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Wayne Escoffery: Still Forging Ahead

Wayne Escoffery: Still Forging Ahead

Courtesy Jimmy Katz

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The current Mingus Big Band, a lot of those musicians are some of the best in the world, some of the most inspiring voices we have in jazz
—Wayne Escoffery
Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery has a long, ongoing association with the Mingus Big Band organization, including a Grammy for Mingus Big Band Live at Jazz Standard (Jazz Workshop, Inc., Sue Mingus Music, 2010). His career also includes a special relationship with trumpeter Tom Harrell, with whom he has played for many years. All that is enough to carry a strong career.

But Escoffery is more than that. His career is multifaceted, documented by his own bands and CDs. He's a strong educator, having taught at the Yale School of Music for seven years. He also gives master classes around the country and in a variety of European cities.

The saxophonist has also been a member of the Mingus Dynasty, Big Band and Mingus Orchestra since 2000. His resume of recording includes sessions with Ron Carter, Eric Reed, Carl Allen, Al Foster, Wallace Roney, Herbie Hancock and many more.

His 2023 CD, Like Minds (Smoke Sessions Records) was recorded live at the jazz club Smoke in New York City. Most of the music was written by Escoffery during the pandemic. There is also a Mingus tune and one by drummer Ralph Peterson. "I write quite a bit," Escoffery says. "Generally I write the most when I know that there's a recording project coming up. I'll generally write a batch of music, and then take the band on tour to work it out, see where the music takes us, and get it to a point where we're being creative with the music, and then go into the studio."

The band consists of David Kikowski on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Mark Whitfield, Jr. on drums, the latter filling the slot long held by the late Ralph Peterson. Guests are guitarist Mike Moreno, singer Gregory Porter and Harrell. The music sparkles. The twists and turns are handled by a band used to each others moves. The solos, naturally, are bristling.

"I feel like I present better live in a lot of ways," Escoffery says. "Recording is a whole separate art in many ways. So I actually enjoy recording live." His 2015 release is Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE) and another live CD is Live at Firehouse 12 (Sunnyside, 2014). In that vein, there's also Veneration: Live at Smoke (Savant, 2007).

The band has been together for eight years, and "in some ways, it's just a documentation of our next chapter. With Mark Whitfield in the band, I definitely want to document on that transition. I call the album Like Minds because we do think alike. I try to surround myself with like-minded musicians. Musicians who have a love and a veneration for the greats of the past, like my heroes, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Bud Powell. But also strive to push the envelope and make new and creative innovations in music. And I think we all share that."

Peterson passed away some two years ago. "Ralph was force of nature," says Escoffery, but "Mark is amazing. I think he's really one of the greatest drummers of his generation." Escoffery and Okegwo have played together for more than a decade with Harrell.

"I have a long list of great musicians who I would like to work with. These particular musicians, both Gregory Porter and Mike Moreno, I've had a long, long relationship with them. You know, I met Mike when I was in college, and we both went to Boston at the same time. We've worked with Jeremy Pelt together and a lot of other people. So knew each other for a long time, but haven't gotten the chance to record together. And the same goes with Gregory Porter. I met him when he first came to New York around the early 2000s. I was leading the jam session at St. Nick's Club in Harlem and he would frequent that jam session. We played quite a bit back then, and even did a tour of Japan together. I always knew that he would be a big star. I was wanted to lay something down with him. So it was just a matter of time. I'm glad we got to have him there."

The Mingus composition on the recording is "Nostalgia in Times Square." It might be an apt title since Escoffery's blistering sax work has been on Mingus band recordings and live shows for about 23 years.

Escoffery adds, "All the groups that he had, had a reputation for bringing in musicians with very individual styles and sounds. People like Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, my mentor Jackie McLean, Dannie Richmond. These are all great musicians who have very individual and unique sounds. And I think that's one of the important elements of Mingus's music and his groups. Even when I joined the current Mingus Big Band. A lot of those musicians are some of the best in the world, some of the most inspiring voices we have in jazz. People like David Kikoski, Randy Brecker, Vincent Herring, John Stubblefield, Conrad Herwig, Frank Lacy.—really important voices in music. When you're in that company, it inspires you to be an original as well. It inspires you to have your own sound and your own strong identity. So I think that's one of the most important aspects of Mingus's groups, the ones that he had when he was still with us. And that holds true today."

