a bit afraid to approach him directly as he appeared to be in kind of a gruff mood.  I seem to recall him announcing that another great jazz musician had just passed although I can’t be sure who that may have been.  The pianist (I believe at was Mike Melillo) seemed friendly and approachable.  I started a conversation with him and expressed my desire to speak with Phil about a lesson.  Mike offered to take me to the band’s dressing room and introduce me.  So we walk back there and I’m standing outside the door looking in.  There’s a group of people in there sitting around while Phil is in the middle of the room standing at a table with his saxophone and case looking a little distracted.  There’s kind of a cloud hanging over his head (speaking metaphorically) in that I can sense that he’s a little bugged.  Also, there is quite literally a cloud hanging over everyone’s head, the room being full of smoke.  More detail than that is probably unnecessary.  So I take a few tentative steps into the room and Mike says something to Phil about me being there.  Phil hasn’t looked up at all and is still rummaging around in his case.  So I say something to the effect of “thank you Mr. Woods, it’s a great concert and I’m really enjoying it.  I play the tenor saxophone and I was hoping that I might be able to take a lesson with you.  I really want to learn how to play in the bebop style”.  Without missing a beat, without looking at me and without interrupting what he was doing he growls back “I don’t teach styles”!  And with that I know it’s my cue to leave the room.  I had fucked up and I knew it immediately.  The vibe was so awkward in front of all of these people so I kind of mumbled something and backed up out of the room.  Mike looked at me with an expression that said, “well, sorry…”.  I didn’t tell anyone this story for a long time as I was so embarrassed.  But I knew exactly what he meant by not teaching styles.  Over the years this stuck with me as a theme, reinforcing the true nature of improvisation as being a process.  While I never did take a lesson with Phil Woods I consider this experience as important as many of my more formal lessons.  Thanks Mr. Woods!

Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz has been a hero of mine for a very long time.  I never took a lesson with Lee but he did come to Towson University to give a workshop while I was there.  I had been listening to his records for years and was very excited to hear what he had to say.  At first things were a bit slow, Lee starting off with “does anyone have any questions”?  I’m not sure what was asked or what he said in response but within a few minutes Lee decided that he would demonstrate for us his method of practicing.   He spoke about learning a tune, knowing the melody and chords fully and then playing that melody in time over and over until it’s ingrained.  After some time with that he would then begin taking improvised choruses on the song.  First in whole notes.  He demonstrated this, playing whole note choruses on a tune (it may have been “All The Things You Are”) for some minutes.  Then he stopped and said a few things about that and announced that he would then move to half notes.  This also went on for some minutes.  A little more talk and then quarter notes.  A little more talk and then eight notes.  By now this process has taken twenty minutes or more.  I can sense that the people in the room are getting a little uncomfortable.  They had expected something more substantial than this very simple approach.  After some more talk the workshop was over.  In speaking to my friends afterward there is a lot of grumbling about the fact that he just stood there playing whole notes the whole time.  Even my saxophone professor was complaining that “he didn’t come prepared with a lesson plan”!  I on the other hand, loved it and went straight to the practice room to experience this process for myself.  By honoring the amount of time required (Lee stressed that it should be done slowly and deliberately) I found that there was actually a great deal of freedom intertwined in the process of making the changes.  And it had nothing to do with pre-learned lines or licks.  It was one note at a time, hear it then play it.  This simple process made a big impact on me.  Thanks Lee!

George Coleman
When I was still living in Baltimore I met drummer Harold White.  Harold was originally from Baltimore but had been living in New York for many years having played with Horace Silver.  Around 1980 Harold came back to Baltimore to help out his mother.  During that time we got to play tother quite a bit.  This was right at the time when I was playing by ear and Harold, while being very supportive, gave me George Coleman’s number and urged me to take some lessons with him.  It wasn’t until after I had left Baltimore and began traveling that I managed to connect with George while in NYC.  I had seen some jazz books, knew how ii V I progressions worked (in theory) and even done some transcriptions by this time but none of this seemed to stick when it came time to play.  I just didn’t know how to apply any of it.  So I made an appointment with George Coleman to meet at his apartment for a lesson.  The first thing I did was play “There Will Never be Another You” with George comping at the piano.  Within the first chorus George seemed to know exactly what I needed.  He wrote out the changes and wrote out a page of melodic ideas that clearly defined the harmonic contours of the song. He pointed out these contours in the tune and instructed me to make up my own melodic ideas to fit them (using his ideas as a model) and come back again.  To this day I’m not completely sure what it was about this experience that clicked for me but all of the sudden things seemed to make sense. Probably because I was doing the work on the horn as opposed to reading it from a book.  He had opened up the process for me.  I took the next lesson and was gratified to hear George tell me that he heard progress.  He seemed pleased, almost surprised.  In this lesson he went deeper into the harmonic possibilities of a number of tunes, cluing me into ideas based on diminished scales and other devices. Again, doing this work from ear to horn made all the difference.  I didn’t have to write many things down at all.  These melodic ideas worked like a kind of musical glue that held things together functionally.  They weren’t anything that I hadn’t seen before but doing the work and discovering these things for myself made them my own.  I only took these two lessons with George Coleman but they were probably the most important lessons I’ve had in that so much of my subsequent development could not have taken place without this foundation.

Some years later (around 1984) I was playing a gig at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.  I was taking a solo on “Body and Soul” and it wasn’t feeling all that great.  I didn’t like my reed.  I wasn’t really flowing with the tune as best I could, struggling a bit.  I had my eyes closed and was concentrating hard on just trying to keep things together.  Just one of those tough times that you have to push your way through.  I finish the solo and open my eyes only to see George Coleman standing just a few feet away directly facing me, arms crossed and with a very concerned look on his face.  He was by himself, staring straight at me.  I could tell that he wasn’t completely sold.  By the time we finished the set he was gone.  I didn’t have a chance to speak with him but I knew the score.  I was scuffling and we both knew it.  To come out of that solo and be faced with that glaring demeanor has stuck with me all these years.  Along with organist Jack McDuff yelling across the stage at me,  “You call yourself a musician?” (another catalyzing moment from those years) this experience drove home the importance of being prepared (knowing the material) any time I pick up the horn to play in front of people.  It’s as if George’s presence is still felt whether I’m conscious of it or not, urging me to play better.  Thank you George Coleman.

Mel Ellison
I only took one lesson with saxophonist Mel Ellison.  He came through Baltimore in 1979 playing with trumpeter Ted Curson.  He had a very different sound and approach to the horn than anyone I’d ever heard.  Mel was one of the first people I met who was living the life.  I wrote about my experience with Mel in this early post on the blog.

David Liebman
I became aware of David Liebman’s sound and music while I was in college.  My saxophone professor had a list of potential artists under consideration for an upcoming workshop.  He asked my advice and when I saw Dave’s name on the list I said "you have to get him"!  Upon moving to NYC I began following David around and and managed to set up a couple of lessons with him in the mid eighties. David represented the kind of musician I wanted to be, pushing himself forward and developing a very identifiable sound and approach (this during a rather more conservative musical climate in NYC). David and I have since gone on to collaborate musically and by now have a history together which is very rewarding.  As for my lessons, Dave had some rather fundamental suggestions.  He felt that my sound was a bit too uniform and advised me to investigate more timbral variation.  He also opened up the idea of creating an intervallic melodic language, a sort of lyrical atonality.  I have some manuscript paper in which he wrote out some of these ideas.  Again, like the George Coleman pages, very basic stuff with just a hint of how to start out my investigations.  I kind of wished for a bit more but this forced me to find my own ideas rather than copy his and opened up an entire line of inquiry that I devoted years to, creating a melodic language that is not based on chords. Applying this language to playing over chord changes has helped to maintain spontaneity when playing tunes.  For the entry into this process I say thanks Dave!

Final Thought…
Over the years there were other folks who took me aside from time to time in order to show me a thing or two.  These moments were in many ways just as important as these more formal lessons.  Add to that the many things we learn from each other as performers, colleagues and friends.  We should not underestimate the importance of our musical relationships as being central to the development of this art.

In most musical inquiries of late I find myself returning again and again to the word process.  Improvisation requires spontaneity and interaction and the skills required to achieve those qualities are actually rather basic, so much so that writing about them only seems to emphasize the simplicity of the process, making this essay slightly challenging to pull off.  On the other hand it may be of some value for students to realize that these very simple processes will only take on depth and become enriched with time and experience.   While there is such a wealth of information and increasingly sophisticated materials to be assimilated by today’s improvising musicians this simple concept can be underestimated, that of being able to imagine music and make it come out of one’s instrument.  How can one imagine each new musical situation as starting from a clean slate (unencumbered by the very materials that are essential to acquiring our language, which can become pre-programmed)?  How can one interact with other improvisors in the moment, working together to compose a lucid piece of music with formal and structural integrity?  This seems like something of a paradox but it’s really just the nurturing of two different types of processes.  Our practice requires a more complex analytical process while our performance requires a very simple and intuitive process.

