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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ellery Eskelin Trio - New York II (Prime Source, 2013) *****

“A free approach to the Great American Songbook”

By Monique Avakian

If there is a band to check out in 2013, this is IT.

I’m tempted to stop right there, or at least toss in a spoiler alert. Half the grand delight of listening to this album is the process of discovery as you uncover the multi-layered subtlety of this group’s free, beyond~interpretative stance. Another tasty slice of major happiness derives from recovering your relationship with some kick-ass standards through this visceral free improv. The Ellery Eskelin New York Trio II embodies the ideal of the avant aesthetic: forward movement, deeply rooted, and set free with honest emotion.

Overall, I would describe this trio as precise, kinesthetically supple and incredibly feline. You may not know they’re in the room until you feel their whiskers, but they already know all about you and everything you dreamed of before breakfast.

On this album, you’ll be treated to three musicians who take their respective instruments each and together into the wild and unexpected.

Gary Versace expresses feelings and thoughts with the Hammond B3 Organ in a way that is simply unprecedented. What a supercool style! During the first listen, I didn’t even know he was playing a B3; I thought he was playing multiple synthesizers and getting the sonic variety out of electronic dials and settings. In Versace’s words: (The organ is the) “first kind of real time synthesizer. You can change the sound as you’re playing, you can hold a note, there’s vibrato, there’s air moving through it…(and I can) change phrase lengths and chord lengths as I see fit.” (*)

Gerald Cleaver is one of those super highly evolved drummers who can play anything he needs to super soft. If you’ve ever been anywhere near a drum kit, you know how difficult that is. Cleaver takes this concept even further through his careful choices of not playing. Whoever heard of a drummer not playing ?!? Especially when you reach a technical level, like Cleaver, where you can pretty much play anything. You could learn a lot about musicianship by studying his choice of silence. In Cleaver’s words: “I try and swing and try to do the things that feel the best….the idea of swinging is one of connectedness and having a real affinity for the piece, whatever it is.” (*)

And Ellery Eskelin, ooooh! His work on the tenor sax (now playing a 1927 Conn.) is complex and experimental, yet completely engaging and intimate. Conceptually, he’s all about paradox and sparking wonder, and this is made all the more appealing due to his natural and relaxed fearlessness. Even though he can knock your socks off with rapid, inventive runs, he never runs all over you. His phrasing is intuitive and often subliminal. Ellery Eskelin brings you inside—DEEP into the living breath of sound.

As for playing live with the trio, in Eskelin’s words: “We know that there are probably six or eight tunes that we might incorporate in some way, without me prescribing any kind of a treatment or rules at all for how those may or may not happen. It’s simply a matter of real-time musical negotiation between us, listening very hard to each other.” (**)

Standout Tunes:
The Midnight Sun
Like sparkles on water, sun and moon dance through threaded ideas traded with echoes. Some kind of unity forms from duality, and I am feeling the blazing sun late at night.

This trio achieves a sonic representation of emotional metaphor so central to the tune that at first listen I literally felt the sun and moon simultaneously appear without knowing anything about this song, including not having read the title – (! ! !) – I’m not making this up! The emotive quality engendered by the trio’s take on this lovely standard is completely involving. Wait a minute….is that stardust on my sleeve?!?!

We See
This take on We See is like having déjà vu while simultaneously hallucinating inside a parallel universe. This version is out, yet NOT closed-off inside some phony fortress with a thousand doors locking you out. The Eskelin Trio is so open and inviting, even when the swing is sonically invisible, you feel it. And the Be-Bop confidence and rhythmic forcefulness are there, too, yet reached through the opposing sensibility of exaggerated pianissimos and small, subtle crescendos. Case in point: Versace gives that B3 ZAP chord every once in awhile, but he does this
  * s * o * f * t * l * y * -- as if using volume itself to make a rhythmic statement (?!)

Live:   Friday & Saturday, July 26th & 27th
  at Cornelia Street Café   (Reservations recommended)

Ellery Eskelin Trio New York: Interview


Can be purchased from


Anonymous said...

"Whoever heard of a drummer not playing ?!?"

Just listen to anything (and everything) played by Paul Motian

Unknown said...

I liked this a lot, but I thought it could benefit with a little more variation in tempo and mood.

joesh said...

Hi Monique

Thanks for the review.

I also listened to this several times since its release, but I have to say I think 5 stars (in my humble opinion) is a little generous. This is a long way from Ellery's more adventurous stuff such as his trio (w. Black and Parkins), "Inbetween Spaces" (w. Hemingway) and his more recent one - I'm not sure if its reviewed yet - "Mirage" (on Clean Feed).

Of course one can't just judge records by artists earlier efforts, but this trio promises a lot, but after that I don't see much proof of that. If I had to give it stars I think I'd give it ***, meaning its a good straight ahead record.

Ellery Eskelin said...

Hi Joe (joesh),
It's been interesting to see how the reactions to this group play out depending upon the orientation of the listener. Those who are into "adventurous stuff" (to use your phrase) tend to hear this band as being straight ahead and swinging. Those listeners with a more mainstream orientation tend to find the group to be pretty far out there, hardly about swinging at all.

I think we want to be careful about associating language too closely with style. This band affords me the opportunity to be truly free with an entire range of musical language that is often otherwise compartmentalized among groups of musicians representing differing scenes. While perhaps not as overtly "adventurous" as some of my other projects, the band does allow me to move forward in a manner that could only happen at this point in my life, having assimilated enough musical raw material to feel that our statements, while perhaps more subtle, are just as powerful as any I've made previously, should anyone feel the need to make those (potentially misleading) comparisons.

And frankly, Monique's review hardly reads like a review of any straight-ahead recording that I'm aware of…

Ellery Eskelin

joesh said...

