Ellery Eskelin's Ten
It's curious that both Andrea Parkins and Jim Black's names are absent from the front cover of Ten. This marks the tenth year the band has been together and both long-time associates do participate on this project. Despite functioning as the leader, Eskelin's been intent on presenting Parkins and Black as equals, but perhaps the additional presence of Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot and Melvin Gibbs complicate the issue: Inclusion of every musician's name on the front cover might indicate the band had doubled in size for the foreseeable future, while making use of standard Eskelin/Parkins/Black billing would in effect disrespect Constable, Ribot and Gibbs' contribution. Then again, perhaps Ten was primarily an Eskelin outing from the very beginning.
The Eskelin/Parkins/Black band produced a decade of recordings that have successively pared down compositional elements in favor of spontaneity. More recent recordings are a testament to the benefits of a long-standing working relationship as evidenced by consistent feel and approach that runs throughout their entire body of work. This remains true even when predetermined devices are, by now, often absent. Introducing Constable, Ribot and Gibbs into a unit that has established a one-of-a-kind relationship would appear to be an invitation to disaster. Amazingly, nothing could be further from the truth.
On the surface, the presence of vocals would seem to threaten all that Eskelin's band has collectively worked toward. Vocalists typically present structured meter and rhyme and force instrumentalists into a subordinate role even when that's not the intent. The phenomena is similar to a photograph of a busy street corner; pedestrians become the focus of our gaze and the surroundings simply provide context. The same is true as the human voice will predominately draw our attention while other aural elements hold secondary meaning. "Tell Me When," the first of three tracks on Ten featuring Jessica Constable, effectively breaks any hard-wired preconception of the voice's hierarchy within a musical framework and sets the stage for her remaining appearances.
Free of conventional singing limitations, Constable dispenses with standard-lyrics bound presentation. She instead prefers to work within the dynamic of broken, juxtaposed syllables and it is just this abstraction that allows her voice to interact along with the rest of the band in a purely instrumental capacity. Unrestricted by the spoken word's explicit meaning, the listener is free to draw context and emotion that change with subsequent hearings and the listener's own mood. Ultimately, Constable's work on Ten seems a natural and logical extension of Eskelin's singular vision.
Marc Ribot's electric guitar and Melivn Gibbs's bass also supply Eskelin's music with new colors and textures. Both Ribot and Gibbs not only assimilate Eskelin's misenscene, but they build upon and extend the visceral impact of the entire project giving new meaning, shedding new light on what Eskelin achieves with Parkins and Black. Personnel configurations shift from track to track and perhaps the most surprising cut on Ten is "Take Me." Gibbs' bass sets an almost ominous early lead over Parkins' organ samplings and Constable's somewhat more conventional vocal. As Black, Ribot and then Eskelin enter, the final track builds from slow introspection to feverish exclamation and everything in between. There is just enough groove and blues connection that "Take Me" has potential for becoming an "alternative" hit.
Eskelin's standard trio is also heard intact on this recording and their hallmark interaction remains as virtuosic, dynamic and intriguing as ever. Apparently there are several successful trio numbers that were recorded but do not appear on Ten. While it's difficult to argue with the results of this project and the sequencing of Ten 's tracks, it's also a sad reality that the outtakes may never be heard.
This all brings us back to the significance (if any) of billing. The history between Eskelin, Parkins and Black is thick and Ten poses a number of questions: Does this mark a turning point in the band's overall concept? Will guest musicians be heard more often in collaboration? Could the band's permanent personnel grow in size? Is this a one-of-a-kind project and if so, how will Ten and its implications affect an otherwise stable trio's music? We'll just have to wait and see.
This review was sent to Ellery Eskelin before its publication along with an invitation to respond. The ground rules were simple: The review itself would not be revised after being sent to Mr. Eskelin and in return, any reply would be published along with the review in unedited form. The goal is to present the reader with two points of view -one from the outside and one from the inside of the music- to give a better look at the subject matter.
Ellery Eskelin's response: