FIRESIDE CHAT WITH ELLERY ESKELIN
Ellery Eskelin is not a recent discovery, but the snowball should be rolling
and I would not be surprised in the least if he was to become a household
name. Sadly, there is no chance in hell because Eskelin is dedicated to
his music and that kind of loyalty (and not one to the almighty dollar)
is not rewarded these days. Before I get on my cross again, let me just
present one of my favorite tenors, unedited and in his own words. I figure
I spare you my sermon. It is going to be a cold winter and people need
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
ESKELIN: I would say that probably it was through the inspiration of my
mother who played Hammond B-3 organ professionally in Baltimore. She exposed
me to music first hand and also through her record collection. I think
she was the catalyst for that. I played in the elementary school band
and there was a musical instructor there and he gave us class instructions.
I didn't start studying privately until junior high school, high school,
from about the age of ten, playing through the school system and from
my mom too.
What was it about the tenor saxophone?
ESKELIN: The sound, totally. Some of the records that my mother had, had
saxophone on it and I listened to a lot of records she had. She had Dizzy
Gillespie's big band record. I remembered she had a Sarah Vaughan record.
I could identify the different instruments. I enjoyed listening to the
records and I didn't think about it seriously. She kind of surprised me
one night that if I could play any instrument that I wanted, what would
it be and not having even thought it seriously about playing an instrument,
I without hesitation picked the tenor saxophone because that was my favorite
sound on all the records that she had. They tried to convince me that
it was too large to me, but I insisted.
When did you embark on your road to New York?
ESKELIN: I left Baltimore in 1981 and I went on the road with Buddy Morrow
for about a year and a half. It was a big band gig. And then I moved to
New York in March of 1983.
Did you find it was a challenge to find work?
ESKELIN: Not really. I was open to playing any kind of music. Obviously,
I wanted to be a jazz musician and a jazz player and hung out at clubs
and tried to do that. But as far as working, I played all kinds of gigs,
commercial gigs, wedding gigs, big band gigs, you name it, any kind of
gig that required a saxophone, I would do it. In the beginning, it wasn't
really that hard to get the ball rolling. I had some connections from
having visited New York while on the road a few times. At that level,
even if there are a lot of players, there was enough of that kind of work
around that players were helpful with each other, subbing off on each
other's gigs and things like that. I did that for the first three, four,
or five years and then decided that commercial work really wasn't my passion.
I decided at that point to change strategy and I decided to take some
day work. I decided to work at Carnegie Hall, in the business office there
and then I worked at New World Records just as a shipping clerk, just
to make ends meet, while I started self-producing records and making the
transition from musician who aspired to be a jazz musician, but was really
in reality just a working commercial musician in town, kind of going nowhere,
I decided I would be better off just taking myself seriously enough by
putting out these records and getting the ball rolling that way so that
slowly the jazz world took me more seriously by having done that. It was
a slow process, beginning in '85 and '86, started developing music with
a few core players and doing it that way.
How many records did you self-produce?
ESKELIN: Probably the first four or five of them, I'm thinking. There
is Setting the Standard, which was released on Cadence Jazz Records on
LP from '88. That was followed by Forms for a now defunct German label
called Open Minds. After that, I self-produced a solo tenor saxophone
ESKELIN: Yeah, Premonition. And then what came after that, the first Soul
Note record I did, I actually self-produced and sold to them. It was called
Figure of Speech. And then from then on, I was able to get enough of a
track record to convince the labels to front the money and do it directly.
