[28 July 2014]
There are so many incredible jazz musician in New York these days—astonishing talents from around the globe who converge on the music’s true capital—that it’s almost impossible to listen to them all.
Here’s just one, an astonishing musical thinker from the UK, who has just released his sixth recording in five years. John Escreet came to the US to attend the Manhattan School of Music like so many from around the world, and he has stayed in New York as a leader and sideman, as an omnivore who lives in the world of post-modern jazz. This is s a world where he can fuse classical music, free improvisation, and highly structured notated work that sounds as much like Zappa as it does like bebop as it does like Anthony Braxton.
Escreet’s first recording, 2009’s Consequence, served notice that he was a very well-schooled maverick—and an adventurer ready to travel down interesting roads with companions who share his vision. It opens with a three part “Suite of Consequence” that is chock full of Cecil Taylor pianism—clusters and shards and jagged runs—as well as room for trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere and alto saxophonist David Binney to play with abandon. The next tune, however, “Wayne’s World”, sounds like a tribute to Wayne Shorter, and it lets the quintet play in a more consonant post-bop frame.
Since then, Escreet has remained eclectic and varied, keeping company with a trio (Tyshawn Sorey on drums and John Hebert on bass) that shares his borderless vision.
Escreet’s latest recording, however, sits at a particular extreme of his thinking: a completely improvised suite that features his countryman and singular saxophone stylist Evan Parker. Sound, Space and Structures is a complex tone poem that relies heavily on texture, daring, and instinct. Recorded after the trio performed with Parker during a week of curatorship at The Stone in New York, this set shows incredible listening and empathy, unusual imagination, and real trust between four great musicians.
A word about Evan Parker. Although initially influenced by the American avant-garde of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, Parker is a free improvisor like few others. His approach is dominated not by melody that strays beyond consonant harmony but by a technique of looping, layering, weaving, overtones, harmonics, and other elements that create sound and texture. Parker’s music—often presented in a solo saxophone format—is challenging and difficult but not “harsh” in the usual sense. His command of volume, sonority, and delicacy can be unrivaled.
Sound, Space and Structures begins with an improvisation by the trio alone, but it becomes a conversation between all four band mates. The prevailing tone certainly shifts, but it is as often contemplative as it is extreme. In “Part IV”, for example, Escreet starts by playing a staccato, Morse Code-esque part on finger-damped piano strings while Hebert bows a free arco line. Parker plays his tenor saxophone here, jabbing in the gaps of the percussive line, building small phrases that make U-turns and circle back on themselves. “Part II” finds Parker playing swirling figures on his soprano while Sorey dances on the bell of his cymbals and Escreet plays single note lines in the piano’s highest register. It is nervous sounding music, but not unbeautiful on its own terms. “Part VI” is equally lovely, with the trio beginning on an impressionistic tip that sounds like light dawn and then finally picks up a regular tempo that toggles between two consonant chords.
Other improvisations have more bite. “Part III” is a Jackson Pollack piece, with chords flying like paint, squiggles of melody combining and recombining from soprano, piano, and bass. Each instrument makes leaps and makes runs. Sorey is all ears, responding to every gesture and goading on the best. “Part VII” sets off with equal energy, Hebert playing a free walking bass line at fast tempo and Sorey swinging it light and fast. Parker plays in a more traditional “free sax” style, and Escreet slows the tempo for his solo, turning the rhythm section to a more angular rhythm based on a highly repetitive piano figure that slowly changes.
Parker dominates the closer, “Part IX”, where his complicated fingerings and false notes on soprano create a web of swirling sound. Escreet and the trio follow him into a mostly tempo-less trill and tremolo for all their instruments. It is music as a painting: a still canvas that doesn’t move much either melodically or harmonically but still reveals more the longer you spend with it.
Sound, Space and Structures doesn’t hem in young pianist John Escreet—it doesn’t answer any questions about who he is or where he’s going in his music. It merely confirms that he won’t put any fences around his music. If the encounter with Parker is less satisfying for me than some of Escreet’s other collections, it is only because the older musician comes with a certain identity that has to be accommodated. The thrill with a musician like Escreet, it seems to me, is in watching him wrestle with his various influences and trying to consolidate them into a clear voice. That is less in evidence here, but the music remains a strong outing for Parker, and one that should bring him to some new ears.