My son has become interested in archery and we’ve been going to the archery range together on a fairly regular basis.  I started from nothing but over time have progressed enough to realize that there are some parallels with respect to putting air into the saxophone.  Essentially you are performing an act that is rather complex but with practice ultimately making it as simple as possible.  In the case of archery you look at the target and put the arrow there.  In the case of the saxophone you imagine the sound and then make it.  There is almost a magic to this process in that so much of it is intuitive.  In both cases the more you can get out of your own way the more the process takes care of itself.  Once set in motion the arrow has no choice as to where to go.  Likewise, the saxophone can only respond to the energy that you put into it.

My son has become quite proficient at the range and espouses a natural approach, encouraging me to remove the aiming sight from my bow.  Without this guide there seems to be nothing concrete with which to orient my shot.  This has been somewhat unnerving, especially when shooting among a group of skilled archers.  Thankfully no one says anything if my arrow goes off course but it’s hard not to feel the pressure.  Obsessing over hitting the bullseye only leads to neglecting some aspect of my form.  And it can be very difficult not to overcompensate after a bad shot (curiously it can be even harder after hitting a bullseye, when we very much want to replicate the shot).  In either case it’s best to simply to honor the process, reset and start over as if nothing happened.   At this level we must rely on our body’s natural skills and strengths many of which are out of our conscious control.  It’s the same when playing the saxophone, especially with respect to sound production and intonation. In practice mode we can compartmentalize the aspects of form into in a mental checklist, isolating certain aspects when necessary then returning to the whole.  Improvements are incremental.  In performance we must stay focused on the moment, keeping things as simple as possible.  Everything follows as only it can, one idea to the next.  All of the study and knowledge you have accumulated will come into play naturally. You won’t even have to think consciously of it.

For the Saxophonists…
I recently bought a couple of very old saxophone mouthpieces in an attempt to discover something about how saxophonists played the instrument in the 20’s and 30’s.  Over the period of a couple of weeks I began recording myself playing all of the various mouthpieces I own with various brands of reeds.  Sound perception can be a tricky thing.  Sometimes we may obsess over a particular aspect of the tone (certain frequencies) and wind up amplifying our perception of them.  Other times we may not fully appreciate just how strong certain frequencies of the sound may be.  We need sufficient high frequencies to project our sound, especially when playing in louder situations.  As a result the sound as heard up close will be perceived differently than when heard farther away.  Because we’re always behind the instrument we have to imagine to some degree how this will really sound to everyone else and how to best achieve an acceptable tonal balance.

Comparing all these different clips on playback was at times a bit confusing.  They all sounded more or less the same.  Of course, in order to play certain kinds of music with certain sonic demands it’s best to choose equipment wisely.  Otherwise we work too hard to achieve the desired results and have less energy and attention for actually making music.  But there are certain techniques to playing the old style mouthpieces.  It’s very easy to over-power them as they seem to offer much less resistance than more open modern pieces.  It takes proper focus of the air-stream, finding this resistance and adjusting to it. Then the mouthpiece will open up and fill the room with a very full and warm sound with a natural high end, very well in balance.  At one point I wondered if it would be possible to play an R&B gig on one of these early mouthpieces.  It didn’t seem to have any of that kind of edge or rawness that one associates with tunes like “Night Train” or “Walkin’ with Mr. Lee”.  In my attempt to play “Honky Tonk” the reed closed up completely.  In backing off, finding the resistance and playing the same thing very softly it became clear that articulating the notes of the melody appropriately was all that was required to convey the feeling of the tune.  It’s not the force of the airstream but the inflections and nuances that give the feeling of the rhythm.  It doesn’t have to be full on, but if it is, it’s essential that you still have the right delivery.  Otherwise it’s just forced.  The lesson to take from this is that one’s personal sound is largely due to phrasing, inflections, attacks and variance in tone coloration rather than the basic sound itself.  After all was said and done, I still wound up on the same mouthpiece that I’ve been playing.  But a certain amount of flexibility was gained in the process.  So don’t get too hung up on equipment.   As for reeds, be sure to have some sort of break in process and you ought to be able to play all of them.  If I didn’t break my reeds in I’d be lucky to find one two out of ten that I could play.  I would never simply pull a reed out of the box and try to play it on a gig.

As for developing your sound think about movement.  Moving from one note to another.  I like to practice my long-tones this way.  Make sure you can play smoothly (slurring) from any note on the horn to any other note on the horn.  Do it slowly and be sure your embouchure, tongue position and air stream are correct to the task.  This leads to a more musical conception.  No matter what you’re practicing always strive to play with respect to sound and phrasing, pacing your statements and ideas. One note leading to another, every note functioning to serve your sense of direction. It’s just like chord changes, which are entirely about movement.  We don’t so much play “on” a chord as we move “through” the chords.  This simple idea frees us up to be creative with our choices. It also helps us to identify and nurture our own musical idiosyncrasies.  Keep in mind, I’m still doing these basic things.  I expect they will continue to be central to my practice.

Lastly, every saxophonist would do well to learn more about how the saxophone works.  There’s a lot of just plain wrong information that gets passed around among even the most accomplished musicians (which is further perpetuated and taken advantage of by instrument makers).  The more you understand, the easier these processes will become.

This is a very useful site on Music Acoustics with respect to the saxophone.

Specifically the Introduction to Saxophone Acoustics.

Also recommended is “Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics” by Arthur Benade.

More Family History…
One of the early posts in this blog was on the subject of my mother, organist Bobbie Lee and her musical upbringing in the church, a Pentecostal church in Baltimore, Maryland.  My grandfather, guitarist Theodore “Ted” Blankenship was the musical director at this church.  As my mother is fond of saying, “the music had to get everyone moving”.  And it was my Grandfather’s job to make sure that happened.  In speaking with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn (who performs along with with bassist Mike Formanek on “Mirage”) about the development of the pedal steel she told me a bit about the tradition of “Sacred Steel” and how in some churches the pedal steel took on the role of the organ.  In reading about this tradition it seems that congregations were often astonished at how this instrument could “talk”, almost articulating the words to the songs.  In Baltimore for a concert with Susan and Mike I spoke to my mother about the group and mentioned Susan’s instrument.  My mother reminded me that my Grandfather played the pedal steel in church.  With only a vague recollection that he had ever played the instrument I was surprised to know that he used it in church services.  She said the congregation loved the fact that he could “talk” on the instrument.  By the mid ‘60s my mother was out of the church and into Baltimore’s nightclub scene.  My grandfather also left the church after a time and while he continued to teach guitar in Baltimore into the ‘70s he had not performed live in many years.  Ted Blankenship passed away in 2008.  I regret that I never had a chance to really hear him play.  I’d love to have asked him more about his roots in in Weirton, a steel town (established in 1793) in West Virginia.  He seemed somewhat reluctant to speak about those days and usually made a point of saying how much he disliked “hillbilly” music.  He liked pretty chords.  But I have to wonder what he saw and heard in those days as a young person.  The type of worship service my mother describes has it’s roots in a very deep strain of American culture.  And it’s one that somehow speaks to me, however indirectly, through my mother’s sense of rhythm.  One of the last times I visited my Grandfather he pulled out his guitar and played a few chords for us.  Well into his ‘90s he didn’t have the fluidity he would have had back in the day but I was astonished at the voicings, they were beautiful.  I so wish I had recorded that.  They’ll just have to resonate in my memory, along with my memories of him.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Interview posted at "Do the Math"

My apologies for not having posted anything in the past four months.  Hope everyone enjoyed the summer (or whatever the appropriate season in your hemisphere). Thanks to all who have purchased the new releases.  Thanks in advance to those of you who will.  And thanks to everyone for reading.  Perhaps this current installment will make up for the lack of recent activity on the blog.

I'd like to call attention to a recent interview I did for Jake Wunsch which is being hosted by Ethan Iverson's blog "Do The Math".  Jake Wunsch is a clarinetist who has been studying with me regularly for some time.  Jake's idea was to structure the interview as a sort of pseudo "blindfold test".  All of the selections that we listened to were versions of standards that I had recently recorded for my "Trio New York II" release (with organist Gary Versace and drummer Gerald Cleaver).  Some of these versions I was familiar with and knew well.  Others were in fact new to me.  Interestingly, this process allowed us to touch upon a great many topics and I was happy to have had the opportunity to think through and articulate some ideas concerning the "bigger picture" of music making in the present time.