Let's touch on Premonition, which has become somewhat of a collector's
ESKELIN: It is probably more rare. I actually put that out on my own label
and everything. When I say self-produced, with respect to the other records
that I mentioned, that means that I went into the studio, got the band
together, paid the musicians, paid the studio tab, everything on my bill
and then sold the tape or leased it or licensed it, if you will, to a
record company to put out under their name. Premonition was the only one
that I decided to put out myself and have it manufactured myself, only
because I thought that was going to be a tougher sell through a company,
that it was probably going to take a long time to get that one out. A
solo saxophone, it's going to take a little longer to move that. It was
also a strategic idea too because that was right at the same time that
Figure of Speech came out and Soul Note, being at that time the highest
profile label that I ever worked with, was putting that out. I decided
I was going to put out Premonition simultaneously with that and try to
generate a little bit more interest by having two records out at that
time, in terms of getting press and promotion. That actually seemed to
work well because Soul Note had their own promotional machinery there
and they sent out 250 copies or whatever and they had people who worked
that as best as they could. It was an added appeal to editors and writers
that it's like not only that, but there is this other thing out. I probably
would not have gotten the attention on the solo disc if I would have put
it out all by its lonesome. That was kind of my thinking behind that.
You managed to avoid many of the trappings that come with a solo session.
ESKELIN: I probably felt the most pressure the very first time I performed
that music live. I pretty much took that as a challenge because I acknowledged
that that would be a challenging thing and there would be a certain amount
of pressure in getting up in front of an audience and doing that. I had
done all kinds of various instrumentations, lots of trios, duos, and I
kind of took it as a musical challenge like this is the one thing that
I haven't really done and I didn't have a clear idea in the beginning
of how I was going to solve the problem, but I knew that if I went ahead
and booked the concert three months in advance and by putting myself in
a situation of forcing myself by having this deadline, sometimes it is
the best way to get the creative juices going and you really know that
you have got a deadline and it is do or die and you have to put up the
goods. So I gave myself three months to prepare for it and I might have
been a little nervous at the first concert, but just the act of making
the music happen is so all encompassing that after the first few notes
go by, you don't have any room inside you to even think about that. It
really takes everything you have to take everything that you have up in
the air going musically. I became so absorbed in that. I was encouraged
by the response. People seemed to be genuinely positive about it and a
couple of people said that I should really record this and I think it
was a year after that before I actually recorded it. The recording process
was actually facing less pressure because you don't have to do the whole
program in forty-five minutes of real time. You can take three or four
hours to do it, listen back to it, see how you like it, maybe you want
to change it. That actually takes a little bit of the pressure off. I
was satisfied with the results of that. I still am. I have the idea that
I might do another solo recording at some point down the road. I want
to get a new program together. I think that is pretty much indicative
of where I was at the time.
Do you find that you work better under pressure?
ESKELIN: Yeah, I don't want to infer that I prefer to work that way, but
I guess I do take a certain amount of pride in being able to function
under pressure. A tour that we did last fall was a case study. Basically,
we had a three, three and a half week tour with my band with Andrea Parkins
and Jim Black and it was just a cavalcade of stress. It was an excellent
tour, but you are doing on nighters in different cities and different
countries and you are on the train most of the day and you are troubleshooting
all kinds of different conditions and you are trying to, bottom line,
make the music happen every night. I do take a certain amount of pride
in being able to run a tour well and to be able to handle those kinds
of situations and rise to those occasions. But I do that people talk about
all the positive things about being on the road, about performing music,
and maybe making even making the records while you are on the road, which
is what we've done the last number of times and there are all great benefits
to that, but there is also something to be able to make the music under
more relaxed conditions, which you don't always have. Sometimes I kind
of crave that. It is not really possible to make a living in town. There
aren't too many gigs that can support you that way. You really have to
travel and I like to travel, but sometimes there are moments on those
tours where I wish that this would be so much easier to do if I did not
have to do it with jetlag or if I had had a decent meal or if I would
have had more I had more than three hours of sleep last night. Not to
sound like I am complaining, Fred, by any stretch of the imagination,
but that is an issue that I think about.
Let's talk about your collective with Paul Smoker, Drew Gress, and Phil
Haynes, Joint Venture, that recorded three superb sessions for Enja.
ESKELIN: Well, thanks, Fred. That was the first project that grew out
of the period where I removed myself from the commercial scene and realized
that there are only some many jazz gigs out there and there are probably
about fifteen thousand tenor players on the streets at any given time
in New York. That was the first project that came out of that mindset
of the self-produced type of thing. Drew Gress and I go back to 1977.
