In jazz, the mainstream is defined by what the music is not, or lacks. It is jazz as a style, rather than an aesthetic, and is not a "modern" concept. Many musicians of the Swing era, when confronted with the avant-garde named bebop, chose, for many reasons, to keep playing what they knew, rather than join the bleeding edge of the time.
Swing had become a style, and the mainstreamers stayed within it. Many of them played wonderful, quite personal music, which made them artists rather than mere players. Bebop, hard bop and even free jazz also became styles, and many records were produced that were technically adept but demonstrated little new or particularly personal.
The jazz of today has no overarching style, but there most definitely is a mainstream that is a comfort zone for many people. The "tradition" can be a solid foundation or a shackle and who young players of today become is largely determined by their reaction to this dilemma.
Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery finds himself in much the same place as his "musical father and mentor," Jackie McLean (1932-2006) in that he, like McLean, started from an earlier style, but has an inner passion to extend and personalize his music. Veneration: Live At Smoke
, is a very fine live set from a club in New York City that has an established mainstream personality, but which attracts such high quality players that any given night might be one of those magical moments.
Backed by the extremely solid rhythm section of drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Hans Glawischnig, with harmonic support (and solo competition) from vibraphonist Joe Locke, Escoffery blazes through a number of modern classics, including a closing thirteen-minute "Melody for Melonae" by McLean himself.
Escoffery has a commanding stage presence, his tone is tight and acidic, and he totally eschews vibrato, which when combined with his lightning facility to produce long, twisting, rhythmically uniform lines, can be a bit tiring on the ears. This effect, though, is balanced by a startling intensity that asks the listener to come along for the ride.
Aside from the McLean tune, which has its own built-in drama, the two most engaging tracks are those where Escoffery shows his tender, deeply emotional and thoughtful side. Escoffery plays "Tell Me Why," an original, on soprano rather than his normal tenor saxophone. Here he really speaks through the instrument, avoiding the tendency to blast through changes, and the result is quite moving.
The duet with Glawischnig, Strayhorn/Ellington's "Isfahan," is delightful and a real high point for both players individually and as unit. As with "Tell Me Why," the stress is on emotional communication and both Escoffery and Glawischnig tell their individual personal stories.
Escoffery is clearly a player who is working hard to make his mark, and most assuredly will find his own place between the past and the future.