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John Escreet: Music for This Age

R.J. DeLuke By

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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 forward—moving forward—is 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 Sorey—all 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 anymore—not 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."

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