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Gene Ess: Blending Passionate and Pensive

Jud Branam By

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"For this record and actually my last bunch of records, I just go in, pick the bunch of musicians I want to and play the music. It's pretty much live to multi-track. Every track on the new record is pretty much first takes or second take after a false start. Here and there there's a mistake—the music was challenging enough that some aspects had to be fixed, but it's like a jazz performance, we went in and played and that's what came out."

"For jazz, I just want to have our peaks and valleys in the performance as it should be and not fix it in the mix, or whatever they call it. It doesn't matter because they play great, and what you hear is like what you get when you go to see them."

Ess has played with Gene Jackson since 1995, and feels confident enough in the veteran drummer to allow for such a warts-and-all approach. "He's one of those guys who fit my music like a hand in glove. Gene is the type of drummer I really like working with, he has that great swing factor which is really important to me. No matter how complex the music becomes, I want it to swing and have that John Bonham drive or Elvin Jones push."

Indeed, talk to Ess and you'll hear a stream of references to musicians in every genre, reflective of his deep well of musical experience, both playing and listening. Ess says he spent his younger years listening to music 24/7—"It's almost like learning a language, it's very important to hear someone speak it to you and you try to speak it back." After growing up listening to classical music, he spent years on everything from bebop sides to Led Zeppelin. Now, he still listens to a lot of music, interspersed with "periods where I'm my own stereo, where I sit in front of the piano and play whatever's in my head. Whenever I feel like I'm full of ideas I try to document it."

Ess acknowledges that the vocal and hard jazz attack of parts of "Descent" on his new record have a Zeppelinesque sound, adding "Led Zeppelin sounds like the Coltrane Quartet to me. The vibe is there, those guys really played their instruments. What has happened to pop music that people don't really play their instruments? It's like it became passé to be able to play. "Hopefully it's all beginning to come back in fashion, but in the world of jazz it's always about the playing and about the music. That's what I love about the world I'm in, it's about merit for the most part."

Ess also keeps a select few students, but so far he hasn't joined the rising number of jazz players teaching at the college level. "It's really unbelievable," he said, "jazz education has become this massive industry all around the world."

Also amazing, he adds is the constant flow of fresh, young players from jazz studies programs, who make their move to conquer New York, regardless of how low the pay is. "Every semester there are competent players pouring in from around the world to New York City, all fighting for that very small amount of job opportunities. The schools are putting out all these very good players for not that many jobs. A lot of them are really good players," Ess says. "It's great that there are so many young kids interested in this great music, but I've heard some really established players say they don't have the work they'd like because they're not going to work for nothing."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of SIMProductions

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