John Escreet: Music for This Age
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."