Here is the link.   And this is what we listened to and discussed:

The Midnight Sun
Paul Motian Trio 2000 + 2, “Midnight Sun” (from ON BROADWAY VOL. 5, Winter & Winter, 2009) (Paul Motian, drums; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone; Michaël Attias, tenor saxophone; Masabumi Kikuchi, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass)

Just One of Those Things
Lee Konitz & Red Mitchell, “Just One of Those Things” (from I CONCENTRATE ON YOU, SteepleChase, 1974) (Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Red Mitchell, bass)

We See
Thelonious Monk, “We See” (from PIANO SOLO, Vogue, 1954) (Thelonious Monk, piano)

My Ideal
Branford Marsalis Quartet, “My Ideal” (from FOUR MFs PLAYIN’ TUNES, Marsalis Music, 2012) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums)

Coleman Hawkins acc. by Leonard Feather’s Esquire All Stars, “My Ideal” (from COLEMAN HAWKINS: THE BEBOP YEARS, Proper, 2004) (Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Art Tatum, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Sid Catlett, drums)

After You've Gone
James P. Johnson’s Blue Note Jazzmen, “After You’ve Gone” (from BEN WEBSTER: COMPLETE SMALL GROUP RECORDINGS, 1943-1951, Definitive Records, 2001) (Sidney De Paris, trumpet; Vic Dickeson, trombone; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; James P. Johnson, piano; Jimmy Shirley, guitar; John Simmons, bass; Sidney Catlett, drums) 

Jimmy Smith, “Flamingo” (from THE SERMON!, Blue Note, 1958) (Jimmy Smith, organ; Lee Morgan, trumpet; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Art Blakey, drums)

Don Byas, “Flamingo” (from DON BYAS, 1947-1951) (Don Byas, tenor saxophone; Art Simmons, piano; Jean-Jacques Tilche, guitar; Roger Grasset, bass; Claude Marty, drums)

Earl Bostic, “Flamingo” (from FLAMINGO, Proper, 2002) (Earl Bostic, alto saxophone; Lowell Hastings, tenor saxophone; Clarence Redd, trumpet, vibraphone; Rene Hall, guitar; Clifton Hall, piano; William Betts, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)

Special thanks go to Ethan Iverson for hosting this interview.  I've been a fan of "Do The Math" since it's inception.  I think Ethan has raised the bar in terms of the quality of music writing with his thoughtful and well articulated articles.

Friday, May 10, 2013


MIRAGE: An image formed under certain atmospheric conditions, in which objects appear to be reflected or displaced or in which nonexistent objects seem to appear.

MIRAGE: A recording of improvised music for saxophone, pedal steel guitar and double bass.  Simultaneously unpredictable and transformative.  A music that is not always what it first appears to be.

clean feed CF271CD

Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Susan Alcorn - pedal steel guitar
Michael Formanek - double bass

New release!  You can order MIRAGE directly from my website...

I’ve done a number of completely improvised recording projects over the years. “Inbetween Spaces” (with drummer Gerry Hemingway), “Every So Often” (with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier), “As Soon as Possible” (with Sylvie Courvoisier and cellist Vincent Courtois), “Ten” (an augmented version of Eskelin w/Parkins & Black), “Vanishing Point” (string trio plus vibraphone) and “Dissonant Characters” (with drummer Han Bennink).  There’s something very compelling about the process of real time interaction and communal composition that results in a music that could not be achieved by any other means or ever happen again in quite the same way.  It’s a  process that is simultaneously unpredictable and transformative.  Of course, it is mandatory that the musical chemistry be perfect and as such I feel fortunate to have been able to combine forces with so many great musicians in the US and abroad.  Some of these projects have been long term touring groups and others were put together for a one time event often based on nothing more than a hunch on my part that things would work.  

MIRAGE began as one of the latter type of propositions.  A few years back I was in Baltimore to do a week long teaching residency at Towson University.  A local musician’s organization called Out of Your Head Productions was having a one year anniversary event that same week and invited me to put together a group to present at the Windup Space in Baltimore’s Station North arts district.  They drew up a list of musicians from their collective and I immediately noticed Susan Alcorn’s name.  I had been hearing great things about Susan and the thought of improvising with a pedal steel guitarist was intriguing.  She was an obvious choice.  Bassist Michael Formanek I’ve known for many years having toured together with drummer Gerry Hemingway in the late nineties.  Mike has been teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore so his availability was a big plus.  I was able to imagine the sound in my mind before we ever played and felt confident that the concert would be a success.  We recorded that first concert and I was tempted to release it on CD but I had a feeling that another chance to perform together would pay off.  That chance came a year or so later in 2011.  In Baltimore again for a second Towson University residency I presented this group in the newly built (and acoustically impressive) Fine Arts Center.  For the occasion I hired recording engineer Ed Tetreault (manager of the Recording Arts & Sciences department of the Peabody Conservatory).  In addition to our concert we did some additional recording in the hall afterwards, without the audience.  Most of the material on MIRAGE is from the after-concert portion however, the extended piece “Downburst” was performed live.

Perhaps more than any other recording project I’ve done, MIRAGE has allowed me to more fully investigate that expressive range of the saxophone that is perhaps most associated with it’s beginnings.  I want to bring that type of lyricism to the language of contemporary improvised music.  Susan Alcorn compliments this idea perfectly, her musical sonorities are simultaneously stimulating and haunting.  Mike Formanek brings a great depth and warmth to the music making for a complete group sound with this unique instrumentation.  

I'm also very pleased to have this project released by the clean feed label out of Lisbon.  They have a great catalogue of music, well worth looking into.

Here’s an excerpt from the CD:

Monday, April 1, 2013


You can order TRIO NEW YORK II directly from my website...

The New Yorker magazine recently referred to me as a saxophonist “with a romantic streak that runs parallel to his experimental leanings”.  I like that.  Romance is a descriptor that is rarely associated with the improv scene in New York City.  And for the past couple of decades that is what I’ve been doing mostly.  Free improvisation.

Yet in the past few years I’ve grown to feel very strongly that certain musical ingredients from those often romanticized days of old New York still resonate and even sound modern to my ears.  I’m not talking about style, but of sound, delivery and rhythmic feeling in which saxophonists presented themselves much in the mold of the great vocalists.  There was a type of virtuosity in their delivery (the sculpting of sound, the attention to timing) in which every nuance was magnified and deeply meaningful, the results sounding quite audacious to my ears today.

I’ve always thought of “Trio New York” as a free improvisation unit, in some ways a continuation of the type of work I’ve been doing all along, in other ways a distinct break from many of the concepts I’d been working with previously. The most significant difference is the use of the Great American Songbook (as structure) and a conscious awareness of how those aforementioned concepts of sound and delivery can be used to balance out the more astringent elements of our sonic palette.  Of course, it’s tricky when dealing with certain musical conventions.  Our first recording, simply called “Trio New York”, acted as a sort of musical Rorschach test.  One reviewer felt that we were more closely aligned with the aesthetics of Pierre Boulez than that of any jazz group while another writer found our approach to be fairly straight-forward, unconcerned with anything much other than grooving.  Same recording.  Of course, both elements do exist in the music.

Trio New York began in early 2010.  We played locally in NYC clubs putting in a year’s worth of time before making that first recording in 2011.  That led to the band’s first European tour in early 2012 followed by dates in Canada and the US, most recently being the Detroit Jazz Festival.  Which reminds me; having done most of my work in Europe for the past twenty five years it was a special honor to perform at a major US jazz event that offers such artistically vital programming to the listening public. 

“Trio New York II” is the second recording by the group and represents an evolution, the band having fine tuned it’s musical processes from gig to gig.  We’re always looking to increase musical clarity while allowing enough mystery to keep things spontaneous and surprising.  I’ve chosen material that I find compelling and beautiful while allowing the music to reflect the challenges and complexity involved in uniting and reconciling musical eras.

I’m very proud to be working with two of the great musicians of our time, organist Gary Versace (who knows his way around B3 Hammond organ and knows how to be creative with it) and Gerald Cleaver (who is both swinging and free, always with impressive dynamic sensitivity).  This new release also coincides with the fact that as of this month I’ve now been living in New York City for thirty years (see previous entry).  (I keep doing the math on that just to be sure, and yet somehow it keeps coming out the same).  A lot has happened during that time and I feel as though I’m finally in a place where I can truly integrate all my experiences into the music, from the early days up until today.

