Ellery Eskelin

Mirage
Clean Feed CF 271 CD

Ellery Eskelin Trio

New York II

Prime Source 7010

Although exposing characteristic and innovative reed comportment on both these trio sessions, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s choice of partners results in highly idiosyncratic and original discs. A superficial listing of personnel would deem Mirage the reedist’s country and western CD and New York II his standards disc, the conceptions that go into each are much more profound than these rote descriptions.

The first CD audaciously links Eskelin’s breathy tones plus Michael Formanek chunky double bass pulses to the resonations from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel guitar. Rather than a landscape redolent of roadside honky tonks and cowpokes, the result finds a place for the pedal steel’s tremolo textures within the realm of absolute improvisation. Moreover New York II’s six tracks are both more direct and more daring. Using the parameters of overly familiar pop songs, the tenor saxophonist, steady organist Gary Versace and astute drummer Gerald Cleaver subvert the tunes into becoming dissonant improvisations while preserving their thematic senses.

Baltimore-based Alcorn has long been on a one-woman crusade to extract the steel guitar from the C&W ghetto and introduce it to the wider world of improv. Along the way she’s played with other innovative musicians ranging from bassist Peter Kowald to saxophonist Joe McPhee. Bassist Formanek, who worked with Eskelin in drummer Gerry Hemingway’s combo and who teaches in Baltimore, provided the perfect foil for the first musical meeting between Alcorn and the Baltimore-born tenor saxophonist.

While the nearly 27½ minute “Downburst”, recorded in concert, is obviously the disk’s centrepiece, the shorter after-concert sequences are as illustrative of the extrasensory timbral blending. Overall the saxophonist narrows his focus to breaths, smears, slurs and vibratos as the bassist’s chunky thumps preserve the bottom. The narrowed flanges and flutters which quiver from the pedal-steel strings serve as decoration, opposition and parallel timbral execution. Minimalist air expelling doesn’t limit Eskelin’s expression either. His hard-bitten cries emerge diffidently, only to evaporate at the end of “Absolute Zero”, following winnowing echoes from Alcorn. On the other hand the earthy “Saturation” exposes a buoyant swing interface as the saxist’s harsh cadenzas are matched by mercurial picks and resonations from Alcorn.

The live interaction on “Downburst”, gives everyone more space to play, with the additional challenge of the trio attempting to suture superficially separate sounds. True at points the steel guitarist picks some quivering semi tones which wouldn’t be out of place in a Nashville country music session and the saxophonist’s intense, romantic line expansion seems more suited for Broadway than Baltimore, but they preserve. With the improvisation evolving from an unhurried to a swiftly moving tempo, atonality and affiliation often demand equal space. Thus Alcorn’s multi-string arpeggios can replicate the sounds of either the guzheng or the concert harp, while Eskelin’s staccato intensity burrows into the horn for distorted multiphonics. By the finale however a common ground of undulating connective waves from the pedal steel, reverberating plucks from the bassist and excited reed bites from the saxophonist dovetail into an exciting instance of triple counterpoint.

Counterpoint is the least of the concerns of the New York trio as Eskelin, Versace and Cleaver evolve a strategy to give new clarity to a series of tunes for which the term warhorses may have been coined. Rather than improvisations on themes, the recreations instead concentrate on the variations before referencing the theme. Overall the strategy works noticeably well with one glaring exception. Thelonious Monk’s “We See” is so wedded to the pianist’s idiosyncratic interpretation that trying to make it more exciting is like skydiving onto a field of nails to increase the thrill-factor.

More generic to new interpretations are tunes such as “Just One of Those Things”, “After You’ve Gone” and “Flamingo” which have been worked on by hundreds of thousands of musicians over the years. Cleaver, whose affiliations have ranged from Tim Berne to Roscoe Mitchell, is a known quality when it comes to quirky improv. However it’s Versace who is the real revelation here. Although playing a prototypical Hammond B3 organ his soloing and comping is anything but blues-based. Avoiding Jimmy Smith-like-funk for staccato pumps and relaxed undulations as he does on “After You’ve Gone” put into bolder relief the saxophonist’s slippery slides and altissimo bites that precede melody illumination.

This strategy is even more effective on a slowed-down variant of “Just One of Those Things”. Firmly moving forward with tremolo lines, but paying only glancing attention to a swing pulse, Versace’s long lines serve as perfect foil to Eskelin’s Gene Ammons-like biting and near-bluesy smears and slurs. Plus Cleaver’s powerfully clattering drum break appears to mock night-club set conventions as much as it celebrates them.

The keyboardist and reedist reach a pinnacle of virtuosity on the final “Flamingo”. Vamping and vibrating theme alterations in complementary styles, the polyphonic results posit the idea that this variation will become a “name-that-tune” contrafact until the familiar line is brought into play along. With the organist seconding his narrative with strident judders, the saxophonist finally revels in the melody until the two end the exercise with vibrating parallel note cadenzas.

Eskelin has come up with a new definition and new touchstones for improving Jazz trios with these releases. Hopefully the subversiveness the so-called standards session will be as transparent to all as the evolutionary work expressed on the purported avant-country romp.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: New: 1. The Midnight Sun 2. Just One of Those Things 3. We See 4. My Ideal 5. After You’ve Gone 6. Flamingo

Personnel: New: Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone); Gary Versace (Hammond B3 organ) and Gerald Cleaver (drums)

Track Listing: Mirage: 1. Rain Shadow 2. Meridian 3. Divergence 4. Saturation 5. Absolute Zero 6. Refraction 7. Occlusion 8. Downburst 9. Mirage

Personnel: Mirage: Ellery Eskelin (tenor saxophone); Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar) and Michael Formanek (bass)