Though Ellery Eskelin introduced Drew Gress to Phil Haynes in 1986, they recorded their first album only two years later. Before then they joined forces with trumpeter Paul Smoker in a quartet called Joint Venture and recorded three albums as such. The understanding between the musicians grew stronger over that span of time and when Eskelin recorded Setting The Standard
in 1988, his first release as a leader, it was apparent that he shared a cogent relationship with Gress and Haynes. Their second venture, Forms
, recorded two years later for Open Minds, has now been reissued by Hatology.
"Setting the Standard" was a propitious title. Eskelin has developed into a highly individualised player, prescribing his own norms and fuelling them with ideas that often are spun out of the moment. While invention is an integral part of his devolution, he does not forsake harmony.
Eskelin shows a remarkable control. He is angular, he cavorts, he breaks lines and zips in with short phrases, but he never scoots over the top. He balances melody with freeform movement, and in bringing them together gives his music sinew and soul. He profiles these aspects when he gets the “Blues,” scuttling melody across the range of freedom, a direction stirred by the Gress' bass rumble and Haynes' rim shots on the drums, which he later triggers into a cross current of rhythm. The “Latin” flavours are subtle in their rhythm; Eskelin brings in a thick edge that sways before he navigates that line towards more pronounced intensity, all proceeding in a finely etched development.
Two of the tunes were not written by Eskelin. Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” is pastel shaded by Eskelin in slow, entrancing devolution. As can be expected, he adds his stamp with vibrant splashes as he navigates the tonal palette of his horn. He then roars on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop,” fueled by Gress and Haynes, a fiery tempest that serves as a fitting close to a variegated and enjoyable listen.
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