Our sound engineer is Jon Rosenberg.  My relationship with Jon goes back to the early ‘90s.  Over the years we’ve had many lengthy discussions about recording techniques and musical aesthetics.  I can say with absolutely no reservations that we’ve achieved the best recorded sound of my career in these last two Trio New York recordings with Jon.  I also want to thank Systems Two Studios, a great room with a wonderful staff.  Scott Friedlander has designed the CD packages for several prime source productions.  I provided Scott with photography of my own and he always manages to create a compelling visual statement.

Please know that it’s very important to me to take the extra time and expense to document this work and present it to you as a physical entity with the highest standards of artistic and technical quality possible.  This documentation is not only central to my progress as an artist but I feel it is doubly important that as we are asking for your time and attention you should understand that you are getting a state of the art recording for your collection that you can value for many years to come.  Trio New York II is released on my own “prime source” label.  From my hands to yours.  I value the the personal relationship that I have developed with each of you listeners over these many years.  

Thanks very much.

Ellery Eskelin

TRIO NEW YORK II Promotional Video...


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thirty Years in NYC

In March of 1983 I moved to New York City with enough money saved (having spent a year and a half on the road with a big band) to last about a year.  $350 (split three ways with roommates) got me a third floor apartment in Chelsea complete with crumbling  walls, corner drug dealers and the occasional rat.  A classic stereotype that also happened to be true.  Days were spent practicing and jamming with other musicians.  Nights were spent hanging out in clubs, sitting in and trying to hustle work.  Thankfully I was able to gain enough traction to maintain my New York residence after the initial money ran out although for the next several years I was literally living month to month.  Fast forward to today, and here I am with a family, living a life in music, thinking about all the changes that have taken place in the intervening years and trying to imagine what the future will look like for our corner of the music business. 

In 1996 (when the internet was still new) I wrote a “how to” article for the International Saxophone Homepage, a do-it-yourself treatise as applied to the jazz and improvisation scene.  I can’t help but think about how I might write such an article today although that’s probably better left to someone younger than I, someone who’s figuring out for themselves how best to navigate the scene as a newcomer to the city.  And while the topic still arises as to whether musicians should come to New York City at all (there are arguments for and against) I most definitely feel that as in any type of business, you want to hang out with the people who are doing what you want to be doing.  Against seemingly heavy odds, there’s a lot of great work taking place here.  So yes, show up, make yourself useful and at the very least you will be the better musician for having put in the time.  As for the the pro and con arguments, remember, it’s not about making a living playing music in NYC.  It’s about living in an artistic nerve center, learning your craft to your fullest potential, collaborating with like minded peers, making things happen and then taking it out into the rest of the world.  

It’s become a cliché to say that the city constantly changes.  But it’s true.  I don’t miss the rats and the corner drug dealers, but I do miss some of the independent minded people and neighborhoods from back in the day.  One could say the culture was more conducive to making music and art (although it’s never been easy) but I don’t buy into the argument that says that culture has to be dangerous and anarchic to be creative.  The scene then was probably more concentrated, giving the feeling of everything happening everywhere all at once.  It’s a bit more diffuse now with more musicians living in Brooklyn and surrounding areas.  And of course technology is changing the culture in New York just as it is most everywhere else.  While I embrace this technology (I was one of the first musicians to have a web site) I am coming to feel more and more strongly that not everything should happen on a screen and through speakers.  It makes me think more about the quality and depth of our collective experiences.  And there are always plenty of face to face opportunities for that in New York City.

In 2003 I was asked to write an article for All About Jazz New York upon my twentieth year in New York.  In rereading it now I’m struck by one particular issue that seems to have changed for me over the past decade.  While I still feel just as strongly about creating and developing one’s own musical expression I feel much more compassionate towards the idea of “tradition”.  It’s complicated.  I used to think tradition was about style but I’m seeing it differently now.  Sound conception, rhythmic conception, performance values all change over time and yet the bench marks set by the creators of this music will always remain a challenge for us to address.  And yet some of these musical expressions may well die out.  I used to not care so much.  Now I care a great deal.  

As I look back over the last thirty years I realize that my early experiences were unique to the time I lived in.  The ideals that were instilled in my generation were indeed part of a tradition and they need to be carried forward to upcoming generations, musician to musician.  Not so that younger musicians will do things in the same way, but so that they will understand the difference between those things that are timeless and those things that we refer to as style.  Creativity is the tradition.  The raw materials don’t actually change all that much.   In looking back over the past thirty years here in New York City I feel as if I am just beginning to appreciate what some of these timeless qualities are and how to keep them alive, through reinvention.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Recently returned from Europe having toured with drummer and composer Gerry Hemingway in his quintet.  Gerry and I have a lengthy history by now and I'm reminded of the value of such long term and rich musical relationships both personally and for the music itself.

After a couple of back to back tours I'm looking forward to being home for some time, recharging the batteries and turning my attention towards some upcoming projects.  In lieu of writing on a particular topic this time I thought I would post a couple of interviews that took place this past summer.  The first was published by the German magazine Jazzthetik and is reproduced on the interviewer Christof Wagner's blog (in German).  Here's the LINK.

Additionally, I did a radio interview this past June for Chris Sampson's program "Gravity and Chaos" on WHUS in Connecticut.  I enjoyed discussing with Chris some of the larger issues involved with playing this music.  It's rather lengthy but then that's part of what this blog is about, trying to explore things in a bit more depth…

Ellery Eskelin interviewed by Chris Sampson  for the program "Gravity and Chaos" on WHUS, Connecticut, June 12, 2012

Thanks to Jake Wunsch for the transcription.

[Music: “Anyone’s Guess,” Ellery Eskelin, Ten, Hat Hut, 2004)

CS: And there you have “Anyone’s Guess.” I laugh at the titles sometimes, and I laugh with them. Ellery Eskelin on tenor saxophone. Andrea Parkins on piano, accordion, and sampler - and that [last] is key. Jim Black on drums and percussion. This CD is a few years old. It’s Ellery Eskelin “Ten,” celebrating, I believe, the tenth anniversary of this trio. They’re joined here by three others: Mark Ribot on electric guitar (we heard him earlier), Melvin Gibbs on electric bass, and Jessica Constable on voice. 

As I mentioned, Ellery Eskelin’s trio will be performing at Firehouse 12 this Friday. Sets are, I believe, at 8:30 and 10 o’clock. As if that were not enough excitement for the citizens of Connecticut, we have the aforementioned Mr. Ellery Eskelin on the other end of the telephone line. Ellery, welcome to “Gravity and Chaos” and to WHUS.

EE: Hey, thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.

It’s gonna sound creepy and stalk-y, but I’ve been listening to your music for a long time. I remember when I first picked it up and was hearing it with the “proper ears” - if that’s the right way to think of it. I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, I gotta go see Ellery play live.” I live 150 miles from New York City so that became a little bit of a challenge. And I live even further from Europe. Though I did get to see you with David Liebman a few years ago.

At the 55 Bar, I think it was.

Okay, so you remember this. I remember when I was hearing your music and thinking - I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing - I can recognize your sound. Not that you only have one, but... I can recognize it. Do you consider that a blessing or a curse? Like, is everyone is supposed to have their own sound?

I’m flattered. Thank you.

You’re welcome. I’ve read a little bit about you, people trying to describe that sound, and some people take the opinion that it starts in jazz, but has other influences. And I think that’s true of more and more musicians who play these styles of jazz. They have to have - like classical musicians and composers - your sound is influenced by all manner of things, some of them even non-musical.  

I’ve heard people try to wrestle with where that sound comes from. When put on the spot - ‘cause people want to say, “What kind of music do you play?” it’s the classic elevator speech - where do you think you come from with all this?

It’s been a long journey up to this point. I’ve been serious about the horn since I was ten years old. My roots are definitely jazz, that’s for sure, but there have been long stretches of time where I was opening myself up to many other things and not even listening to jazz. I’m one of the few people of my generation - being a kid in the 1960s - who didn’t like rock and roll. I actually was very much into jazz at the time. My mother played Hammond B3 organ and I heard standards growing up. 

And so with those being my roots, I think it’s in a way ironic that I got to a point - maybe in my late 20s or 30s - where I started to feel like the influence was maybe a little too big. And I just needed to take in some other musical information to inform my sound and what I was trying to do. You don’t always know what it is at the time. It’s an intuitive process. I can sort of grope around and talk about it after the fact. But especially at the time of that last recording that I heard just sitting on the phone here... It sounded pretty crazy, by the way. My God, what a maniac!

What were you thinking? Who was that guy?

I don’t know. But I do recognize that was at a time when I was definitely thinking about a lot of other things. In some ways, I think in the last year or two I’ve probably come back a little more to my roots again in really dealing with the saxophone as a saxophone and not some imaginary extra-terrestrial device or whatever I may have been thinking that day.

