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Gene Ess: One Note Says It All

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Why do I even do music? In this day and age, it
Gene EssGuitarist Gene Ess—born Gene Shimosato—grew up on an American military base in Okinawa, Japan, and the eclectic mix of music he was exposed to there gave him a far-reaching enthusiasm for music. It also, perhaps, pulled him away from the classical piano his mother had encouraged him to pursue. A musical scholarship sent him to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and meaningful apprenticeships with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi and pianist Charlie Banacos. It was inevitable that Ess would relocate to New York, where he joined drummer Rashied Ali's group; the two still work together. Last year saw the release of Ess's Sandbox and Sanctum (SIMP, 2005), a quartet set on his own SIMP Records imprint. I spoke with Ess about his collaborators, his guitar philosophy (or lack of same), his collaborators and his plans for the future.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about your most recent album, Sandbox and Sanctum, which came out in 2005 on SIMP Records. This is a quartet set you recorded in March of last year with drummer Gene Jackson, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and bassist Harvie S. This is subtitled "Song Cycle for Quartet, and that certainly suggests that there's some thematic unity or conceptual thread that links the pieces together to make a whole. What is that whole? Does the CD have a concept?

Gene Ess: Well, I used the term "song cycle in more of a loose way. Even though I started off as a classical musician, and that's a term that's used quite a bit in the classical world, I used it in more of a jazz context in that there are no musical themes that run through the whole thing. But the songs do combine to make up the whole structure of the piece. In other words, they're in a specific order and they're different parts of a musical story that I'm trying to tell.

The title basically says it. "Sandbox, for me, is a symbolic analogy to a place where, spiritually, we as individuals play. I think everybody has that place—a place where we can play and be childlike even if we're 30, 40, 50, 60 or whatever. For me, these songs and this music were that: a place where I can play. And "sanctum is something that has the spiritual connotation of worship. So I'm trying to invoke a place in your own individual world where those two collide. So the music tells the tale of that person who, through their evolution, tries to find that place of peace and joy. That place is playful, but at the same time it's something of deep, spiritual seriousness and consideration.

AAJ: Would you prefer that the listener experience this recording as a whole instead of just singling out individual songs?

GE: Well, yes. From my perspective, the album should be listened to as a whole. I mean, that's not so easy in this day and age, and even jazz radio is just going to select one cut and play it that way. I think each tune stands on its own, but my preference—and the way I created it to be listened to—is from the beginning to end. I wanted to take the audience into something that's out of this world, someplace that's not really here—somewhere that might reflect their own truths. I always think that when people say, "oh, that music is beautiful, it's really not the music. They're saying that about themselves. They see themselves in that music—it's just a kind of mirror that helps a person see their own beauty. So music's a kind of tool to let people experience their own humanness from time to time, because most people do have a very fast-paced life in this 21st century. It's a very difficult world to be in most of the time.

AAJ: It's certainly a very mundane world most of the time.

GE: Yes, mundane. Will Durant, the great American philosopher, basically said that, first, real life is hell. But he also said that we human beings need to pay less attention to the river that carries society—which is filled with the blood and the screams of all the terrible things we do to each other—and pay more attention to the riverbanks, where you actually can see the mother nursing her baby or the artists and craftsmen creating. So if people can find an hour to listen—I think the album's about an hour long—it might help. And all the spaces in between the pieces are calculated and I added these soundscapes at the beginning of the first cut, "Free 2 Fast, and also at the end of the last piece, "Kerama Processional. Two soundscapes to draw the person into this music and then after this journey, to let the guy out. It's almost like a ride, and if people get it, great. Other people might not, but that's not really my concern. It's my musical vision and all I can do as an artist is put it out there.

AAJ: Tell me how you arrived at this particular lineup of musicians to make this record.

GE: Well, Gene Jackson is somebody that I've been playing with since '94. We did a pretty big tour at that time with Ravi Coltrane; we did the jazz festivals in Japan and also some performances in Korea. He and I clicked right from the beginning—it's just one of those situations where you play with somebody and it feels great, and there's really no explanation for it because I've played with other great musicians where we didn't really click musically. But we really bonded, and we've been playing together since then here and there—small gigs, some bigger gigs, whatever. It was great that he was able to do those couple dates at the recording studio because he's quite busy with other projects.

As far as just knowing somebody, Donny and I go even farther back—we went to school together in '84. So I've known him for years, and Donny McCaslin was burning even when he was a student at Berklee in '84, '85. We were in some classes together, some ensembles together, but aside from these school performances, we never played together that much. I knew he had moved to New York, and I met him just out of the blue on one of the strangest gigs; I guess here in New York they call them "club dates.

We played some pop music, and I'm not saying that in an insulting way, but it was just a very badly-produced event done by this producer. Anyway, Donny happened to be the saxophonist on it, so I was reunited with him in New York after ten years or so. So when it came time to do this recording, I knew he'd be the perfect tenor player for it. I've been told the eight songs on this record are rather difficult to play, especially what I've written for the saxophone.

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