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.