We went to school together in Maryland. We had been playing ever since.
Phil Haynes, the drummer, I was playing a lot with, particularly in the
mid to late '80s, early '90s. I would go to Phil's house very often with
Drew Gress. He lived in Brooklyn. We would workshop music two, three times
a week. Sometimes I would do duos with Phil. We were just intense working
on music for a number of years. Joint Venture was really the first recording
that came out of that experience. Paul Smoker has an association with
Phil Haynes and to make a long story short, we decided to bring Paul,
who was living in Iowa at that point, to New York for a concert and we
liked what was happening so much that we decided to go into the studio.
That was the very first recording. It was self-produced, made here in
New York, and that was a cooperative group, so it was a little easier
to self-produce financially. After a few records and a number of years,
it became, the flipside of a cooperative is it can become difficult with
the division of labor. We didn't have any severe problems in that arena.
We actually worked very well together, but ultimately, I think we were
all doing our own solo projects and after a few records, at least for
the moment, I had said all that I could say in that context and wanted
to try some different things. I am very proud of all of those recordings
and once in a while I will get a response or an email that found one.
In fact, I just got one this week where somebody found the original LP,
the very first one from 1987, which is out of print. In fact, two of the
three records are out of print. One of the CDs, the third one, Mirrors,
just went out of print as well, unfortunately. Maybe they will bring it
back. But there is still one out there circulating, the second one called
Yet another recording that I have to scour the used CD bins for.
ESKELIN: They circulate in those bins, I think.
Let's touch on your current trio with Jim Black and Andrea Parkins, interesting
instrumentation of tenor saxophone, drums, and accordion.
ESKELIN: I was thinking about the fact that a lot of bands that I had
been playing in were various combinations of horns and sometimes with
drums and sometimes with a bass, but often with no piano. I guess I wanted
to find an instrumentation that could give me the sound of chords again.
I thought about organ. I researched it for a long time. According to my
own surprise in listening to a lot of music, I discovered the accordion
through recordings of players like Guy Klucevsek and a number of European
artists who improvise on the instrument and then a search ensued and I
wanted to see who I could find that could do that. I searched for a while
and fortunately found Andrea Parkins living right here in New York City.
Not only does she play accordion, but she plays sampler and can do some
of the things on organ that I was also hearing at the time.
The trio has released three albums on Hatology, first One Great Day, featuring
a killer version of Rahsaan's "The Inflated Tear."
ESKELIN: Well, thanks. It was released in '96 or '97, I can't remember.
It was on our first tour of Europe. It is actually our second recording
as a band. The first one was on a Canadian label called Songlines, out
ESKELIN: Right, Jazz Trash. That came out in '96 or '97 and I guess One
Great Day was after that. It was done on our first tour of Europe. It
was a co-production between Hat Art and WDR, which is the German radio.
They set up a concert for us in Germany and a recording of the live version
of that concert was archived for WDR so it took a couple of afternoons
at that time to record in a venue without an audience as if it were a
studio, but basically, it was the concert venue and chose the tracks from
those sessions for the CD.
The sound is surprisingly intimate for a large venue.
ESKELIN: Yeah, I was surprised actually because we had a little difficulty
in recording it. The venue didn't lend itself that well to recording,
but we took the tapes to the Hatology engineer and he was able to mix
it and I was very happy with the result. All the subsequent records on
Hatology have been done in a similar fashion, whereby we have been on
tour in Europe, generally two or three weeks and sometime during the tour,
usually toward the latter part of the tour, we would go to a venue and
give a concert and record that concert and record a couple of afternoons
in that same venue without an audience as if it were a studio. Kulak was
named after the presenting organization in Switzerland. They present jazz
music concerts in their tiny town. That one and then the following one,
Five Other Pieces (+2) was done that way. I've also made a recording with
drummer Han Bennink (Dissonant Characters) with the same method in Switzerland,
where we would record in the venue. The idea being we can choose what
happens best in a live concert and what happened without the audience.
