John Escreet: Music for This Age
“ You've just got to be open-minded and welcoming to new things. You've got to be embracing of any good music. Why not? Why would you want to be hostile to good music? ”
Looking forwardmoving forwardis an essential quality to pianist John Escreet, a United Kingdom native who moved to the United States, specifically New York City, in 2008 to pursue an education at the Manhattan School of Music. So is achieving a unique sound and approach, both for artistic and practical reasons.
Escreet, age 22 when he moved from England, has been playing music on the modern edge of jazz with artists like David Binney, Ambrose Akinmusire and Tyshawn Soreyall people who are merging improvisation with a slew of musical influences and creating fresh sounds. There's a lot of that going on in New York City and Escreet is elbow deep in it. He's very keen on forging his own voice, on his instrument and compositionally.
"The real goal is to basically create your own genre, without wanting to sound too pretentious or anything. Really, all my favorite musicians are successful at that," Escreet says. "Even though people may not view it like that, but it's technically what you're doing. If you aren't as strong as that you really kind of failed. Because if somebody wants your sound or wants you on a gig or recording, and you're the only one that can come close to achieving that sound, then the person in question only has the option to hire you.
"If you try to sound like other people, if you try and become an expert at sounding like this, or an expert in sounding like that, then trust me, there's always going to be someone who can outplay you or out-mimic you or out entertain you or whatever else. But if you're really serious about developing your own thing, then there's something more substantive. Dave [Binney] is a great example of that. Wayne Krantz is definitely an example of that, because there aren't guitarists that play anything close to how he plays. If I wanted Wayne, I would ask Wayne. But if Wayne wasn't available, the project wouldn't exist. I wouldn't get a Wayne Krantz substitute because that doesn't exist, in my mind. And the same goes for Dave."
Ask for them is exactly what Escreet did on The Age We Live In (Mythology Records, 2011), his third album as a leader. It includes Binney, with whom he has worked a lot since coming to the U.S., along with Krantz and drummer Marcus Gilmore. It's an album of intense music that will appeal to those who enjoy intelligent music, including folks into rock or indie rock or whatever genre is out there and away from pop music.
He's always leaned toward music with a new edge, something being said that is a little different. He's been playing piano since he was a small child and has a strong classical background. He also listens for sounds and approaches that are different and gravitates toward them. Though he doesn't say so, he seems to not have much interest in mainstream jazz sounds anymorenot from the younger generation, anyway.
"I'm not really influenced by a lot of the music that's going on right now. I don't like much of the music that's going on right now. The stuff that I like, I love. I invest myself in it very deeply," he explains. "A lot of the stuff that is happening In New York, it's not that interesting. But there's a percentage of music I do consider to be interesting, that dominates my listening time, and my musical spectrum, so to speak. What I just said might come across a little extreme. I'm not trying to sound extreme. There is some very amazing music happening in New York. I surround myself with what I consider to be that music. I want to be a part of it. I want to learn from it. I'm influenced most by my musical associates and people like that."
The Age We Live In is a good example, and it's a representation of where Escreet stands today. That could change tomorrow. Escreet is fluid in his approach to music. He's open to all kinds of sounds. Some he might toss out as having little value. Others, he will incorporate. That decision comes from his own intuition, not from what others thing may be hip.
That makes the music stimulating. Also, not very predictable, which is thought-provoking.
Escreet says the new CD "reflects where I'm at right now. It reflects what I've been listening to over the last couple of years. It reflects music that I enjoy playing. There are some brand new compositions that are very involved and complex. It represents me playing-wise, it represents me compositionally." He's quick to add, "Don't expect things to stay where they are. The next album, I'm not sure what it will be, but it will probably be different. I like to keep things fresh. I like to move around. I don't like to put out a lot of albums that sound the same. I wanted to do a project that was clearly different in terms of lineup, in terms of aesthetic, in terms of a lot of stuff. I wanted a different album."
The pianist has been playing with musicians like Binney, Akinmusire, Matt Brewer and Nasheet Waits. He also has a trio with drummer Sorey and bassist John Hébert. The Age We Live In came about because of a gig he played in February of 2010 with the guys who are on the album. That vibe resonated with Escreet.