Ellery Eskelin, he has a sense of humor about himself. It’s funny. I was referring to stalking. Several years ago, I was in the market for a saxophone myself and I found a website. (I believe it was, but the other night when I went to check it, I thought, “They’ve totally redesigned that website.”) This website was a good homemade job by somebody who had a lot of great advice for buying, maintaining, you know, vintage horns, used horns, new horns. It was interesting, because I already knew of your music, and hosted on that website was an article that you had written about experimenting with other kinds of music. You had taken a little gig working with - I don’t know if it was a soul band or some more popular-music type of band. You were pointing out that you took a solo that you thought was pretty well inside the bounds, but when you looked up, the lead singer was sort of glaring at you, horrified and angered.

I guess I didn’t realize that my sense of boundaries was different than... the person who hired me, most importantly!  It was kind of a comical experience. That article you referred to I think was written in ’96. I was asked by that website to write a sort of advice or how-to type of article for musicians coming up at that time. I think I was relating when I was doing some commercial work soon after I arrived in New York. I arrived in New York in ’83. It was getting to a point where I suddenly realized that maybe I wasn’t really fitting in. It seemed to work, but apparently it wasn’t working for the band. In retrospect, it was kind of amusing. I’m not sure what to say about that or where to take it.

What I’m thinking is that I’ve had these conversations. Like, my father enjoyed jazz, but our eras overlapped almost not at all. (And again, we use jazz as a catch-all. We can start getting hyper-philosophical and wondering what that even means, but we’ll use it as a sort of accepted, conventional way of referring to a body of  culture.) I thought, “Okay, I’ll bring down these CDs when I visit that I know he’ll like.” I mean, sure, it’s Thomas Chapin, but he’s playing “Ask Me Now.” And who can’t like “Naima” or “After the Rain” by John Coltrane? And I realized exactly how far my aesthetic had drifted from where most people reside. Now, as a person who does a show at a community college radio station, this would probably be the point where I would take great pride in being uber-alternative. But I look back on it from a point of view like, “ I didn’t know I had come out this far.”  

Similarly, we were at a relative’s house and they had the digital music over the cable thing. And they said, “Oh, find a jazz station.” I found one and they were playing “Cantaloupe Island.” The response from the relatives was immediate and almost violent: “Oh my God, turn it off!” And I’m thinking, wow, this is practically not even jazz. This is kind of like instrumental pop music in some respects. The structure is certainly very accessible. So in ’96, I saw you as being in the same place. Like you wanted to hook up and say to the guy, “What?” You might have even been thinking, “Wow, great, I took this popular song into a different space. That’s really awesome. I’m really proud of myself. Why is he glaring at me?”

I didn’t even think I was doing that. I was doing my best to play it as straight as possible. That was what was really funny about it. The singer was supposed to have come in after the solo and instead of singing, he was looking at me with steam coming out of his ears.

[Laughs] You guys still send Christmas cards?

It’s been a long time. I’m sure we could both laugh about it now. Enough water is under the bridge.

So how did you get here? How did you get to there and then how did you get here? You wrote the article in ’96 and you said that was in ’93 or something when you were playing that. We’re almost talking 20 years now.

Well, just the job of being a saxophone player is really as simple as it is. That situation was a sort of bread-and-butter gigging situation that was available at the time and I was happy to have the work. But at a certain point I realized that, okay, maybe there are some other folks who are better suited for that. And maybe I would be better off putting my time and efforts and energy into focusing into some other directions. So, at some point, I made the decision to stop doing commercial music. Not because I didn’t like it necessarily, but just because after that experience I felt like, okay, time to reorient. It was a little scary, in a way, because I had been relying on doing all kinds of music ‘til that point for my livelihood. For a couple years afterwards, I decided it would be just fine to have a day job.

What were you doing?

I started temping in the offices of Carnegie Hall for a little while. Another time I was the shipping clerk for a small record company called New World Records in Manhattan. That allowed me to at least think about my music as seriously as I wanted to without having to worry about whether my solo on some top-40 tune was enough like the record or not.

That’s how you made your peace with it then.

Exactly. I did that for a little bit. And then at some point I got together with a drummer I’m sure your listeners are aware of: Mr. Joey Baron. He called me in the early ‘90s or so to form a trio with him and trombonist Steve Swell. He called it Baron Down. We did a few records and tours in the 90s. When I started to tour with that band and record and whatnot I was able to leave the day-job. Since then, I’ve been doing music that I want to do. I’m very happy to be able to say that. I feel fortunate. 

I would say you are. And I’m happy for you.

Well, I’m still a saxophone player, you know? I can relate to the situation you’re talking about - at a family gathering or someplace where you may easily misread or suddenly find out just how far afield you are from more mainstream tastes. But being someone who does this kind of music for a living in the world, I do think about how it relates - how I relate to the world, how people relate to the music. I try my best to simply be as communicative as possible with the music. I don’t ever really worry about: Is this music gonna be too far out? Is this music gonna be too weird for people? I’ve never had any success trying to operate under that thought constraint. I’ve always had much better success in simply presenting exactly what I feel is the most honest musical expression I can make. And by and large, even if people don’t really feel that they understand what I’m doing, hopefully they feel something from it, especially in a live situation. With recordings it may be different. If people are more disposed to have a conversation over dinner or something, of course you don’t want to put on some music that is going to demand or intrude on their attention too much. But hopefully, all other things being equal, if you get some people in a situation where they’re open enough to have come into the club or wherever you’re playing, then I feel it’s my job to create a real experience for them - or for us, for everyone involved. For the most part, I feel that that’s what people relate to. And I’ve been encouraged by that. I’ve been able to continue doing this and I have to think that’s probably the reason why. It’s certainly not about “understanding” the music, because I don’t think that’s required. I don’t think most folks really truly understand any kind of music unless they’ve had training. I don’t necessarily even think that’s important. I know this music often gets referred to as complicated or words to that effect.

I’ve heard other people describe various veins of it as maybe too cerebral. And certainly, like any scene, there are members in the community, who...that’s what they do. For any reason, they over-analyze. Maybe they feel smarter about themselves that they can appreciate this thing that so few people do. I think it does the community and the genre and the sub-genre a disservice. I think they do themselves a disservice, too, but that’s none of my business. People have done the same thing with classical music. [Today] it is the music of highly intellectual people. But at the time, it might’ve been courtly music or... There was folk music, but there was no pop music the way we think of it now. This was it; this was the music from that culture. Now, you’ve gotta have a PhD to even get into a conversation with this or that or the other one about classical and to some extent jazz. And not even the more esoteric streams of jazz, but just plain old jazz, that everyone would agree “yeah, that’s jazz” - whatever it is. I think by over-intellectualizing it, they’re doing it a disservice. And they’re sapping the fun out of it.

I understand what you’re saying. I don’t necessarily shy away from talking about it in an analytical way. I think it’s fascinating. I hope that it doesn’t alienate people to hear us speak this way. But I also feel that rather than try to water that conversation down, or shy away from that area, I would also like to stress, as I just did, that there’s a very - what’s the word - visceral aspect that really makes the music communicate.  

For example, among jazz musicians there’s a great deal of reverence for say, John Coltrane. And for anyone who is making a serious study of jazz music, or of John Coltrane’s music, we’re aware of the immense depth intellectually there in that music. And it’s sometimes easy to put so much emphasis on that study because it is so deep and you want to honor that. I sometimes found myself surprised when I actually go back and listen to the music and realize that, yeah, all of that stuff is there - it’s deep, it’s intellectual - but the most immediate impact was his sound, the quality of his sound that just penetrated you. It was so viscerally communicative. I can’t find a better word for it, but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. All of that intellectual depth - that’s in there. But really, the delivery system, the sound, the delivery, and those qualities we might talk about as being emotional or even spiritual - that’s really what we don’t want to lose sight of that as musicians, as students, as fans of the music. Sometimes the conversation...I think it’s easy to go in that direction. There’s a lot to talk about with respect to that.

Maybe I was more successful than I expected to be. I’m certainly not saying to take away the intellectual component. I’m saying that there are people who can - and maybe not just occasionally, but as a habit - get tedious about it. In any scene there’s, “If you don’t understand it, then why are you even here?” That sort of snobbery we see in any esoteric area.

In any field, I’m sure. That’s part of human nature.

I charge you guys with a tremendous bar to have to get over. In that, it’s gotta have some sense to it - in how you go about composing and playing it. I like to know that there’s that. Just like if you look at an abstract painting. I remember when I used to take more comfort than I do now in knowing that the guy could also paint figuratively rather than simply abstractly. It’s less important for me now, because I think there are many different types of intelligences - likewise in music. Then, add on top of that, that it’s got to do all the other stuff. If the listener, through no fault of his own, gets bogged down in the structure, or the mathematics behind the composition, or any of the other more left-brained kind of things, then the musician or composer or even writer or painter or sculptor has failed in some respect. Because while it should require something of the audience, that maybe means that it requires too much and that it’s speaking too peculiarly to one segment of the audience. So I kind of set the bar high for you guys.

