Ellery Eskelin: The Big Picture
by Troy Collins
Ellery Eskelin ©2016 Peter Gannushkin
Ellery Eskelin has been at the forefront of the creative improvised music scene for the past three decades, garnering ongoing critical acclaim in the international press and regularly placing in Best of the Year critics’ polls in the New York Times, Village Voice and other major jazz publications.
In addition to working with a broad cross-section of jazz, avant-pop and new-music figures, the tenor saxophonist has led several distinguished ensembles since the late 1980s, with more than twenty recordings issued under his leadership. The best known of Eskelin’s groups is the trio he formed in 1994 with accordionist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black, for which he wrote over fifty compositions, each documented on a lengthy series of celebrated releases on hatOLOGY. During its 20-year run, the band played hundreds of gigs throughout the US, Canada and Europe.
Eskelin’s most recent endeavor is Trio New York, which freely reinterprets selections from the Great American Songbook, bringing Eskelin full circle to his musical roots. Eskelin got his start playing with his mother, the Hammond B-3 organist Bobbie Lee, who led her own jazz groups at nightclubs in Baltimore throughout the early 1960s; the experience provided Eskelin an introduction to standards, while inspiring a formative interest in the jazz tradition.
Trio New York features organist Gary Versace and drummer Gerald Cleaver on the ensemble’s first two albums, both issued by Eskelin’s Prime Source label. Gerry Hemingway sat in for Cleaver during the unit’s 2015 Willisau Jazz Festival appearance, the ensuing concert recording released by hatOLOGY as Trio Willisau Live. Prior to this live trio effort, the imprint issued Eskelin’s unaccompanied tenor saxophone recital Solo Live at Snugs.
Following the release of these two records, I interviewed Eskelin in the spring of 2016.
Troy Collins: You’ve written lately about mixed audience reactions to music that tends to fall outside of some people’s comfort zones – especially in relation to conventional notions of melody, rhythm and harmony. Has any of that feedback factored into any of your own current live performances?
Ellery Eskelin: Only to reinforce something that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) over many years. And that is to trust the music. If I trust and honor the process of making music then I can trust that the music is communicating to whoever is listening to it. My reason for writing about this was in realizing that these “mixed” reactions are all valid and furthermore, do not necessarily mean that the music did not communicate or do its job. That’s because they are only reactions and are specific to the persons who hold them. It’s easy to think that someone who has a negative or lukewarm reaction didn’t “get it.” That may or may not be true. But it’s OK if someone does not “get it.” It’s OK because it’s true for them and they have to have a choice. And that’s beautiful in a way, because it means that the music is not “fixed” or true in some absolute way. It’s in flux because of listeners (and even we musicians are listeners). This is what offers us freedom.
None of this means that we musicians do not try our best, or if there are negative reactions we take a hands off approach. We constantly need to be sure that we are being honest with ourselves about what we are doing and why. My bottom line is that it always rests with me to look harder, to try harder. To blame anyone else is to abdicate my responsibility, and to lose some of my own freedom. But in the end you have to accept that other folk’s reactions are out of your hands.
Personally, I’ve always felt that jazz was the truth and that it was the only thing that made any real sense to me as a young person. It seemed to contain the so called “high” and “low,” from common sense to abstractions, ambiguities and even contradictions. It meant that the musician’s point of view was valid in the world. That an individual could have a point of view, express it and have someone hearing that respond and say “Yea, I hear you!” Nothing seemed out of bounds, and as an art form it contained ideas that did not fit other conceptions of the world (political, social, religious) at least as had been presented to me by that time. This felt completely affirming.
And yet many people do not like or at least do not listen to this music. I’m still often surprised when an artist from another discipline, someone I may admire and feel a connection to, does not “get” jazz (and I’m using the word in a very broad sense). But then I may have a difficult time “getting” certain poetry. And I would very much love to “get it.” I may have it explained to me, hear it spoken and still not understand. And yet I do sense that on some level, something is speaking to me. I just need to work a little harder, or perhaps relax a little more, or maybe completely forget about it. And come back, again and again. Maybe one day I’ll say “Yea, I hear you!” But if not, that’s OK. It has to be.
