Ellery Eskelin’s Improvised Honesties

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Inspired by his mother “Bobbie Lee” who played Hammond B3 organ professionally in Baltimore in the early sixties, veteran saxophonist Ellery Eskelin explores the organ trio format with stellar bandmates Gary Versace and Nasheet Waits this Saturday at the Cafe. Here he gives us a look inside his work’s process.

JS: Tell us a little about your history with the Café.

EE: It’s been a fair amount of years now since the first time I played at the Cafe, as a sideman with Mark Helias. This was back when Poul [Weiss] was booking the club, and he approached me at one point and said if I had anything of my own I wanted to bring in, I should let him know. Eventually I did, and I wound up playing at the Cafe as a leader for the first time late last year.

I love the fact that we can play two sets there, not many places let you do that anymore. Back in the day you could play for as much as a weekend or a week altogether. My mother used to play four sets a night, six nights a week! That was the early 60s, and maybe that’s gone for good. Lots of clubs get two, three, four bands playing in one night. That may have benefits for the audience, and might have benefits in terms of making opportunities for more performers, but still you rehearse and you bring all these instruments and you play and then boom, the gig’s done and you’ve gotta tear it down. So I always push for two sets. I love getting the chance to come back and hit it again, try new things. It’s how the band makes progress towards another level.

JS: What do you see as the differences between being sideman and bandleader? Is there a certain modality that you like working in?

EE: I do a lot of open improvising, and even the music I play that’s composed contains a large degree of improvisation. For me the best modality as a bandleader is I want the improv to feel like it has a purpose, a job to do. Whether this is expressed by speaking to my bandmates in words about what we’re trying to do, or bringing by them music on paper, there should be a function, a reason why we’re doing what we’re doing, and a direction we’re taking. It gives the music greater clarity and structure. What I’m not interested in is unfocused, meandering improvisation, which can happen if there isn’t strong direction from the leader, or, ideally, all the musicians together. Ideally they’re all equally responsive and equally proactive.

JS: Is there carryover from your experiences improvising when you sit down to compose? Are there specific phrases that you come back to, that you want to codify and make into music?

EE: They’re very different processes for me. I’m primarily an improviser who composes out of necessity, and that necessity for me boils down to the fact that there are certain types of events that are very unlikely to happen in improvised music that are only going to happen in composed music, like for example everyone playing the same rhythm at the same time. The things I’m writing are things I want to hear for sure, and then if I write a composition that has those elements in it, i’ll make a structure out of that. Then I’m crafting some kind of strategy for introducing that material into an otherwise open improvisation, thereby ensuring that the improvisation has a certain identity, a certain architecture or shape, preconceived. That’s how I approach composing. In that setting it’s more about getting the elements in order, in play, and then the performance happens in real time. You can fine-tune things, but really it’s about setting forces in motion.

JS: Do you have anyone you rely on to give feedback or help reflect on your performances?

EE: I’d say generally it’s the musicians I’m playing with who I’m going to have the most direct relation with. I try not to second-guess what the audience or anyone in the audience might be thinking or wanting. I find that to be a distraction, it takes me out of the immediacy of the moment I need to be in when it’s time to play. The best thing I can do is just be as pure as I possibly can to the moment and let the chips fall where they may. If you can do that, at the very least you’ll be giving the audience an honest experience and an honest account of what you’re doing. I think it’s that quality that the audience is seeking out, even more so than their preference for a certain style. The question is whether the performance was honest and whether the audience felt that honesty. That’s basically what I’m trying to deliver. Content is important, but without this quality, it’s not that important.

Ellery Eskelin writes on this and many varied topics at his excellent blog This Saturday at 9&1030pm he performs with Gary Versace and Nasheet Waits for, that’s right, two sets. . Call 212/989-9319 or visit http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com for reservations.

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