Ellery Eskelin's Tenor Sax Swings From Whisper To Scream

Adventurous player surprisingly tender on new CD.

Ellery Eskelin is renowned for his postmodern tough tenor sax and his genre-bending compositions. His reputation as one of the important under-40 artists in jazz is definitely not built upon lullabies.

But the title piece of his latest Hatology CD, Ramifications (RealAudio excerpt), is exactly that — a melody that soothes and lulls. Sure, the performance is peppered with Eskelin's signature squalls and screams, but on balance it is perhaps the most tender piece of music he has ever recorded. And it's a beautiful showcase for the rich timbres of Eskelin's quintet of cello, accordion, tuba and percussion.

The title Ramifications is also a play on the name of Eskelin's newborn son, Rami Wade. Eskelin, 40, wrote much of the music for his fifth CD with the prestigious Swiss label in the late evenings in his New York apartment, often while his son was being rocked to sleep. But he didn't connect the dots until after the piece was composed.

"I didn't start out with the idea that a lullaby was going to be my model for the piece," Eskelin said. "It only dawned on me afterward. Of course, my son's presence was strongly felt during the entire process so maybe it was a more subconscious thing."

Regardless of how much sleep he's losing with the new addition to the family, Eskelin's subconscious is as productive as ever on Ramifications. Pieces such as "Penalty Phase," "Museum Piece" and "Resident Alien" (RealAudio excerpt) are among Eskelin's most vivid episodic works to date. In large measure, the pure sonic jolt of the program is thanks to what is — for an Eskelin date — a crowded studio. The quintet here is the largest he has assembled for a CD.

In addition to longtime trio mates Andrea Parkins, who spikes her accordion with sampled sounds, and drummer Jim Black, Eskelin tapped the talents of cellist Erik Friedlander and tuba player Joe Daley for the album.

"With the cello and tuba, there's a nice, warm low end," Eskelin said of Ramifications. This is particularly true of the opening ensemble of "Resident Alien," which is built on low-end unison lines, around which Parkins' accordion and sampler provide otherworldly textures.

Lush Life

"I suppose this might be a more 'lush' sound, compared to the more stripped down sound I get with Andrea and Jim," Eskelin said.

Given the trio's high profile after five critically acclaimed CDs on both Hatology and the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Song Lines, Eskelin is quick to point out the ensemble on Ramifications is not "an extension of the group with Andrea and Jim." He said the ensemble "could be seen as something of a consolidation of what I've done since Figure of Speech," a 1991 trio outing for Soul Note, which featured Daley. As on the earlier album, Daley — who has played with artists ranging from saxophonist Sam Rivers to blues man Taj Mahal — shifts easily from anchoring funky vamps to pushing the improvisational envelope.

However, Eskelin is wary of making close comparisons. "I really think of it as its own entity," he said of Ramifications. Certainly, Friedlander's presence accounts for much of the album's unique flavor. He contributes some stunning solos, particularly the poignant unaccompanied statement that opens "Museum Piece."

Eskelin first was noticed in the New York scene in the early '80s, hiring his full-bodied tenor sound out to a wide variety of musicians, including legendary organist Jack McDuff. Soon after, Eskelin hit his jazz stride with the cooperative group Joint Venture, featuring trumpeter Paul Smoker, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Phil Haynes. Their first Enja disc was released in 1987.

Eskelin began the first of many projects as a leader with a trio consisting of Gress and Haynes on Setting the Standard (Cadence Jazz) in 1988 and Forms (Open Minds) in 1990. Throughout the '90s Eskelin alternated between leading his own groups and playing in others, including drummer Joey Baron's Baron Down trio; Open Loose, a trio with bassist Mark Helias and drummer Tom Rainey; and drummer Gerry Hemingway's quartet. Eskelin also occasionally performs with guitarist Marc Ribotand drummer Kenny Wollesen in a group that recorded the 1996 Soul Note CD The Sun Died, featuring music written by and associated with the great tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons.

Creative Structuring

Ramifications suggests that Eskelin's compelling voice as a tenor saxophonist and his bold compositional sensibility — which he aptly likens to filmmaking, given his penchant for a jump-cut approach to structure — have reached a new level of integrated creativity.

"I think Ellery's thought process seems to be coming more from a compositional perspective these days, rather than a 'pure' improviser," said Art Lange, who produced the album. "He's not just looking for new environments in which to set off his soloing — though that is still part of the mix — but he's engaged in creating ensemble colors and textures, too. So he's more responsible for what the others play — they're no longer sketchy improvisational pieces that the others flesh out."

Underwritten by Rolf Fehlbaum/Vitra, Ramifications is the fourth album in a three-year project for Hatology that allows Eskelin to present his work in a number of settings. In addition to his trio and the quintet featured on Ramifications, Hatology has released Dissonant Characters, a no-holds-barred encounter between Eskelin and the renowned Dutch drummer Han Bennink.

In the hit-and-run game of recording for small labels, Eskelin said the series affords him "the opportunity to think about an overall plan or strategy."

Still, Eskelin hasn't devised a unified field theory for the series. "I think that Ramifications may actually be the first recording that was conceived of as being a new project for the ongoing series," Eskelin said. "The next one will take place later this year. It will be violin, cello, bass and vibraphone along with saxophone in an all-improvised program.

"I feel that I'm now beginning to really optimize the series in as much as I feel very free to come up with ideas that I might not have had the opportunity to realize otherwise. I have no idea what will be the next choice. I need to finish what's in front of me before I get to that point."