Continued Jazz Experimentation
A tenor saxophonist and composer who Down Beat magazine called “one of the great emergent talents of our time,” Ellery Eskelin plays music loosely defined as jazz. He has been identified as the best talent in jazz music today by critics for the New York Times and the Village Voice, as well as other major jazz publications in the United States and Europe. While his roots are in traditional jazz, Eskelin shatters the structure that his predecessors relied upon to develop their sound. But unlike the free jazz movement of the 1960s, which attempted to throw out the past and create a new jazz, Eskelin does not deny his past. He uses the catalog of jazz musicians he has studied with over the years in an original expression of sound that is ever changing.
Whereas free jazz could not escape eventually being labeled and becoming a form of music that could be learned and played under a defined set of rules, Eskelin went even further to find his style. Eskelin attempted to explain his music to Yves Citton of Discourse: “As a player I have strong roots in the jazz tradition but I apply those roots to situations that may not be considered jazz (for example having a band with a saxophone, accordion and drums). It would be disingenuous to deny the influence of jazz musicians in my work yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to characterize all of my work as jazz.”
Eskelin was born on August 16, 1959, in Wichita, Kansas. At the age of two, his parents separated and he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, with his mother. Eskelin’s mother played the Hammond B3 organ professionally in her own band in Baltimore in the early 1960s. Although Eskelin has little memory of his father, he has studied and incorporated his father’s work into his own compositions. Eskelin’s father was a multi-instrumentalist who had played and arranged music under the pseudonyms Rodd Keith and Rod Rogers for the song-poem scam industry in the 1970s. The scam involved urging magazine and newspaper readers to send in lyrics which for a fee, would be set to music and might send the lyricist on his or her way to songwriting stardom. The senior Eskelin was the most prolific of the song-poem artists in their heyday in the 1970s. The musicians who wrote and played these song-poems often did so in long, drug-induced sessions that stretched late into the night. A group of musicians could crank out about a dozen of these spontaneous and warped tunes in a session.
Musical Interest Sparked
Eskelin’s mother, who went by her stage name Bobbie Lee, was the one who sparked his early interest in music. Eskelin took up the tenor saxophone at the age of ten, and by the time he was in high school, he was playing professionally all around Baltimore. In the 1970s, Eskelin received a bit of early inspiration while watching The Left Bank Jazz Society concert at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore. The Left Bank Jazz Society presented some of the greatest names in mainstream jazz. Eskelin told Aleen J. Huotari of All About Jazz online of an epiphany he had when he first caught Jack DeJohnett’s avant garde style at the Jazz Society’s concerts: “The band started out at a very high energy level and sustained it, unwavering over two or three long sets but what was really impressive was how they held the audience. I remember Chic Freeman honking away at the bottom of his horn totally possessed by some unseen force while I watched a middle-aged woman from the neighborhood get up on her feet and yell ‘Yea! Go Baby!’ That showed me that this music did have the potential to connect to all sorts people and that maybe I could reasonably expect to be able to do that myself.”
Beginning in the summer of 1973, Eskelin began to study jazz formally with the Stan Kenton Orchestra at Towson State University. In 1977, he attended Towson State University to study classical saxophone with Joseph Briscuso. Eskelin also studied the flute and clarinet with members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Eskelin played in the university’s jazz ensemble which was led by Hank Levy. In 1981, Eskelin graduated from Towson State University with a bachelor of science degree in music performance. After graduation Eskelin toured with Buddy Morrow. With the money he saved from the 18-month tour, he decided to move to New York City.
With a year of living expenses saved, Eskelin was free to concentrate on his music while meeting new people
For the Record…
Born on August 16, 1959, in Wichita, KS; son of musicians Bobbie Lee and Rodd Keith. Education: Bachelor of science degree, music performance, Towson State University, 1981.
Began playing tenor saxophone at the age of ten; performed professionally with jazz ensembles in high school and college; released debut album of his own compositions, Setting the Standard, 1988; released the critically acclaimed Jazz Trash, 1994; released The Secret Museum, 2000.
Awards: Best of the Year critics awards from the New York Times and the Village Voice.
Addresses: Record company —Hat Hut Records Ltd., Box 461 4106, Therwil, Switzerland. E-mail —[email protected]
and exploring the musical venues of New York City. He played everything from weddings and private parties to jazz club gigs and commercial work. As long as he was playing and learning, he did not feel he was wasting time. He expanded his knowledge of the saxophone while studying with George Coleman and David Liebman. He played Top 40 tunes in various club lineups and he apprenticed with many highly respected jazz musicians like Jack McDuff, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Ray Anderson, Donald Byrd, and Eugene Chadbourne. All the while Eskelin was developing a desire to play with his own signature sound and was growing tired of standard jazz forms. He described his frustration in an article titled “Taking Steps” for the International Saxophone Home Page: “I had been on the scene for a few years by now, sitting in at all the clubs and trying to get noticed. As time passed, I realized that gigs I was once interested in were seeming less and less attractive musically.” Instead of continuing to seek a spot in a highly respected jazz lineup to earn respect in the traditional way, Eskelin took another path.