"It was a random gig and it was so ridiculously happening that my first thought was, 'Wow. I have to document this.' My previous album was just about to be released [Don't Fight the Inevitable (Mythology, 2010)]. I was already thinking ahead. Then this gig and the opportunity kind of presented itself," he says. Because of busy schedules, it was December of 2010 before the wheels really got rolling, and the music was recorded just before Christmas of that year. The group was assembled just for the recording and is not particularly a working band. Escreet was confident these musicians would fit his conception. The results show he was right.
"It came about as a surprise, just from doing that one gig. It came from a lot of desire to play with Wayne. Wayne and I had worked together previously on Dave's Aliso (Criss Cross, 2010). It came out of a desire to play with [Wayne] some more, and I decided not to hire a bassist because we had enough bass between my left hand and Wayne's guitar, his octave pedal and stuff," says Escreet. "I wanted it to be a little different. I also wanted Dave to be involved because Wayne and Dave are close musical collaborators. So the music would make sense. Dave fits my musical vision very well, anyway. Then I asked Marcus, who's a good friend of mine and one of my favorite drummers. His knack for this music is really great. His pocket for this music, his groove, is exceptional. I knew he would fit the style of this recording like a glove."
He composed the music with the players in mind and the concept he visualized. "Even though the music is kind of complex and composed in places, I wanted to allow each member of the group a lot of space to be themselves and stretch out. I wanted a good balance between the heavy compositional stuff and letting them just be themselves. That, in my experience, is conducive to the best music, when you really just allow people to be themselves," he says.
The results show a variety of dense music, with fiery solos fitting in, like on "Domino Effect" and "The Age We Live In," and grooves, as on "Half Baked." Some music switches back and forth. The solos are hot and Escreet's piano, whether acoustic or electric, is intricate and exploratory.
"We rehearsed for two days straight in my apartment," he recalls. "Then we played a weekend at 55 Bar [New York City] immediately after the rehearsals. So we got a chance to rehearse this stuff for two days, play it out for two days, then we went upstate to Rhinebeck, NY, [at The Clubhouse] and spent two days in the studio. Altogether, it was like a six-day period. We got a chance to delve into the music. It wasn't easy, because some of the music is challenging and difficult. Everyone gave 110 percent and the results speak for themselves.
"Also, we worked very hard on the post production. Me and Dave. I'm very indebted to Dave for this particular recording because he and I worked very, very hard after the actual recording. We overdubbed strings, we overdubbed brass, and we overdubbed backing vocals. All this kind of stuff. Overdubbed percussion. We spent a lot of time on post-production, which is definitely something I'm interested in exploring. I think it's very valid, creatively. People don't really explore that enough, in my opinion."
When it comes to composing, Escreet says his influences are wide-ranging. "Without trying to be too vague, I listen to lots and lots of different styles and genres and types of music. My taste has definitely broadened over the last few years. Everything is an influence in this kind of music. Electronica music, such as Flying Lotus, that kind of stuff. And I practice a lot of classical piano music. There are some direct influences from French composers like [Olivier] Messiaen ... even though the music is nothing like 20th Century classical music, it's further from that. But there are some direct influences there, in terms of some of the intervals and the harmonies. My compositional influences are all over the map."
Much of the music emanating from jazz musicians today isn't strictly out of the jazz bag, and Escreet views that as a good thing.
"That's the nature of where music is at these days. There's so much information that's readily accessible. It's a cumulative thing. As you get further on in time, as the universe gets older, there's a greater depth of music as time goes on. That's just how it is. The well of influence is just filling up and filling up. Becoming broader. It's natural that music will draw from much more different influences as time goes on. That will only continue, in my opinion."
He says that, before coming to New York, "There's lots of music I wasn't aware even existed. That's been a huge influence on me. Since I've been here, I've been exposed to players I never knew existed. You've just got to be open-minded and welcoming to new things." For those who don't keep eyes and ears open, "it's their loss. Their music will sound lacking if they have that approach. You've got to be embracing of any good music. Why not? Why would you want to be hostile to good music? It doesn't make any sense."
Escreet, 26, began playing piano as a small child on a toy piano lying round in his house. He asked for piano lessons, which he was granted on his fourth birthday. "It just took off. I've been in love with it ever since." he saw a lot of live music on UK television in the 1990s and that also stoked his fire. "Just seeing live music and people playing real instruments on mainstream TV. That had an effect on me and continued to make me want to do it."