So where does this leave a musician? How do you make a living with that? We want to be liked, to communicate and share something we feel has been worth our time and devotion. We need concert goers and folks to support us financially. What’s my responsibility? It’s not to make them like it. But it is to do my best in getting this music to the point that the content as well as the very process of making it engages listeners (and engages them across a range of responses; likes, dislikes and even apathy). They are part of that process. And they may not even realize how essential they are to the act of making that music. This whole “musicians – listeners” compartmentalization is not the whole picture. But as most musicians can tell you, there is something larger than that going on. What that is does not really require an answer. It is in the very act of listening.
TC: As someone who claims they’ve “always felt that jazz was the truth,” you’ve professed an interest in the entire spectrum of the jazz tradition, dating all the way back to the music’s formative period. What specific aspects of the tradition do you continue to find inspiring and what established practices do you now feel might be constraining, if any?
EE: This is an excellent (and potentially tricky) question. Practices have certainly changed over time. To my ear, early jazz was very direct and very clear. It required a sustained rhythmic energy and a continuous, natural flow of logical ideas (which by the way, is not easy to do!) While there was a certain degree of abstraction in the act of improvising off of a melody or song form it was still a rather explicit music. What we have come to think of as modern practice in jazz is characterized by a much more fragmentary type of delivery. The steady rhythm and constant flow is still there but it is internalized by the musicians, allowing them to dip in and out of this flow, to make spontaneous choices in their phrasing and to use space in a much more active way. Musicians could now “imply” and listeners could “infer” as ambiguity and multiplicity came into the picture. Understatement became a powerful tool. A musician might express partial or even incomplete ideas, juxtaposing musical impulses for a more impressionistic approach. Or conversely, multiple ideas and feelings could be expressed simultaneously, in a highly expressionistic fashion. Interestingly, while this is something that I see as a trajectory from early Louis Armstrong to late John Coltrane there is also a very clear model of modernity in existence by the time of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, their contrasting approaches encapsulating future directions in the music.
Over time earlier ideas and approaches may have been considered passé by those who abandoned them in the name of being new or modern. These new approaches naturally became associated with a perceived or cultivated style. But in that process these ideas too are destined to become historical and will soon lose their “modernity.” This means that any established practice can become constraining if taken for granted or by becoming dogmatic or rote. For example, one potential constraint that I often perceive comes from the very act of abstraction itself. In jazz, we have long since arrived at a point in which a musician’s improvisations have a relationship with the very history of the music itself. So there is this comparison going on in the mind of the musician in which what is being played has some bearing on or relationship to what that musician is hearing in their head (as being the expected course of action by virtue of the song form and its contents or by other musical conventions). This can create a wonderful kind of tension and release but unless the listener also shares that reference point, this tension and release happens only in the mind of the musician. Now this is a tough spot because I think all of us improvising musicians are dealing with this dynamic to some extent. How much knowledge does the listener need to bring the table in order to “hear” the music? Ideally, none. This means that the responsibility is always on the musician to be sure that what is being played stands on its own musically. It must have a structural integrity or some primary and essential intent on the part of the musician that communicates to a listener. Anything beyond that is extra. Anything less cannot be expected to fully communicate.
So with respect to “established practices,” we musicians must guard against playing games of avoidance in the name of being hip or modern. Too often I encounter situations in which there is a reluctance or resistance towards doing something that seems too clear or obvious because we may associate explicitness with something old or corny. We want to investigate complexity and ambiguity and be modern. Nothing at all wrong with complexity and ambiguity unless you lose sight of the big picture. And in doing so you lose your freedom and are constrained. And you don’t even realize it.
