A decade in the life of a trio
by Piotr Michalowski
The jazz life is as unpredictable as good improvisation. Ellery Eskelin began his musical career in a relatively standard manner: his mother was a musician, and he studied the saxophone as a youngster, eventually playing in a few big bands before moving to New York to create a career and make a living. He wanted to play mainstream jazz, and so he took lessons from well-known saxophonists and apprenticed as a sideman with, among others, the popular organist Jack McDuff. Of course, New York is always filled with aspiring musicians, and work is scarce; many of them get nowhere or struggle in the world of commercial music. As hard as it may be, this situation favors creative endeavors, and Eskelin found himself moving into more experimental areas, collaborating with other musicians who were crossing genre boundaries and moving improvised music into new directions. He flourished in this environment and left the world of mainstream jazz behind, developing one of the top tenor saxophone voices in the new "downtown" music.
Twenty years later Eskelin is still living in New York, but he works all over the world, touring with his own group and working and recording with a broad range of other musicians, including Sylvie Courvoisier, Han Bennink, and Gerry Hemingway. But his most important project is his own group, which he formed ten years ago with drummer Jim Black and accordionist Andrea Parkins. This was an unusual instrumentation, to say the least. Parkins soon expanded her instrumental palette, adding synthesizer and sampler and, more recently, the acoustic piano to the mix.
The instrumentation was unusual, but so was the blend of individuals. Black is one of the most distinctive percussionists playing today, with a completely original approach to the sound and function of the drum kit. He combines many different rhythms in constantly shifting patterns, utilizing all sorts of different timbres drawn from traditional drums and cymbals, kitchen utensils, and just about anything else that strikes
his fancy. More important, he expands the role of the drummer, adding a strong melodic voice to the standard rhythmic function. Parkins is equally indefinable, providing both chordal and melodic support, moving her instrumental voices from background to foreground, and shifting the sounds of her instruments.
But as much as this trio is the sum of three unusual and distinctive personalities, it is also firmly guided by the musical intelligence of the leader. Eskelin, who often plays in contexts that are completely improvised, guides his group with his pen as much as with his tenor saxophone. His compositions direct their sound, providing reference points for new explorations, and a decade of collaboration has provided them with a synergy that blurs the borders between written and improvised parts of each composition. This spring they celebrate their tenth anniversary with a short tour that begins in Ann Arbor at Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, April 16.
[Originally published in April, 2004.]