Deconstructed the Jazz Form
Eskelin began to form his own groups with musicians who saw the countless possibilities in the post-modern jazz world. His first recording was the result of frequent jam sessions centered around drummer Phil Haynes and bassist Drew Gress. The three spent a lot of time discussing the change they sought. They deconstructed the jazz form and broke it into a step by step process which Eskelin describes as a “do-it-yourself” approach to creating music. The collaborative session recordings were not released. Eskelin’s first recorded release was with the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort (A Lincoln Portrait), which was recorded in 1985 and released in 1986 on Cuneiform. The unconventional trio consisted of keyboards, bass, and Eskelin on soprano saxophone. The recording would prove an important education for Eskelin in developing a rhythmic sense in the midst of what seemed on some levels to be complete chaos. Eskelin explained this important process to Huotari: “Mikel writes these very long rhythmic patterns that sound quite independent from each other at first listening. It takes a long time for the various strands to rejoin (and create signposts) before veering off again, but over time I began to hear it and keep track of all the parts while listening and playing…. It wasn’t until later that I realized that my rhythmic conception and skills had been so strengthened that I was able to play literally anything in an improvising context and simultaneously keep track of the form and tempo of the music.”
After the session with Rouse, Eskelin returned to jam with his collaborative group Joint Venture with Haynes, Gress, and trumpeter Paul Smoker. Eskelin returned to playing his instrument of choice, the tenor saxophone. Joint Venture went into the studio to record their first release for Enja records in 1987. Shortly after his work with Joint Venture, Eskelin left to tour in Europe as a member of Phil Haynes’ 4 Horns & What? ensemble. On return from Europe and having played in both groups, Eskelin was ready to move ahead and lead his own band and produce his own compositions. His first release was Setting the Standard on Cadence Jazz in 1988. Eskelin called on Haynes and Gress to play on the album. The Standard was followed by the project’s second album, Forms, released in 1990 on the Open Minds label.
Eskelin was slowly developing the process for which he could control the chaos of individual improvisational solos as they split into different directions. He needed to maintain the harmony in a pattern that on the surface was chaotic. Eskelin derived further insight into this process when he began to work with drummer Joey Baron. Baron opened up a new door for Eskelin in his search for independence from jazz tradition while somehow providing a context from which to create music. It was a non-linear musical form that Eskelin sought to apply time and form to to harness a new creation.
Continued Jazz Experimentation
Eskelin has continued on a direction of unconventional jazz instrumentation. After several different projects in the early 1990s, Eskelin settled upon his current trio with Andrea Parkins on accordion and sampler, and Jim Black on drums. Eskelin applied the accumulated knowledge he gained from previous projects to his new compositions for the trio. The result was his debut Jazz Trash, released on Songlines in 1995. The album was instantly acclaimed by jazz critics. Eskelin describes the philosophy he used in composing Jazz Trash to John Corbett in an interview for WNUR: “I like to give each piece that I write its own sound. There are things on the record where I don’t even improvise, I play completely a written part. There are other things where I have very few notes written for myself, and maybe someone else is reading a completely written part. I’m really trying to change it up and give each piece its own vibe and its own little world, its own universe.”
Eskelin has released additional recordings which include The Secret Museum issued on hatOLOGY in 2000. As a composer and leader of this lineup, Eskelin continues to push boundaries and receive the highest acclaim from jazz critics and musicians around the world.
Setting The Standard, Enja, 1988.
Forms, Open Minds, 1990.
Figure of Speech, Soul Note, 1993.
Jazz Trash, Songlines, 1995.
One Great Day, hatOLOGY, 1996.
Kulak 29 & 30, hatOLOGY, 1997.
Five Other Pieces, hatOLOGY, 1998.
The Secret Museum, hatOLOGY, 2000.
Discourse, Spring 1998.
Magnet, October 1996.
Signal to Noise, Spring 1998.
Down Beat, http://www.downbeat.com/sections/artists/text/bio.asp?from=&id=7631 (December 20, 2000).
Ellery Eskelin interview, All About Jazz, http://www.home.earthlink.net/eskelin/aajinterview.html (December 20, 2000).
Ellery Eskelin interview, North Western University Radio (WNUR), http://www.wnur.org (December 20, 2000).
Ellery Eskelin Official Website, http://www.home.earthlink.net/eskelin (December 20, 2000).
“Get Me Rodd Keith,” http://www.sffringe.org/media/rodd3.html (January 18, 2001).
“Taking the Steps,” International Saxophone Home Page, http://www.saxophone.org/ellery1.html (December 20, 2000).
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