I understand what you’re saying. I think at some point it probably would pay to be more specific about this or that, and that’s a conversation that we could have on our own at some point. I agree with it up to a point. It’s hard to say to what degree something succeeds or fails. But I do put a great deal of responsibility on myself to get it across. I feel like it’s really up to me; it’s my responsibility. Not everybody’s going to like it - I know that. That’s not even the point. It’s not about liking or not liking.

You would’ve probably have chosen a different path if you had wanted to be famous and filthy rich.

Yeah. But I have to be honest about myself as a performer. And for the most part, I feel that when we play, I’m focused on those aspects that I mentioned: communicating in a way that hopefully anybody could pick up on, knowing that not everybody will.

I think of it as people having to be - or wanting to be - successful on their own terms. Maybe you don’t crave being idolized, but you want to be liked and appreciated and you want people to enjoy your music. But you’re not willing to go back to that pop gig, to that top-40 gig, to get people to dig your saxophone playing.

This is going to sound strange, but: it’s not about me - past a certain level. It’s great to say, hey, I’m a saxophone player. People will applaud, and they’ll say nice things to me after the gig. I definitely appreciate that, absolutely, I’m not going to lie. But that’s not why I do it. It almost makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes if people put too much emphasis on “Oh, you played well” or whatever, because I’m trying to create a situation that involves the listener, that again, should go beyond whether we even like it or not. If you like it, great, if you don’t, that’s fine. But I’m trying to stimulate something a little deeper that is inclusive of everyone in the room. And at a point it ceases to be so much about me. Does that make sense?

It does. I’ve spoken with a number of people and I think at this point we sometimes get into this idea that you’re channeling more than creating yourself. But it doesn’t sound like that’s exactly what you’re saying here. 

Not exactly, but it’s not unrelated to that. Different musicians will word it differently or have a slightly different take on it, but I think we’re in the ballpark there.

The idea of leaving room, and inviting the listener in, and involving them...It’s easy for me to get a little curmudgeonly right now and say that most culture that we consume (and most culture has been turned into some sort of commodity)...It seems like every year it involves a greater level of passivity for the audience. “Just sit there and we’re gonna bombard you with this. We’re gonna give you the sitcom with the cheesy jokes that you’ve heard a hundred times and we’re gonna give you the laugh track so you know when to laugh.” 

I love any kind of culture that involves the audience. Some people, in some places, they do it a little too overtly for my taste. I’m not condemning them. The crazy example would be those mystery dinner theaters dinners you would go to sometimes in the ‘90s. Maybe you wouldn’t. And I haven’t, actually. I’m just talking about where you had to solve the mystery. I think that’s part of what intrigues people about mystery novels and movies, that there’s this little thing for your brain to chew on and it involves you as a reader in ways that other samples of writing don’t. So I love the idea that you and many other people who we’ve spoken to here seek to pull the audience in and involve them in an intimate, complex way. Maybe better put: a subtle way. It’s not audience participation -they’re not going to clap along or sing along.

The music takes place in people’s minds. We talk about music as if it’s this external thing that has a life of its own. But really, if I examine that, I’m not so sure. If the music lives collectively in everyone’s minds, then that raises questions about what involvement means, and what expectations play into it when you talk about something that might be more along the lines of entertainment or something that might be more along the lines of me just trying to put something honest out there that you can feel and participate in and maybe that elicits some greater or deeper feelings either emotionally and/or intellectually. Much beyond that, it’s hard to even talk about. I’m trying to push it in that direction, I guess, is what I’m trying to do. Like I said, I’m not that good at trying to figure out what people want and give that thing to them. I just don’t have that talent. I know that other people do.

They’re politicians.

I’ve tried and I’ve failed at that.

I’ve spoken to a number of musicians, and the overwhelming majority are not necessarily idealistic, but optimistic, positive, hopeful. They feel blessed, feel fortunate to be able to do this thing. Every now and then I come across somebody who’s embittered. The business side of the music isn’t working out the way they want it to. “The cretins uptown don’t understand our thing” - the tropes we’ve heard over the years. I certainly don’t hear that in you. I hear not pie in the sky optimism - you’re not a Pollyanna it doesn’t sound like. Maybe people around you call you that...

I hope not!

You sound sort of earnestly out there doing your thing and feeling pretty fortunate about it. And at the same time, I know that for a person to take this creative turn involves a sense of: “I have to do this.” You can’t do the commercial gigs anymore because you just can’t. You took a day job - which is an interesting thing, because I don’t hear about that much - rather than playing music outside of a realm that you believe most fervently in. Your worldview seems pretty positive, cheery.

It probably goes back to what I said a moment ago about being in front of people and playing music. Feeling that, bottom line, I’m the guy who’s responsible for getting it across, and if for some reason something’s not up to par, it’s on me. 

I can apply that same attitude toward the business. It’s very easy to get discouraged by things and feel like, “Why is this person getting much more attention than that person? Why this, why that?” There are many, many things that you can look at. But rather than blame too much on external forces, I just feel like, well, I need to try harder. I need to work harder. I need to figure out, okay, if I feel like I’m not getting the attention or the work or who knows what, then it’s really on me. The world is interconnected and moving fast. I don’t think any of us has the luxury of thinking that the world is actively not putting attention on you in the first place to make good or bad things happen. Now more than ever, I think, for musicians...we’re all really wearing so many hats, and independent, and finding the way to do this. I just feel like if I’m getting bugged or discouraged, then really, it’s on me to figure out what to do to focus and put my energies into getting it going.

But I think what you might be picking up on is that I’m very joyful about playing the saxophone. I’m very joyful about playing music. That more than anything is what drives me. Again, it might sound a little funny. I can’t say that I don’t care what the world may think of me, or where my position might be in anybody’s mind, but it’s really about the music. As I get older, I realize, my gosh, there’s so much more that I want to understand. There’s so much more depth, there’s so much farther that I have to go. That’s my complete orientation.  

As far as the business goes, I feel like my motivation to be on top of my business is not to promote me, but just to be able to devote my life to being able to investigate this music more fully and more deeply, to just live the life of music. That’s essentially what it is. If I had some sort of external situation that supported that and I didn’t have to worry or hustle, I’d probably be just happy as you could be. But we do have to hustle. Things are changing all the time. So we have to look ahead and anticipate what’s going on, and be businesspeople and salespeople and promote our music and wear a million hats. But I do it for the music. I don’t necessarily do it so much for me. 

There are probably other avenues I could’ve gone for more comfortable, more dependable lifestyle or financial outlook, but I’m just being honest saying I’m very happy I’m even in the game and can live a life of music. Especially the kind of music I’m involved in. I understand where this stands in the bigger picture. Even as it’s maybe a small piece of the bigger picture in terms of this kind of music, I do think it speaks to a fundamental nature: creativity.  

I wonder what people take when they hear this music. I think if they relate to it at all it’s because they must recognize something in there, in the process, when they see the musicians up there going through this and interacting. And even if they don’t understand the music, they understand something’s going on, there’s a process, there’s some spontaneity involved. That is something that ideally any human being can relate to, be open to. I think that’s really the essential quality that allows me and the rest of us to be able to do this music that might otherwise even be called or considered fringe.

By the way, to just remind everybody, his name is Ellery Eskelin, one of my favorite saxophonists, composers from this scene - from this whatever we’re gonna call this collection of musicians who have at least some kind of thing in common that we talk about. His trio, which has been together now for, I guess, 18 years... 

Actually, Chris, I wanted to mention before, when we came out of that cut with Jim and Andrea, you mentioned we would be playing. That’s not the group that will be playing this Friday. The group that’s playing this Friday is a newer entity that I’ve put together in the last couple of years. It’s called Trio New York. It’s myself on tenor saxophone. Gary Versace will be playing Hammond B3 organ.

I always pronounce that Ver-sa-chee, I’m such an idiot.

When we go to Italy, we call him Ver-sa-chee, whether he likes it or not.

On the B3? I know he plays a variety of keyboards.

On this gig he’s playing exclusively the B3. And on drums, we’ll have Mr. Gerald Cleaver. We have a new CD. I was just looking through my records before I called to see if I sent it to you and I didn’t see your name on the list. So if you don’t have it, I need to get you a copy.

You do. There’s a possibility at least you’ll be able to save the postage and I’ll be able to get it from you Friday.