Ironically, I tend to like much more the things that happen without an
That goes against conventional wisdom that the energy from a live setting
cannot be replicated within the confines of a studio.
ESKELIN: I have written about that in a couple of the liner notes. It
goes against conventional wisdom that live is best when it comes to jazz.
I think we have found a way to get the best of both worlds. We're doing
this in the studio without an audience. The setup is the same, as it would
be if we were playing live. It is not in a studio per say, but without
an audience you get to go back and listen to that cut and say whether
you really like it and if you want to try it again. Just being able to
take a mental break even for ten minutes in between a tune, it at least
allows me a little bit better focus. A lot of what happens at a live concert
is great live, but the moment that it is put on tape, the listener's perception
of that changes. I think the act of listening to a recording in your home
or wherever, whether that recording was done in a live situation or not,
I think that is an inherently different situation than a person who was
actually at that concert. I am not talking so much about the obvious differences,
but just the way your mind processes what you are hearing and the role
of memory. You listen to that recording a number of different times, whereas
live, you listened to it one time. Your reaction to what you hear for
the first time live is very different from the reaction you get listening
to a disc under unknown circumstances. So I like to make a record with
that in mind. I enjoy my live concerts. I enjoy playing them and think
they are consistently good, but I am not that enamored with listening
to them back on tape. Perceptions are different.
Does the music you play lend itself to touring stateside?
ESKELIN: It is possible to tour in the States. I can think back not long
ago where it would have been impossible. I noticed five years ago, a grassroots
scene for touring around the United States. I have tried to figure out
the reasons for that and I am not sure what they are, but some of the
components may be the internet and how it gets that information to the
people who are most interested in it, people who organize concerts on
a grassroots level. We are talking about two or three people who live
in a town and maybe they love the music and maybe they are bemoaning the
fact that nobody comes to their town and they pull together enough money
and call so and so and see if they will come. Basically, it starts like
that and they can get the word out via use of the internet and bulletin
boards and emails. Also, it has coincided with a newfound interest of
a college-aged crowd, a younger crowd who has come to free improv by punk
or indie rock. There is a connection between punk and indie rock and what
younger listeners are discovering in mid to late '60s free jazz. Maybe
they don't even know about traditional music, but they might come to jazz
through the avant-garde, which is completely the opposite of conventional
wisdom. For years, people said that the avant-garde turns the audiences
off. But now, the opposite seems to be happening, where the audience seems
to really crave the most hardcore shit they can find and for a generation
of people who have come up with punk and rock, density and dissonance,
these things are not a problem. The more typical jazz fans approaching
the avant-garde may find it more problematic, but the music itself, which
I think is very approachable on a very basic level, I think it has more
to do with preconception of the idea of how music has been and how that
music has or should progress and whether the avant-garde even fits in
to that equation. People still argue about that. I have noticed this in
the States and it has made it possible to start touring on a grassroots
level. Five years ago, it didn't seem possible to do that. I find that
the audiences are as much of a reality here as they are in Europe and
that the listeners are every bit as educated about music or just as discerning.
I think that is very encouraging and I would hope that more of these record
companies would try to figure out some of these challenges because the
audience is definitely there.
Like Trekies, avant-garde devotees are die hard in their loyalty.
ESKELIN: What we are up against is the type of corporate mentality, which
caters to making the most money in the least possible time. That doesn't
really work well with this music. It takes a little bit more devotion
to the music itself. I think it is possible to make money at it. I think
it is possible to survive and make money as a musician and as a record
company. It just takes a different type of mentality than the one that
is at work in our country. It is on a grassroots level and maybe it always
will be. Maybe that is not such a bad thing. I don't think everything
has to become a commercial entity. I remember gigs where the club owners
would freak out over the music and make you stop. They would cancel the
gig mid-set. You would have record companies saying that it is impossible
for them to sell this music. You have every reason in the world why this
can't work and it has been drilled into your head since day one. It can
make you a really pessimistic person. I have always been idealistic enough
to pursue this. I think it is a quality of life issue.
Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is presented in Dolby Stereo. Comments?