Thursday, July 23, 2015

Summer 2015 - Listening to the Audience…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerry Hemingway Residency at The Stone, NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the entire schedule on Gerry's Website.

Summer Festivals in Europe

JazzFestival Willisau (Switzerland) & Saalfelden Jazzfestival (Austria)

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

Friday, August, 28th
Willisau, Switzerland

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

Saturday, August 29th
Saalfelden, Austria

      Angelica Sanchez Quintet

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

More hatOLOGY catalogue available…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Projects Department...

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

Stephan Crump’s Rhombal

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

photo by Bonnie Wright