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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.

AAJ: The themes seem pretty tricky.

GE: Yeah, and just the music in general. I don't think it's something you can sight-read at a session. It takes some time to get the gist of it. I'd had other players play this music on some gigs, and it just wasn't right, and it occurred to me to have Donny come in, because we'd just done a gig at the Blue Note together before the time of the recording, and I just thought he would be the perfect player for this. I was right; he played the heck out of it, man [laughing]. I'm very happy with the way he played. He interpreted the melodies and these intricate little fills pretty much the way I had imagined it. I guess that can happen—you know, I think we're exactly the same age, and he's had a really similar background to mine. He did a great, great job. He's another very busy player, so other saxophone players have filled in on my gigs since the recording, and it never comes off right. Not like Donny did it, anyway. Kudos to Donny.

Harvie is someone that I just met in the last two or three years. Of all of us, he's the veteran guy; he's older than we are. He's somebody I used to listen to as a student. I've always admired Harvie. Whenever I've heard his bass playing, I've been struck first by his characteristic sound of his playing, and second, by what a free-flowing kind of player he was. It was very attractive to me whenever I heard him on various recordings. So I just came across some people who knew him, and I gave him a call. He was very supportive. He wanted to hear the music first, but once he heard it, he said he loved it. He told me he thought it was very fresh and very different from what's coming out now. So he said he was happy to do it, and he's been doing almost all of my gigs—including the very small ones in New York. I'm very grateful for that.

AAJ: Gene Jackson is an essential part of this music—I've always admired his restlessness, and there's plenty of that here. He never plays on autopilot. He's really prowling around within the music here, almost fighting with it, and that really brings it to life.

GE: That's exactly right. He's unique in that way. I've never met a drummer with that intuitive thing he has. And you know, the way he approaches it can, and does, fall on its face from time to time. It's one of those situations where he'll try it and one night it just doesn't work. But the nights when it does work, it's magic—just unbelievable drumming. And I prefer that. I would rather have the band just screw it up, have an off night, rather than play that autopilot kind of sound that a lot of guys in New York have.

I guess a lot of these guys have such technical virtuosity that they do go on autopilot; that's what it is. Without mentioning any names, I remember not too long ago, this drummer was filling in for Gene, and he had heard from Harvie that the music was a little bit difficult. So he wanted the recording. I told him, "listen, I don't want you to play like Gene Jackson does on the recording. I want you to bring your own stuff. But he said he didn't want to sound bad on the gig, and that was understandable, so I gave him the recording before. And you know, he didn't try to play like Gene, but it didn't sound like jazz—it was this very-well-prepared thing. He wasn't trying to create something at that gig. Every time we play, wherever we play, each tune comes out differently.

AAJ: Well, there's no reason to learn Gene Jackson parts from the record. I suspect Gene couldn't play those himself now; he doesn't want to.

GE: He doesn't want to. He told me that when he was working with Herbie Hancock for those years he did, he noticed that Herbie never listens to any of his recordings. He hasn't for a long time. He doesn't want his music to be affected in that way, and Gene learned from that. He won't listen to anything he's played on either; he says, "that way, when I play the tunes next time, it's like the first time. So he brings that freshness. Plus, he's a very powerful drummer. Even though he's a different animal, there's something about him that reminds me of Rashied Ali, who was one of my first jazz employers when I first moved to New York. They have a very similar triplet feel, even though otherwise they have very little in common. I was talking to Gene about that, and he said it's a Philly thing; they're both from Philly. Of course, he also told me he loves Rashied Ali's playing.

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