Escreet, who has perfect pitch, was improvising before he knew what jazz music was. The way he heard and understood the music, intuitively, he was able to "not be restricted by the limits of what was on the page in front of me. Through that, I played along with things that I heard. That led me to get interested in how to improvise properly and how to get into jazz. I guess that kick-started that whole thing."
He joined a local big band as a young kid and became exposed to that style of jazz. Then, at age 14, he moved away from home to study at Chetham's School of Music, a boarding school where the study of music was intense. "I was brought into that school on the basis of my classical skills, even though I was already into jazz, and it was very evident even from the beginning I was probably going to graduate with a jazz degree. It was a pre-college music for students between the ages of 8 and 18. I went the last four yeas of that."
There, his jazz influences became more specific, listening to people like Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. At age 18, he moved to London and furthered his education. Teachers exposed him to pianists that were to have a bigger influence on his style and sense of musical exploration, among them Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor and Jason Moran. He was working in London, "but it wasn't really what I was feeling, for whatever reason. I felt I had yet to grow. I knew I needed to be in New York because I wanted to play with some of the musicians that were there at that time. I wasn't done learning."
He made the move, deciding to go to the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a master's degree. But his real education took place outside the walls of the school. "Definitely, since I've been here in the last five years, I've had wonderful opportunity after wonderful opportunity," says Escreet. "It's been amazing. I've learned more in the past five years than I have in the rest of my life before that. There's been a huge learning curve."
Since then, Escreet has kept busy and has continually tried to forge his career his own way. That hasn't always been easy, but he's undeterred.
"I've been quite fortunate to be working a lot," he says. "You have to create your own work. You can't rely on handouts. You can't assume that you're going to work and people want to give you work. Too many students graduate from college with a master's degree and they expect to work. Then they're surprised when they're not working. Why are you surprised? What are you offering that's different and interesting? Most people are offering nothing like that. Ten percent of students coming out of school have something different and unique to say. That, combined with the terrible state of the industry right now, it's very difficult. In a very weird and warped kind of way it's a good thing because it separates the men from the boys, so to speak. If you're going to have any kind of success, and sustaining a creative career, you have to really have your shit together and you have to offer something very different and very unique. You can't mess around."
Among his goals now that he's digging into the music is to become a serious composer and continue to progress. "I want to try and develop my own thing stylistically. I don't want to sound like anybody else, because that will lead to me having fewer gigs, or being on gigs I don't want to be on anyway. It comes back to what I was saying. If you create your own thing and it's so strong that people can't argue with that, you'll work for the rest of your life. It's a very simple concept. It's easier said than done. But you really can't fail if you create your own thing and it's done diligently and thoroughly researched, very thorough and very aesthetic. I'm not saying you shouldn't study history or anything like that. You've got to present something that's different and valid."
He admits when he graduated in 2008, the economy was in bad shape and jazz gigs were in decline. Teaching positions were hard to get. People aren't buying CDs much anymore. All that said, "It's incentive to work even harder. It makes people strive. You can't be complacent anymore. People can't graduate from school and expect to land on someone's gig. In the 1980s, you could land on someone's gig and it could be a major touring gig from one of the jazz legends. But there are less and less of those people now. That doesn't really exist so much anymore," he said in earnest. "You've got to find new ways to make it work and make a living. You've got to embrace all the technologies, embrace the social networks, or whatever else. You have to move with the times. You have to be welcoming and not resisting. You have to work very, very hard and be open to all kinds of music and influences. Just try your best. There's not a guarantee of any kind of success at all. You just have to make good music."
And there it is. Escreet, in his very young career, is doing just that. An album he recorded in January will come out this fall. He also wants to record with his trio within the next year or so, "But then again, a thing or two might happen that you can't predict. If you'd have asked me two years ago if I wanted to record an album with Wayne Krantz and Marcus Gilmore, that probably wouldn't have been on my radar."
Escreet's radar is expansive, though. Who knows what it will detect. Chances are what it does detect and assimilate will produce music that is interesting and energizing. He's making that his way.
John Escreet, The Age We Live In (Mythology Records, 2011)
John Escreet, Don't Fight the Inevitable (Mythology Records, 2010)
David Binney, Aliso (Criss Cross, 2010)
David Binney/Allan Ferber, In the Paint (Posi-Tone, 2009)
John Escreet, Consequences (Posi-Tone Records, 2008)