Wayne Escoffery: Past And Future
AAJ: Let's finish up by talking about the new album, Veneration. This album relies less on your own compositions than your previous records, although you do have your tune "Tell Me Why" here. Was that a conscious decision? Was it necessitated by the band needing to play things everyone was familiar with?
WE: The idea of the band is to perform music by the artists that we've come up loving and admiring. I think a lot of those artists are respected and appreciated more for their improvisation, but they're also great writers. [Trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard, [trumpeter] Booker Little, Jackie McLean, [saxophonist] John Coltranethey've all written some great songs. The idea of the band is to play some of those songs that are lesser known to reacquaint people with them. It happens to me all the timepeople say, "Who wrote that song?" and I'll say, "[Trumpeter] Kenny Dorham wrote that song." And they have no idea. The purpose of the band is to play a lot of under-explored music by the masters of this music, so it's intentional that there aren't many originals. The next one that we do, we'll probably throw in some more originals.
AAJ: You just mentioned Booker Little. Many people will know Booker from his association with saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. You play one tune on this record, "Bee Vamp," that's on Eric Dolphy At The Five Spot Vol. 2 (Prestige, 1961). And then you play another Little tune called "Looking Ahead." How did find that piece of music?
WE: I came across "Looking Ahead" through my love for [saxophonist] George Coleman. He's one of the people I got to study with at the Monk Institute. There was a period where I was just trying to find everything I could find with George Coleman on it, which can be a feat, because a lot of those CDs aren't on big labels or easy to find. But one of the records I found was this record with Booker Little and George Coleman and Max Roach [Booker Little And Friend (Bethlehem, 1961)]. George Coleman takes some great solos. Since college, I've been transcribing his solos from that CD. That's how I came across that song.
AAJ: You mentioned some other people who are known as improvisers but are also great writers. Talk about "I Waited For You."
WE: "I Waited For You" is by Dizzy Gillespie. It's a killin' tune, man. It has great lyrics and it's a beautiful tune. That's another tune I heard George Coleman play, with [trumpeter] Chet Baker. They did a series of CDs. That's how I first came across that tune. I reworked it and rearranged it and changed some of the chords around. I love playing it.
AAJ: You do it more up-tempo than it's usually done, right?
WE: Yeah, I do it more up-tempo and with a straight-eighths kind of thing, and I changed some of the harmonies.
AAJ: You do another tune that almost any jazz fan will know, which is the Ellington/Billy Strayhorn tune "Isfahan." This has an interesting arrangement to it.
WE: It's funny, because I thought it would be nice as a breath of fresh air to do it duo. I thought it might be nice to strip everything down and feature Hans Glawischnig on bass. He's one of my favorite bass players. I love playing with him. What's funny is that not until after the recording was done [did I remember that saxophonist] Joe Henderson did this same thing. His record Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (PolyGram, 1992) has been one of my favorite records forever. I haven't listened to it in so long, but it's clearly in the back of my head and I didn't even realize it. I was thinking I had some sort of original idea. All that stuff really stays with you. It comes from somewhere.
AAJ: What's the story behind your tune "Tell Me Why"?
WE: One day I was thinking about my mom. She was living in England at the time and going through some stuff. And my wife, [vocalist] Carolyn Leonhart, was going through some things. They were a little upset and I was in a pensive mood. I was playing the Rhodes [electric piano] and thinking about them, and I wrote the song.
AAJ: You just mentioned your wife Carolyn Leonhart, who's a wonderful singer. [teapot whistles in background] My guess is that she's drinking a cup of tea right now?
WE: She's always drinking a cup of tea. [laughs]
AAJ: How did you meet her?
WE: I actually met her at Smoke [jazz club in New York]. I met her at Smoke on Valentine's Day after coming from a Mingus gig.
AAJ: You've got to be kidding. Does that really happen?
WE: That really happens. It was Valentine's Day and I was like, "No girls here, let me go up to Smoke." I saw Carolyn, we starting talking, and then it led to where we are now.
AAJ: What's coming up for you?
WE: I really want to focus on the Veneration band. We just completed a weekend at Smoke. It was a packed house every set, and the audience just loves the group. It made me feel really good. It's not that they just came to hear me or Joe [Locke] or one person in particular. Everyone just loved the sound. In addition, I'm really excited that I'm a member of Tom Harrell's group. He just did a recording for HighNote. I'm looking forward to doing more work with him.
I'm just lucky, man. I'm playing with Ben Riley, Tom Harrell, the Mingus band, this band with Carolyn. I just hope that all the bands are working a lot and that we get to keep traveling the world playing this music. I'm fortunate that I'm a part of a lot of great musical environments. I hope people get to hear them and we get to experiment more and more.
Wayne Escoffery, Veneration (Savant, 2007)
Wycliffe Gordon and Jay Leonhart, This Rhythm On My Mind (Bluesback, 2006)
Mingus Big Band, Live In Tokyo At The Blue Note (Sunnyside, 2006)
Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet, Memories Of T (Concord, 2006)
David Gibson, The Path To Delphi (Nagel Hayer, 2005)
Mingus Big Band, I Am Three (Sunnyside, 2005)
Carolyn Leonhart, New 8th Day (Sunnyside, 2005)
Wayne Escoffery, Intuition (Nagel Hayer, 2004)
Mingus Big Band, Tonight At Noon (Dreyfus, 2002)
David Gibson, Maya (Nagel Hayer, 2002)
Wayne Escoffery, Times Change (Nagel Hayer, 2001)
Eric Reed, Happiness (Nagel Hayer, 2001)