“ This is also a period of great eclecticism I think. Underneath the mainstream, of course... ”
By Sean Patrick Fitzell
The framed promotional posters and paintings on the walls of saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's apartment tell a story. Mementos from European tours with his trio and collaborations with influential drummers Han Bennink and Daniel Humair fit comfortably alongside family photos. While illustrating the diversity of his projects and suggesting their importance to him, they also hint at the ironic reality for a New York City-based improvising musician - the need to constantly tour Europe.
Not that Eskelin's complaining. This October, he sets off on his fourth trip to Europe this year. After playing five shows with Bennink in the Alpine countries, he will join pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and cellist Vincent Courtois for two shows in France, followed by another show in Germany with Courvoisier. Later in the month, Eskelin will be back in the States, leading his trio on a six-night tour along the East Coast that will finish in NYC at the 55Bar on the 19th. At the end of the month, he will join drummer Gerry Hemingway for two dates in California.
The month will be a microcosm of Eskelin's career, featuring his strong melodic sense of tenor saxophone - inspired by the likes of Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt - in projects that are as challenging as they are different. From the improvisatory extremes of Bennink to the chamber-like music with Courvoisier and Courtois to his own band, Eskelin covers a wide range of music, not necessarily "jazz" in the strictest sense.
"I wanted to be a jazz musician since I was ten," Eskelin says. "But that's not what I do anymore." Indeed, since moving to New York from Baltimore in the early '80s, Eskelin has become an important part of the iconoclastic Downtown jazz scene. He performs and records with an array of like-minded musicians, exploring the relationship between composition and improvisation in new ways. "With this scene that we're involved in, in a way it's kind of underground. It's certainly not, you know, really on the mainstream radar - even in the jazz world," Eskelin says.
Although he did not get the traditional jazz gigs he sought when he came to New York, Eskelin believes that forging his own path early was probably for the best. "I was forced to find my own thing and develop it," he says. With the collective Joint Venture, which included trumpeter Paul Smoker, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Phil Haynes, Eskelin fomented and began documenting his musical ideas. After his first two releases as a leader, Setting the Standard (Cadence) and Forms (Open Minds), he became involved in projects utilizing unconventional instrumentation. His tenor was matched with trombone and drums in drummer Joey Baron's Barondown, and Eskelin led a group comprised of tuba and percussion for his record Figure of Speech (Soul Note).
Eskelin then formed his current trio with accordion and sampler whiz Andrea Parkins and the inimitable Jim Black on drums. It is Eskelin's primary working band and will celebrate its tenth anniversary this March. Its seventh release, Arcanum Moderne (hatOLOGY), was released earlier this year and documents the band in peak form, their years of playing together evident in their fluidity moving from supporting to soloing in any given tune. Eskelin likens the approach of the trio to juggling, "taking three people and making it seem like a whole lot more is going on than really is." He started the band to explore playing with a chordal instrument, while staying away from known entities like guitar or piano. Accordion first filled that role, which later expanded with Parkins' sampler playing, as the idea for the band also expanded.
"I have a very, very clear idea of what I'm after all the time," Eskelin says. "I guess I'm setting the stage for things to happen and I have specific elements involved in that equation." He says he's like a director setting the scene and giving the musicians freedom to explore within the given parameters of a song. "I like to write because it gives me a chance to really ensure that each piece has its own concept, its own idea, its own sound and is fairly distinct from every other piece," Eskelin says. He writes simply and clearly to provoke rhythmic or harmonic ideas that would not ordinarily occur in a truly "free" improvisation. But Eskelin admits that he is writing less for this band and moving towards complete improvisation, which he feels the band could do convincingly.