I’ll bring you one. It’s called “Trio New York.” It was released last year. It’s indicative of what I mentioned before about the feeling that I have of perhaps coming full circle back to certain kinds of roots that I discussed earlier. We’re playing standards. And with this instrumentation of organ and drums and saxophone, it’s sort of a classic line-up. 

The album is five standards.

It’s five standards. They’re extended, free-improvisations to be exact. You could almost call them meditations on these standards. “Memories of You,” “Witchcraft,” “How Deep is the Ocean,” “Lover Come Back to Me” - these kinds of songs. We treat them very loosely. We’re not involved with the sort of standardized protocol of picking a tempo, counting it off, playing the melody, and trading solos. 

The process that I use with Gary and Gerald is that we’ll just get up on stage and consider that we’re about to do a completely improvised concert of music. That’s the attitude that we take. However, we know that there are probably six or eight tunes that we might incorporate in some way, without me prescribing any kind of a treatment or rules at all for how those may or may not happen. It’s simply a matter of real-time musical negotiation between us, listening very hard to each other. And when detecting that there could be a song emerging, then we have the option to go with that or pull against it or veto it - who knows. Lots of approaches.  

So that’s been a way for me to combine those roots that I mentioned with my interest in free-improvisation, which is essentially much of what I’ve been doing for the past 20-some years. I do compose, but if the listeners were tuned in some moments ago and heard that piece that I did with Jim and Andrea, I think that was an improvised piece. I composed probably about 50 or 60 or 70 pieces for that band, but they were more...again, free improvisations that were directed, structured, more than they were composed entities.

Do you still work with that trio, with Jim and Andrea?

Yes, although it’s been a little bit since we’ve played. With the new group that I’ve put together. I’m trying to get that off the ground and, of course, putting much of my energies there. But the group with Jim and Andrea: We had our first concert in 1994, so I’m already thinking that pretty soon we’ll have a 20-year anniversary to celebrate. And we’ll certainly be doing some more music. But at the moment I’ve been putting my attention into this group and looking forward to bringing it up your way.

I appreciate that. You’re almost up our way. You’re coming as far north as New Haven. We need to get you more into the heartland of the state at some point. 

One of the things I want to talk about the old trio...I have to admit the first thing that caught my eye when I saw the first CD that I played of yours on the air would’ve been the tell-tale orange sleeve. Because it would’ve been out on Hatology. Though actually, now that I’m remembering it this way, I’m thinking maybe it was a different CD. Because the next thing I noticed was that it had you on saxophone, drummer Jim Black, and that Andrea played the sampler. And I thought, okay, I’m game. 

And then I heard that...the tone, which I think it’s important to point out - not to make any apologies - the tone that you have, the sound that you have is the product of considerable study and considerable effort and experience. I think harsh critics of this music, unfairly harsh critics of this music, tend to say, “Oh, they’re just blowing notes.” Which is really galling probably to the keyboardist! There is this sense that you’ve cultivated....again, I’m pretty sure I can recognize your sound.

It’s an interesting idea. It reminds me of a friend of mine who once told me that they thought when hearing Ornette Coleman’s music for the first time... I think the comment was, “Sounds like they’re just blurting out anything.” And over time, through knowing me, this person got a chance to hear this music more often, and at some point it started to click for them. They realized “Oh, they’re playing intentionally. I can recognize this. This is a language.”  

I appreciate the fact that that might not be obvious right away, especially with music that doesn’t necessarily conform to the types of melodic and harmonic qualities that we may be more accustomed to. It may sound at first very much like somebody just throwing their hands down on a keyboard or just fingering any notes on the saxophone and playing whatever they want. I can appreciate that. Hopefully if someone is interested enough to listen again, they might have a similar feeling or recognize that, “Wait a minute, there’s some intentionality to this, in fact.” 

I think that’s the currency - intentionality. I think people who listen exclusively to popular forms don’t necessarily understand that. I’m not decrying their state. I’m just thinking they don’t get it. They like the groove. They like the beat. They like the hook, the melody.

To be honest, I understand how that could be. I totally get it. I understand. It fascinates me to try and figure out - not in any type of judgmental way whatsoever, but just in an honest sense - what might this music sound like to someone who’s not accustomed to it. And not only speaking of the kind of music that we’re speaking of here, but even going back before Ornette Coleman - even to Charlie Parker’s music or something that jazz musicians feel is much more structured, like bebop. I think we take it for granted that it’s somehow easier to hear. I have to wonder. I’m not so sure that’s the case.  

I can offer my own experience just anecdotally. Maybe you’ve had this experience, too, or maybe some of your listeners have, people who are familiar with jazz. For example, say I tuned in the radio and I come in on the middle of a song. I don’t know who’s playing. I don’t know what’s going on. It might be music with a tempo. I can tell that from the texture. I can understand what’s happening. But say, for whatever reason, I can’t tell you exactly where the downbeat is. Maybe I don’t know exactly where they are in the form. Maybe I don’t know exactly what part of the beat they’re on. There might be a few seconds or longer - maybe 10-20 seconds - before I actually get my bearings. In those moments, I found it fascinating to think about how different the effect of that is. Between the moment where I don’t know what’s happening in the music - I have no orientation - and then suddenly: oh, there it is. And now these things click and make sense.  

It makes me think that, for many people, they probably [experience] most any kind of jazz in much the same way I’ve just described, that moment of disorientation. If that’s the case, I can understand why a lot of people probably hate it. Because if it’s not making that kind of sense, it probably does sound completely chaotic, or random, or worse: irritating. So I totally get it. I’ve thought a lot about that. It also brings up again this issue of whether freer music is any more difficult to hear. And by those standards, I would think if anything, it might be easier if there’s not a form that you necessarily need to know where you are in relation to [it]. It makes me think of some of the criticisms that were given at the time of Ornette Coleman’s emergence and so-called free-jazz. A lot of the jazz community felt that the music was somehow more difficult. Or that if you were new to jazz, you didn’t want to start with Ornette Coleman, you wanted to start with something before that and work your way up. I think that’s probably been disproven by now, in my experience.  

Especially in the ‘90s, there were a lot of young people who came into free music through alternative rock and punk. For them, dissonance and density were not a problem whatsoever. Their entry point into jazz was the so-called avant garde. So anyway, it’s a fascinating issue to think about. It’s something that musicians ought to consider honestly and non-judgmentally. It’s very easy for us to say, “Oh, they don’t get it; oh, they don’t understand” - whoever they are. That does no good for anybody. I think the more that we can understand the experience from other points of view, the better off for everyone really.

I think there’s a tendency – I don’t want to say it’s a conspiracy – in culture right now, especially in consumable music, to give people more of what they already know they like. So there is a looking in. Though I’ve seen a couple of encouraging signs that people are getting  a little more accepting of experimentation. There are these large ensembles who might use conduction or some other means and who improvise a lot, even if not necessarily using the jazz language that we know. And not just in New York, not just groups like Burnt Sugar, for instance. I take that as an encouragement, that a broader demographic is enjoying that, seems to get it, seems to be comfortable with getting it at whatever level they have and are embracing it. However, I think there is a sense from the commercial interests in the popular music cultures that “Well, if you like this, then you’ll like that.” Or more importantly, “We can sell that to you.” I think with iPods people are not tending to share music as much as people imagined would be the case when the first one came out. I think people are finding more of the stuff that’s similar to what they already like.

That dynamic has been in place for a while, and it’s interesting to think about the technology. On the one hand, we’ve never had greater access to the minutiae of our recorded culture. You would think that would/could/should do wonders for the areas that we’re interested in. And yet we seem to find what you described – the tendencies, both commercially and personally, of musics to reinforce the existing ones – and maybe even more so. I can’t say I really have too many answers about how to get around that except that I agree with you that there is a steady interest in creativity, and there are examples in music - such as what you just described  - that are happening certainly outside of New York in all different scenes.  

It’s interesting to me to think of that in the context of the word “jazz” because that brings up an issue that is starting to concern me a bit more than it might have, say, even five or ten years ago. I mentioned previously that there was a period of time where I didn’t listen to jazz or saxophone players because I felt I needed to distance myself from too heavy an influence. But now I’ve returned to listening not only to jazz, but specifically to very early jazz, very early saxophone players. I’m really working on my own sound. It’s changed somewhat since even that recording that you played. I’ve become more concerned with some of the sonic qualities of the saxophone from the early days. My interest in that isn’t stylistic - not in any way trying to replicate an idiom or a style - but more along the lines of trying to figure out what qualities of the horn may have been lost almost (or perhaps even lost) and wanting to simply retain certain raw materials as musician that I might apply in my own music. Having said that, I do have perhaps an even greater interest – not as a player, but as a concerned member of society- about the tradition in a way.  