There are also other ways in which practices may become constraining. In general, if practices are taken for granted or are unexamined (beyond the superficial) then practitioners will fail to see how many potential creative choices they have available to them in whatever they do. This is why I regard the music to be a process and not a style. This does not mean that I don’t recognize stylistic features or considerations, just that I do not use them as a basis for generating music. To me, that would not be creative so much as re-creative and ultimately constraining. Rather, I simply deal with basic musical raw materials and the choices I have in how to use them. Actually, the raw materials are rather few. Yet as an improviser the choices in how to manipulate them are limitless. That might seem like a recipe for an overwhelming disaster, but we can only really do one thing at a time and so it becomes a matter of positive focus towards a projected outcome (as opposed to a negative process of avoiding what is regarded as stylistically being out of bounds). Thus I feel it is possible to be creative “within” a perceived idiom or style, but ironically, only by allowing that “anything could happen” while working towards a particular group sound that may in fact wind up being extraordinarily focused and tight. But you have to know where your choices are towards getting to that sound. As for freer forms of improvisation, the process is subject to much greater fluctuation. It is quite fluid and subject to constant change, especially when you have multiple musicians playing simultaneously. The focus that is required to keep things coherent or to sustain some degree of constancy, or even to let a process (or processes) unfold (even unpredictably) comes from our intent. If we are playing a song form with a certain amount of pre-ordained material we may unknowingly give up some of that intent. This is when things begin to become rote. When in a free improvisation we lack a sense of direction or intent we can experience another form of constraint. To my ear, the greatest practitioners of this music took nothing for granted, ever. And that’s what brings life to their music. In fact, that is life because every moment is new and contains a universe of options. But we do have to understand some things. Sometimes you do best to simply let a song play itself. And sometimes you have to dig deep and take some risks. Anything could indeed happen, but not gratuitously.
So while any established practice can be confining, conversely any established practice can be creative. To address this with students, I once devoted a week-long teaching residency on creative improvising to the idea of swing as a creative act. I felt it was necessary for them to experience firsthand that swing is not a style (and therefore not a historical practice to be left behind) but that it is an essential musical raw material. And if you don’t addresses it (either by choice or neglect) you’re taking a lot off the table. Also, if certain practices become neglected we will lose them as a culture. You can’t learn everything from recordings and books. There must be a person to person lineage in which practices are handed down directly, in the very act of making music. Otherwise, once they are gone, they are gone for good. I take that very seriously.
I think musicians today are in a position to embrace freedom in perhaps a different way than it was conceived of in previous generations. At one time it may have been regarded as “freedom from” certain practices that were perceived as constraints. But enough time has passed that we have the opportunity to consider freedom in terms of “freedom to.” Freedom as in inclusion, not exclusion. There are a million ways to play the simplest phrase.
TC: Your explanation brings to mind the difference between your current ensemble, Trio New York, and your previous trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black, both of which shared somewhat similar instrumentation, but have a very different approach towards material. The majority of Trio New York’s tunes are classic covers from the Great American Songbook, while your earlier trio played mostly original material. Although you’ve described your thought process behind how you deal with covers versus originals, why the change in repertoire?
EE: The change in repertoire was not a matter of forethought at all. It was more a matter of discovery. The first time I got together with Gary Versace informally to play, a very interesting thing happened. With no discussion we simply set about to do some free improvisation one afternoon. Personally, playing standards was the last thing on my mind. The music was going very well, we were able to move through all kinds of musical terrain and towards the end of one of the improvisations we somehow wound up playing on the form of “I Got Rhythm.” This may not sound like such a big deal but it got me thinking because this never really happens in such a spontaneous way as it did that afternoon. “Free” musicians tend not to deal with standards and more “traditional” musicians tend not to play free. That’s a generalization of course as these days there are more musicians than ever who can indeed do both. But it’s still usually one approach or the other in any given setting. In this case the relationship between the two was extremely fluid and it allowed this improvisation to take on some surprising musical dimensions without being constricted by the form. Also, with respect to the Hammond B3 organ, players who really know how to play the instrument tend to be traditionally oriented musically. So having Gary, with his depth of knowledge (and expertise at the organ) combined with an openness to explore free music opened many new doors.
