Ellery Eskelin's Ten
It's curious that both Andrea Parkins and Jim Black's names are absent from the front cover of Ten. This marks the tenth year the band has been together and both long-time associates do participate on this project. Despite functioning as the leader, Eskelin's been intent on presenting Parkins and Black as equals, but perhaps the additional presence of Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot and Melvin Gibbs complicate the issue: Inclusion of every musician's name on the front cover might indicate the band had doubled in size for the foreseeable future, while making use of standard Eskelin/Parkins/Black billing would in effect disrespect Constable, Ribot and Gibbs' contribution. Then again, perhaps Ten was primarily an Eskelin outing from the very beginning.
The Eskelin/Parkins/Black band produced a decade of recordings that have successively pared down compositional elements in favor of spontaneity. More recent recordings are a testament to the benefits of a long-standing working relationship as evidenced by consistent feel and approach that runs throughout their entire body of work. This remains true even when predetermined devices are, by now, often absent. Introducing Constable, Ribot and Gibbs into a unit that has established a one-of-a-kind relationship would appear to be an invitation to disaster. Amazingly, nothing could be further from the truth.
On the surface, the presence of vocals would seem to threaten all that Eskelin's band has collectively worked toward. Vocalists typically present structured meter and rhyme and force instrumentalists into a subordinate role even when that's not the intent. The phenomena is similar to a photograph of a busy street corner; pedestrians become the focus of our gaze and the surroundings simply provide context. The same is true as the human voice will predominately draw our attention while other aural elements hold secondary meaning. "Tell Me When," the first of three tracks on Ten featuring Jessica Constable, effectively breaks any hard-wired preconception of the voice's hierarchy within a musical framework and sets the stage for her remaining appearances.
Free of conventional singing limitations, Constable dispenses with standard-lyrics bound presentation. She instead prefers to work within the dynamic of broken, juxtaposed syllables and it is just this abstraction that allows her voice to interact along with the rest of the band in a purely instrumental capacity. Unrestricted by the spoken word's explicit meaning, the listener is free to draw context and emotion that change with subsequent hearings and the listener's own mood. Ultimately, Constable's work on Ten seems a natural and logical extension of Eskelin's singular vision.
Marc Ribot's electric guitar and Melivn Gibbs's bass also supply Eskelin's music with new colors and textures. Both Ribot and Gibbs not only assimilate Eskelin's misenscene, but they build upon and extend the visceral impact of the entire project giving new meaning, shedding new light on what Eskelin achieves with Parkins and Black. Personnel configurations shift from track to track and perhaps the most surprising cut on Ten is "Take Me." Gibbs' bass sets an almost ominous early lead over Parkins' organ samplings and Constable's somewhat more conventional vocal. As Black, Ribot and then Eskelin enter, the final track builds from slow introspection to feverish exclamation and everything in between. There is just enough groove and blues connection that "Take Me" has potential for becoming an "alternative" hit.
Eskelin's standard trio is also heard intact on this recording and their hallmark interaction remains as virtuosic, dynamic and intriguing as ever. Apparently there are several successful trio numbers that were recorded but do not appear on Ten. While it's difficult to argue with the results of this project and the sequencing of Ten 's tracks, it's also a sad reality that the outtakes may never be heard.
This all brings us back to the significance (if any) of billing. The history between Eskelin, Parkins and Black is thick and Ten poses a number of questions: Does this mark a turning point in the band's overall concept? Will guest musicians be heard more often in collaboration? Could the band's permanent personnel grow in size? Is this a one-of-a-kind project and if so, how will Ten and its implications affect an otherwise stable trio's music? We'll just have to wait and see.
This review was sent to Ellery Eskelin before its publication along with an invitation to respond. The ground rules were simple: The review itself would not be revised after being sent to Mr. Eskelin and in return, any reply would be published along with the review in unedited form. The goal is to present the reader with two points of view -one from the outside and one from the inside of the music- to give a better look at the subject matter.
Ellery Eskelin's response:
I want to thank All About Jazz for extending the invitation to take part in this review/response format. Before I read Shawn McGrew's review of TEN I jotted down some thoughts about reviews in general as preparation for my response. I'm not sure these notes really pertain so much to SM's review but I'd like to include them nonetheless...
We all approach music in one fundamental way...with our ears. I don't think that any assessment of music should get too far removed from that idea. As for understanding jazz (or any kind of music) the way a musician understands it, I don't think that's prerequisite for a writer nor do I feel that reviewers should be required to play an instrument or even know the nuts and bolts of music theory. If that were a prerequisite then musicians would be the best reviewers and that's clearly not the case. Writers write. Reviewing music isn't easy. I don't think I could do a good job of it. So I would like to feel that the writer is as dedicated to their craft as most musicians are to theirs.
With that said:
Who does the review serve and how does a writer serve readers who's tastes or opinions may differ from their own? Is it possible for the writer to remove themselves from the review and is that even desirable? How presumptive should the writer be about the artist's intentions and whether the artist has achieved their goals?
And a few stray thoughts:
A review based on opinion is a review about the reviewer.