This is tricky because I know I’ve been on record promoting a forward-looking agenda when it comes to the word “jazz.” I’m not turning back on that at all. However, in investigating this early music, not only from a technical aspect of “How did Lester Young make that sound?” or “What might I be able to take from that for my personal expression, or not?” - but just what it means that certain musical traditions die out. Which is the natural course of things. However, it does beg the question of what can be preserved in a live situation; what we could or should place importance on or expect; what could be perpetuated in the future of performance or not. It’s a matter of concern for me in that I don’t think I feel quite comfortable in equating creativity with a certain style of music that we might think is somewhat newer than an older style of music simply because of  – I don’t know – a couple of decades we’re really talking about. Do you know what I’m saying?

It’s part of the dilemma, or maybe just one facet of a multi-faceted dilemma that’s been in the jazz community and probably other communities for...

A long time.

My father would’ve taken in back to Bird. He would’ve said 1957 because that was a departure from the tradition and that was just a breaking point for him and many. For others, that was the place where they got on. This is the classic dilemma: honor the past and be forward-looking at the same time. Don’t do those two things separately from each other. Somehow incorporate the fact that you’re doing both simultaneously and from the same place. It’s very hard. You’re going back to Lester Young and there are other people who tell you go back even further.

Of course. It’s vast really. The history is enormous. I sometimes look at this and think: My God, I’m 52 now and I’m just diving into some of this music for the first time. I could use another lifetime to get into this. So it’s daunting in a way. I guess I feel humbled to the point that I feel that we do want to preserve what we can. I’m not even sure what that means: what kind of ramifications that has for performance today, for what kind of music gets supported, what gets played, what gets thought of as creative what gets thought of as repertory. It’s interesting. I hadn’t really dealt with these issues so much in the past. I was rather unconcerned with it. Especially with the group with Jim and Andrea, we were establishing ourselves and developing a music. I was discovering something and putting things together in a way that finally made sense out of all my influences. Whether anybody thought of it as jazz was really not important - and still isn’t really. That music is what it was. I was just sort of half-kidding when I said it sounded pretty crazy. I say that just because it’s already been some time now and I can look back and say, okay, that recording was at a certain time period and I’m in a slightly different position now on this whole thing. It’s an interesting conversation to have.

There are five standards on the new CD and they are  free-improvisation-ly treated, but these themes, these song structures, these melodies come up. I see “Memories of You” – we’re going all the way back to Eubie Blake. It’s a thing you hear about. I think it’s the next level. I think you’re coming around on a spiral and at some point you’re gonna come around – I don’t mean come around like get your senses back – but I think you’re gonna return to a place where you’ll say: okay, now we’re moving forward again, we’re very consciously moving forward from a different place, from a different perspective

This is how I’m moving forward  - that’s the thing about it. I’m looking back into the tradition for raw materials and certain types of inspiration and material, but I’m doing that in order to move forward. I couldn’t replicate that music if I wanted to.

And you don’t want to.

Well, if I could, maybe I would. If I could sound like Lester Young, that would be amazing.

Let’s get into that. Because from my perspective I can’t see why you would – and maybe this is a strong or the wrong word – envy Lester young. Because I think, again, your sound has such a uniqueness to it, why would you want someone else’s sound - even Lester Young’s?

I say that half in jest. 

But only half in jest

Well, because I wanted to impress on you and the listeners how reverential I feel toward his music. It’s something that I only recently have been able to hear directly, having been born in 1959 and started playing the saxophone in ‘69. Even though I was into jazz at that period, my entry point was essentially that time period – ‘50s and ‘60s. I was aware of standards and music that was written before that. But to be honest – Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster – while I recognized the artistry there, it was music that at the time many people might’ve even considered to be a bit old-fashioned. And certainly it was not a music that I felt a direct emotional connection to the way I did to players who first inspired me. (They might’ve been like R&B tenor players from the ‘50s. Gene Ammons was maybe the first jazz player who I could say was one of my first big influences, that really got me emotionally.)

It was almost like a crush, was it? I think that may have been one of the first of your CDs that I listened to: “The Sun Died.”

Yeah, I did a collection of his music in the ‘90s. I think it was just a matter of when I was born. I figured, well, that music is so far away; I’m never really going to be able to feel that way [about the older music]. However, to my surprise, in the process of trying to change my own sound on the saxophone...and deciding that...

Well, part of it was that I recently bought a very old vintage instrument - a 1927 Conn. I switched after having played a modern instrument my entire life because I was trying to get a fuller, deeper sound. I bought this instrument liking it, but realizing that it was a different beast. Needing some direction in how I might actually play it from a technical standpoint, I had no other option really than to go back and listen to some of these players who played those instruments – for example Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster. I wasn’t listening to the music for any other reason except, okay, I’m a saxophone player, I want to figure out what Lester Young had to do to get that sound. In the process of doing that, I sort of got past the issue of the style of the music and slipped in the back door in a way. After a few months, I suddenly realized that the music was connecting with me emotionally big time. And not only that: it was starting to sound fresh and modern. I was starting to hear the creative aspects of that music that went into it at the time. I wasn’t hearing idiom or style; I was hearing creativity. And it sounded just the same as creative music made today, in a sense - those essential qualities that I was talking to you earlier about, the thing that I want to get across to an audience, that fundamental, bottom-line quality. For the first time in my life, I was hearing that in this early music.  

It’s opened up a whole new world for me of music that I didn’t really know, and I’m having a wonderful time. And so I say that to demonstrate just how this music is moving me forward. Because I’ve been able to unite that with the same approach that I’ve taken to free improvisation all along, except now I probably have a deeper harmonic and melodic component to the music which hopefully will be in evidence at the concert with this new group. I think it’s there and I’m very happy about that. This is no way a retro project in any sense of the word.

It’s like a letter across the decades. It makes you wonder if Lester Young at his time was striving for the same newness and honesty and creativity and inevitability.

He was the newest thing going in his day.

Right, except he was more of a household name because it was the era in which jazz was more or less equivalent to the popular music of the day. It’s like discovering when you get into your 30s or something that your parents probably aren’t as dumb as you thought they were when you were growing up.

Well, there’s a certain amount of baggage that I had with that music and I’m glad to finally be rid of it. It should’ve happened a long time ago.  

It’s interesting, the responses to the new project from people who know what I do. Sometimes they think it sounds more traditional than anything I’ve done. Other people think it sounds just as strange and weird as anything I’ve done.

I think that’s where we are. It’s something for everyone, even if it’s equally perplexing.

I guess it’s all in the mix. I’m amused by that; I think that tells me I’m probably on the right track.

How often every day do you feel you’re on the right track?

In general, I feel like I’m moving in the right direction. It’s more an issue of realizing how much work there is that I want to address and wondering just how fast can that process be made to move. There are some days you think, my goodness, am I making any progress or not? And then there are certain days when you feel like, okay, this all came together, this is validating. But like I said before, we can talk about this, but it really is an intuitive process. I just lead from a sense of what I feel I must do. That just comes from my fascination with the music. The music is pulling me - and in ways and directions that I’m not always cognizant of at the time. That’s how I operate. I trust that. There have been times I’ve questioned it. Some of my friends or colleagues may be thinking, you know: “Why are you spending so much time listening to that old music?” Or “Why are you talking about swinging?” Or “Why are you telling me I’m too loud? What’s going on with you?”

“It’s like I don’t even know you anymore...”

It’s not like that. I’m making a much bigger thing out of it than it is. But I’m sensitive to it. It is a bit of risk, but I think it’s good. The last thing I want to do at this stage of my life is try to replicate what I’ve done in the past. That was never the agenda and why should it be now? In a way, I’m very grateful. It’s great fun. It feels like a new chapter. That does not come without some risk. There are some days I’m thinking, like you said, maybe I’ll come to my senses. But I think I’m past the point of no return here on this.

Not just because of your age.

I  recognize this as a rare opportunity to catch you in Connecticut. I’m not sure in all the time I’ve known about your music that I’ve known you to play anywhere this close to this portion of the state. I caught you at the 55 Bar, and obviously catching you in New York is more likely. But it’s good to have you coming up into New Haven. I encourage everybody to go see whatever kind of live music turns them on, and if you’re listening to this program, then definitely Ellery’s music turns you on. He will be performing with Trio New York which, now that I’ve got this straight is Ellery on tenor saxophone, Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. It’ll be at Firehouse 12 on Crown Street in New Haven. I think the shows are at 8:30 and 10 o’clock. I want to thank you for spending an evening with us tonight, Ellery.

It’s been enjoyable speaking with you.