There is also my relationship to standard material through my mother’s influence in her career as an organist and the music in our family growing up. That’s always figured in my playing but in most other situations the influence was contrasted with or juxtaposed against other musical elements. Sort of a collision, which actually gave the music a certain energy that I liked very much. Not in the sense of genre collision, I’ve never been much interested in that. But more as a structural issue, a way to create some other shapes and forms that hopefully held their own without the need of being identified out of their internal ingredients. At least that’s how I thought about the group with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black. And to take that a little further, I’ve never thought of Eskelin w/Parkins & Black as being similar to Trio New York in instrumentation. For one thing, EEw/AP&JB started out as being centered around the accordion (with electronic effects). The fact that Andrea also played sampler was an additional plus. We did utilize piano and organ sounds with the sampler but Andrea played both of those “instruments” in a way that took advantage of the “artificiality” that was afforded by the sampler.
Being that you’ve brought up Eskelin with Parkins & Black it’s interesting to note some of the more polarized reactions to Trio New York. Some fans and reviewers of Eskelin w/Parkins & Black, who’s tastes run towards the freer side of the spectrum find Trio New York to be not much more than a straight up jazz project. Conversely, fans and writers of a more straight ahead bent tend to find Trio New York to be every bit as far out as Eskelin w/Parkins & Black. One reviewer thought Trio New York was comparable to Pierre Boulez, offering no rhythmic propulsion at all, while another writer mused that basically all Trio New York does is swing. This is a generalization of the two extremes (and they were actually both positive reviews) but I’m pleased to say that most folks do seem to get the mix and relate to the band’s unique sensibility. It may be a standards trio on paper but I don’t hear anything else that operates in quite this way.
In spite of any of that, it may be that both of these projects are dealing with some similar issues, most fundamentally how to organize free improvisation. In the case of Eskelin w/Parkins & Black I composed music but my thinking was more along the lines of introducing composed elements into improvisation (rather than improvising within compositional frameworks). In Trio New York there is no distinction in my mind between freely improvised music and standards. In fact, I don’t call it anything. To do so would lock the process in and become a constraint. In retrospect, I recognize also that Eskelin w/Parkins & Black had more of a rock oriented basis in rhythm. Not that this was my intent going into it. Just kind of worked out that way. Trio New York is coming from a swing base rhythmically, that’s for sure. Just kind of worked out that way as well. Two very different projects from my point of view that may be addressing some similar concerns, each in their own way.
One other thing about standards is that they provide such a strong thematic element to the music, even if I’m not directly addressing the melody. I think the reason I wrote for Eskelin w/Parkins & Black was that I wanted each piece to be very different and that I wanted certain things to be possible that might not be otherwise possible when improvising freely. And so the reason we’ve continued to use standards in Trio New York may be similar. I love to improvise completely freely but I also love having these kinds of elements that function within the process, more overtly and perhaps jarringly in the case of Eskelin w/Parkins & Black and more subtly and fluidly in the case of Trio New York. And I find that when I do play completely free music in any other given situations these days, the most rewarding concerts tend to be those in which we are able to conjure these kinds of compositional and structural forces in the music spontaneously, without any planning. Just out of thin air. That’s what I mean by “free to.” But I think we’ll be working with standards in Trio New York for some time. I sense there’s much more there to be explored.
TC: Both of your most recent hatOLOGy releases were recorded live, rather than in the studio: Willisau Live and Solo Live at Snugs. What are your thoughts on studio recording versus live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation.
EE: For recording I greatly prefer the studio, no question about it. It’s rare that I feel a live situation is conducive to recording and when it turns out well it’s kind of a fortuitous fluke. There are some fundamental reasons for this.