It's not my job to please a writer. I'd go farther and posit that it's not even my job to please listeners, at least not in a way that would influence the honesty of my work.
Whether positive or negative, our reactions to the music and the music itself are two different things.
So...here's my response to Shawn McGrew's review of TEN
I've always felt that with music as intimate as with three people it would feel strange to put myself out there as the only name associated with the group. As it is, we still occasionally get billed as the Ellery Eskelin Trio, which I've come to loath and detest. It's way too jazzy/polite for this band. True, I am the leader of the group yet I still like the idea of presenting each musician's name. Hence the "with" in our official billing. This recording was supposed to be Ellery Eskelin with Andrea Parkins & Jim Black plus guests but it became something different, therefore it's just my name on the cover. On the inside however you will find the rather cryptic and mathematical EEw/AP&JB+3(10) which I think sums it up best.
SM raises an good issue with respect to vocals tending to take the spotlight. It's an issue that also extends to the saxophone although perhaps to a lesser degree. Over the years I've picked up on an assumption on the part of many listeners that "if the horn player has got the horn in his face he must be playing a solo" which of course will distort one's perception of the music. I recall reading an interview with Ornette Coleman in which he complained that the mix on one of his early records had the saxophone too far in front. He heard his role as being equal with the other instruments yet the engineer or producers just couldn't or wouldn't go along with that. I feel something of an affinity with that egalitarian approach given that most of what the band (EE w/AP & JB) has done is based upon the idea that we are all in the foreground all the time. Yet with TEN the dynamic is much more fluid. We each slip in and out of focus as the music ebbs and flows. There are many moments in which I am inside the music, behind the music or somewhere above or below the music. And so with vocalists, yes there are certain expectations due to conditioned listening habits and I'm thrilled that Jessica is able to shatter them.
And I'm glad that SM picked up on Jessica's "almost language" approach. Rather than try to imitate instruments or explore the farther reaches of vocal technique she really has developed her own pseudo language. Personally, I think vocalists have a harder time of it than instrumentalists with respect to the bias that still exists on the part of many listeners. The voice is so personal that it's almost uncomfortable for many people to hear a vocalist do anything much outside the realm of natural speech. On a saxophone you can do any perverted thing you want and it's cool nowadays. So I think that vocalists are the last musicians to be fully accepted in jazz/improv circles. But I'm encouraged since Jessica's work on TEN has been very well received thus far in spite of initial doubts.
Anyway, back to the presentation which does pose a problem for the reviewer just as it proved to be a problem for me. SM reviews TEN in the context of the band's past work which is of course the obvious procedure. We released a recording called RAMIFICATIONS some years back (EE, AP, JB with Joe Daley on tuba and Erik Friedlander on cello) and I was quick to point out that it wasn't EE, AP, JB with guests, it was it's own thing. With TEN it's trickier. I actually do think of this as EE, AP, JB with guests but it's also something more than that because the music took on qualities that I didn't expect, that didn't quite fit my initial idea of what I was presenting. To complicate matters there are many cuts in which EE, AP, JB do not all play together. Do cuts like "More Than That" (with Eskelin, Gibbs and Black) have much to do with EE w/AP JB? Perhaps only by proximity and context if at all. What I do know is that a transformation has occurred and the band is now something new. As for the outakes...maybe one day. But the pieces that I chose for this project were the ones that surprised me the most.
So I think that SM raises all the right questions in his final paragraph and if he doesn't have the answers that's OK because neither do I. So does this undermine the validity of my presentation? Hard to say but just what the outcome will be is still somewhat undetermined. We just finished a tour of Europe with Jessica Constable and I'm very inclined to say that that is the new band. Or maybe it's simply one version of several possibilities. I can still see EE w/AP & JB performing in new towns for audiences who haven't heard us yet but I think the future for us involves more than three.
So TEN is the EE w/ AP & JB project that's not really an EE w/ AP & JB project. But I do think that TEN functions well as a companion piece to our DVD ON THE ROAD WITH... , another EE, AP, JB project that is something other than an EE, AP, JB project. Together they present a portrait of where we've arrived after ten years and point the way towards some new directions.
Oh, and one small correction to SM's review. Jessica appears on four cuts, not three. And as long as we're at it, Melvin Gibbs plays on four and Marc Ribot on five. I play on all cuts, Andrea plays on all but five and Jim on all but two. And there are two cuts on which EE, AP & JB play as a band. I could have made that clear on the sleeve but for some reason I liked presenting the music as a whole (not the result of the nuts and bolts) since in the end it's really only the music that matters anyway. How we got there is just a diversion.
Track listing: 1. If Not Now 2. Tell me When 3. Anyone's Guess 4. Say it Again 5. Ask to Be 6. More Than That 7. Anywhere, Not Here 8. If So 9. Ask Me Why 10. No Illusions 11. I Couldn't Say 12. Take Me
Personnel: Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone; Andrea Parkins - piano, accordion and sampler; Jim Black - drums and percussion; Jessica Constable - voice; Marc Ribot - guitar; Melvin Gibbs - bass