Ellery Eskelin's Ten
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.