In the awkward divide that has built up between the Burns-Crouch-Marsalis camp and the anti-Burnsites in the past year, any young artist who shows anything approaching reverence for the past is immediately pigeon-holed as a Young Fogy and his record judged in terms of its closeness to the Marsalis school of technically brilliant but emotionally constipated music. This is, of course, as unfair to Marsalis as it is to the budding performer. But it cannot be denied that there is a tendency towards Academicism surrounding the Lincoln Center posse, with its strict, almost Leavisite, Canon and its suspicion of those who do not share the Armstrong to Wynton theory of jazz history.
There is every likelihood that Wayne Escoffery’s debut set will be so labeled. It has the characteristic hallmarks. Escoffery is the sax-man in Eric Reed’s band. Reed is closely linked to Marsalis. Also humility, in the form of respect to former saxophone greats, is everywhere, marking each track and highlighted in Escoffery’s own liner notes. To cap it all, he has a scholastic command of the instrument that isn’t quite matched by an individuated sound.
Yet Times Change is a fine example of mainstream blowing. Nothing to scream about from the roof tops, and nothing jazz buffs won’t have in various forms already, it is even so a solid collection somewhere in the Jackie McLean/ Sonny Stitt late bop style.It also has the prettiest ballad you will hear this year—a stunning version of the ancient “That’s All”. The band maybe relatively nondescript but Escoffery comes out with flying colours. There is a sense of a finals project about the album—each player seems overly keen to prove what a diligent student he has been—but there is life, and indeed love, in the leader’s way with a melody. Naturally, the level of craftsmanship is as high as you would expect, but it is not at all a dry affair, thanks largely to this song-based sensibility. He may get assigned to the new classicism but I suspect he is a romantic at heart.
I must confess that I was only drawn to the record because there was a fantastic and sinfully ignored soul outfit from London a few years back called The Escofferys. Wayne maybe related, as he moved to New York from London as a a child. He is still young yet modest as he is about his relationship to the tradition, he is no novice. He has studied with a frightening array of major figures and has worked with a number of formidable outfits in the past few years, including Ron Carter’s group and the Mingus Big Band.
The opening track is excellent. “Come Back Lucky”, a tribute to Lucky Thompson, sounds like an out-take from McLean’s Bluesnik classic. That is a compliment, by the way, Bluesnik being one of the best albums ever. Escoffery was tutored by McLean—it shows but that is no bad thing. In fact, each number bears the mark of some former great, though not always the one the liner notes cite. For instance, Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice”—a bittersweet tune for which our man has a particular penchant, has the flavour of some of Joe Henderson’s less abstract work. Sometimes things get a bit too close to their source of inspiration as in his imitative reading of “After You’ve Gone”. This was a Sonny Stitt warm-up piece and sounds merely re-heated here. The command of “sheet of sound” scales is impressive though. On the other hand Yusef Lateef’s “Water Pistol” has its essential tunefulness brought out but shows little of it’s composers depth and is generally second-rate.
His own compositions, three in all, are, apart from the opener, adequate but do not stay in the mind long. They are a little bookish - as if written for an assignment—clever but not quite convincing. The song to his sister “Dawn” is marginally preferable to “Times Change”, largely because the former has a tenderness to it that appeals. The one remaining track is Jobim’s “Triste” which isn’t quite Latin enough for me but is redeemed by some commanding and free-flowing solo work.
Tenor and soprano sax are, the now familiar, choice of instruments. The tenor suits him better but I think I would say that about any player. One soprano piece a set is sufficient. John Coltrane has a lot to answer for in reviving an instrument whose initial sound is charming but whose scope is very narrow. The band (piano, bass, drums) is unobtrusive and accomplished but no different to any you might hear at your local jazz club.
For a first offering this is an accomplished and enjoyable set. Adventurous it is not. There is plenty of time. We will hear much more of this agreeable-sounding young man in the near future. In more high-powered company, or maybe on a complete set of ballads, he will show his true worth. Already he has proved himself capable of giving great pleasure to anybody who simply enjoys a good tune played well. Once the recent teacup-storming over what is and what isn’t authentic jazz has died down, it will be the quality of musicianship that is remembered. Escoffery makes that grade easily and has also made a bright start to what is likely to be a fruitful career.