Hi Ellery

Indeed, I see your point completely, what is adventurous anyway (definitions?). As for the review, well Monique said it all, she obviously really liked it, a good thing I would say.

Thanks for passing by the blog. Its great to know that the musicians also follow our little efforts here.

Colin Green said...

Although labels can be convenient points of departure, they’re often unreliable destinations.

Martin Schray said...

Two of my friends are dedicated followers of Ellery Eskelin, interestingly both of them play the saxophone. I must admit that I never quite understood why they hold him in such high esteem, although – even as someone who cannot play the saxophone – it is obvious that he is a master on his instrument. Albeit I see what Monique means when she talks about Gerald Cleaver’s style or the fact that Midnight Sun is the best track; and it is also interesting what Mr Eskelin says about the group and the freedom he enjoys in it. Nevertheless, even after several listenings, I would support what Joe says. Tracks like “Flamingo” and “My Ideal” seem rather conventional and somehow predictable to me. If I compare it to another record with a similar line-up, namely Decoy & Joe McPhee, I think this is an album that I would prefer, the combination of organ and sax/trumpet is more fascinating and exciting here. Of course I respect Monique perspective (particularly being someone who does not hesitate to assign high rankings) but in the end I would rather agree with Joe and premo.

Ellery Eskelin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Schray said...

It’s a very interesting discussion we have here, mainly due to the fact that we have Mr Eskelin involved. I see your points and they might be coherent and logical from your perspective. Obviously we seem to start from different starting points. I would not disagree with Stef’s definition of free jazz, especially on the concept of “free from”, but on the other hand this does not mean that music which does not fit 100% in this category is necessarily worse. And it is true that conventions are not the same as constraints and that we – as listeners – might have our own preconceptions of what creative improvising is. But I don’t think that the idea of being “free to” is the perfect solution because I think it is too random. In the end we might be thrown back to personal taste (even if it is based on certain categories and not completely random). In the case the album discussed here I would not say that this is not free music, I only think that some parts are predictable (but maybe this is what you call “musical elements that are easily identifiable with the earlier history of jazz”). Personally I find it interesting that I like your album “Mirage” much better, the collaboration with Susan Alcorn on pedal-steel and Michael Formanek on bass is much more surprising and beautiful (although I am perfectly aware that surprise and beauty are subjective categories as well). I am looking forward to reading Dan’s review on this one.
But I am really grateful to have this discussion here because I have learned a lot from it. So, thanks very much, Mr Eskelin.

Monique Avakian said...

This is really interesting because, to me, there is nothing predictable or straight ahead about Trio New York ! I think the way they play these standards is really unusual and deep!

I would like to re-emphasize the Otherworldly experience I had listening the first time: I really felt the sun shining on me, and then I really felt the moon at midnight but yet the sun was still shining. I do not know how this would be possible without my even knowing the title of that song Midnight Sun, unless the group had reached a level of musical integrity that combined their avant individualism with the metaphorical essence of that standard in order to literally cause a sensory hallucination inside me at the cellular level.

I find that rather "out," but maybe that's just me.

joesh said...

Hi Ellery,

I liked your last comment, interesting stuff, shame you deleted it - anyone reading Martin's follow-up comment will have to understand that he's referring to a reply from Ellery, which unfortunately he seems to have deleted.

Anyhow, thanks for taking part in the discussion Ellery.

p.s. I should add that, like Martin, I'm also looking forward to the "Mirage" album, which I also mentioned in my first comment. This is truly a beautiful piece of music. I have to say being a sucker for pedal steel (Susan Alcorn) also adds to the attraction. However, I shouldn't give too much away before the review is posted .... (Dan)!

Anonymous said...

Predictable? Bullsh#t ! Say Monk was predictable then because he played standards and was not free enough? Say Miles and Trane were predictable, that the fabulous concert at the Plugged Nickel was predictable, that Sun Ship and A Love Supreme were predictable... Come on ! Here, it is a question of intensity! The three (Eskelin/Versace/Cleaver) play with so much of it! Sorry to sound off, but I could not let it go ! As Rainer Maria Rilke once said: Art is so deep and personal that almost no one except the artists can judge it... And Kudos to Ellery and his team !


Guy zinger said...

Is not playing notes and adding spaces predictable? Is sticking to your guns and improvising within your vista predictable? I have the feeling and it s my feeling that a lot of people confuse predictability with playing a lot of different and additional notes. That's all I am going to say. Oh yes, and predictablity can be a great thing as in count Basie played in his predictable minimalistic style which he'd so much intensity in between the notes. Can be replaced with monk.

Damian said...

Wow. People here will pick apart your language, instead of your intent on communicating your thoughts on a particular recording. Perhaps we should stick to a simple, thumbs up or thumbs down.

Monique Avakian said...

I wish we didn't have to have any up or down or ratings of any kind, just a lively discussion and open hearts....

I am very thankful for all the musicians who make the world so much more beautiful for us all the time....

I am also very thankful for freejazzblog because I have learned a lot by listening and reading here just in the few short months I've been hanging out here...

Damian said...

I was being facetious.I thought both you and Joesh in his response, did a good job communicating your/his feelings about the music and what it sounded like. Which is not always easy. I thought Joesh's use of the word "adventurous" was appropriate and I had no problem understanding what he meant. I thought Mr Eskelin sounded a little b#tth#rt, and decided to tell us to be careful with our use of language. Which I found completely semantic.

Unknown said...

Just for the record, the comment that Mr Eskelin deleted was well written and interesting. I'm not sure why he deleted it, but i thought that it was worth noting that there was no obvious reason for him to delete it, just in case latecomers to this thread may project and think that he lost his cool or deleted the comment to avoid internet drama. Both of Mr Eskelin's comments here were very admirable, i thought.