Among the many other musicians he holds in high regard are George Coleman, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, J.J. Johnson, Woody Shaw and McCoy Tyner. "The list is kind of endless," he says.

Escoffery also heard plenty of music growing up. He was born in the United Kingdom, but emigrated to Connecticut as a boy. In New Haven, at the age of 11, he joined The New Haven Trinity Boys Choir and soon began taking saxophone lessons. At 16, he left the choir and began a more intensive study of the saxophone,

But, "compared to a lot of people, I got into music a little bit late," he says. "I didn't really know anything about jazz until I got to high school. I was a sophomore in high school. That's really when I first started hearing people like Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon. Before before that, I wasn't really in tune to what jazz was about ... Of course, I fell in love with it right away."

Escoffery came to the music from the more contemporary side. "I really loved people like Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn. I loved the Yellowjackets. So I kind of came to it from that side of things. The music that I really enjoyed was kind of like soul, R&B music. So I love the lyricism in the blues as elements of the music. And I love saxophonists with beautiful sounds ... Then I started digging a little deeper, and finding out who those people's influences were. And then I happened upon Dexter Gordon and Charlie Rouse with Thelonious Monk. So a lot of it was about the sound of the saxophone and the lyricism and the blues elements. Then gradually I started appreciating the more complex elements."

He attended Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, Connecticut, he got his introduction to jazz. Also to an important mentor—Jackie McLean.

"When I was a junior in high school, I drove up to Hartford and attended his Artists Collective program," he recalls. He also ended up attending the Hartt School in Hartford where McLean ran the jazz program. "I wanted to stay around and have his guidance."

"I used to drive from Hartford to down to New Haven, play a regular, local spot. I had a few regular gigs in Connecticut all through college, which is [a] really great way to learn the music and work on things that I learned at Hartt." After college, he went to the Thelonious Monk Institute (now the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz). "I met a lot of musicians through that. And then when I went to New York, I just called up a lot of those guys I met at the Thelonious Institute, like Eric Reed and Carl Allen. I met Don Sickler, because they were familiar with me from the Institute. They gave me shot and started calling me for work."

Working with Reed, he says, was one of the major steps to getting his name known on the New York City scene. He did an album with the pianist and met his producer. That led to his first recording as a leader, Times Change (Nagel Heyer, 2001). "So working with Eric Reed gave me some notoriety, for sure. And then I started working with the Mingus Band very shortly after I came to New York City. My time with the Mingus band helped quite a bit."

Escoffery has been steadily busy, playing with some of the best musicians on the scene and growing his own resume of CD recordings. Like all musicians, the pandemic slowed him down, but didn't stop him. "The lockout was very difficult. But in the last year or so, things have really been busy for a lot of musicians that I know. We've been working nonstop. It's pretty intense. I think there's just more of an urgency to make music and to tour and to put projects out. That urgency is great. On both sides of the industry—from the musicians as well as just the presenters and the fans. Everyone wants to present and hear and make a lot of music so it's been pretty busy."

Escoffery was in Europe in the spring for a tour. He's got gigs for 2023, but another thing he is working on is marking the 10th anniversary in of the Black Art Jazz Collective that he founded. It debuted in 2013 at Jazz at Lincoln Center and is dedicated to celebrating African American cultural and political icons, as well as preserving the historical significance of African Americans in jazz. He says the project will include originals like Pelt, Whitfield Jr., trombonist James Burton III and pianist Xavier Davis. The recording will likely come out in 2024.

Meanwhile, jazz music is keeping him going full steam. "I think a lot of people want to play the music and love the music. It's just a matter of exposure and opportunity. The music's always been here. It's not going anywhere."

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