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 saxophone.org, 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.
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.