We know that a recording of any kind is never a substitute for being at a live performance. But a recording is its own form of communication and very valuable as such, especially when you don’t look at it as an inferior replication of live music but instead as its own thing, a positive and unique medium that affords the opportunity to communicate something forward in time. Perhaps like a book. Before printing was widespread there was an oral tradition of passing information from generation to generation. This had to be done in real time, with repetition. This meant that the information was internalized. It affected the way information was experienced and how the brain processed the information. With printing there was a shift. More information could be stored, potentially with greater accuracy. But our relationship with that information was different. Less embodied and more intellectualized. Both ways offer advantages and disadvantages, depending upon the situation. It’s interesting to think about how notation, and later, how recordings affected music making.
I do feel that jazz music is essentially an “oral tradition” of a kind. I mentioned before that we can’t learn everything from recordings and books, we need to develop our skills experientially, by doing. And that requires that we learn from folks who have been doing this longer than us and who can guide and teach us. Basically, you have to hear someone do it for real and pick up from that in a direct way. It requires highly developed listening skills. In this way the musical materials become embodied by the musicians, so deeply internalized that we can interact with each other in real time without the need to intellectually process everything that is going on when playing. And yet all that intellectual information we’ve learned is there to be accessed, just in a more immediate and real, living form. Now that jazz is being learned in academia and not as much through the realities of live performance (as compared with previous generations) I’m concerned that the music is becoming less “embodied.” As musicians rely more heavily upon theoretical knowledge and less on their ears there is a risk to creativity in that they are less able to truly interact spontaneously when playing. A balance is needed and I think we’re a bit too far to one side in the way the music is taught.
Getting back to performance issues, you asked how live and recorded situations affect my playing. The way I play on a live concert addresses that time, that place and that moment. There’s really no avoiding this. The acoustics of the room, the number of people, all of the myriad details that inform (and potentially distract) have some effect, however subtle to the energy in the room and how that is processed by the musicians. Frankly, this range of musical experience is far too complex to be captured on recording. I am playing to the nature of that experience, for myself and for the listeners. And as for the listener, how do you process what you are hearing? First of all, I realize that there is a strong bias towards the live concert experience over recordings and I fully understand that. It’s a communal experience (the complex and rich physical and emotional experience of being there with other people) and there is a greater fullness to the sound, both of which contribute to a heightened sensitivity and a greater degree of attention than one may give a recording at home. You’re in a room with other people for the purpose of listening and you stare at the stage for an hour without talking or doing anything else. Generally, of course. In clubs there can be eating and drinking. And more and more there is the intrusion of our phones. This is actually a serious problem that goes far beyond the concert experience, a conversation for another time. However, even given all of that, how often do we listen with the same intensity of concentration at home? Uninterrupted for an hour, sitting still, doing nothing else? If you did you’d get far more out of it, that’s for sure.
Beyond those basics there are some fundamental differences in how we listen to live performances as compared to recordings. A live concert is a one-time event, colored (by better or worse) by the immediate conditions that go into making it. So in fact it’s played to be heard one time. A recording affords the opportunity to create a more idealized or definitive version of the music, designed for repeated listening. In making a recording we can play each piece a number of times, exploring different options, so as to put together a final document that works together on multiple levels. So playing to this “one time only” setting as opposed to a process of honing multiple performances has everything to do with memory. In a concert setting, what do you hear in the music that seems important? You only get one chance. As a performer I know this (I’m listening too) and so I may emphasize certain aspects of the music to heighten the effect and make my intent a bit clearer. I may repeat certain things so as to better make a point. If there is a high point in the music, one that has been developed towards for some minutes, there may be a certain amount of developmental material that is essentially forgotten or that fades from memory once we get that emotional payoff upon release. Listening back to a recording of the same music we may have very different perceptions of these effects, especially with subsequent listenings. The proportions and balance of elements may seem a bit off, perhaps awkwardly so. Too much emphasis on this event, not enough on that. Maybe that development wasn’t quite so focused. Maybe that payoff isn’t so impressive the third or fourth time you hear it. But I know damn well that at the gig it was great. This is one reason I love recording in the studio, without a concert audience. I love getting the proportions correct. It’s perhaps more compositional than performative and yet for me there is no loss of energy. In fact the energy is often more powerful because it is more focused without having to be as forceful.
At this point I should probably point out that the idealized forms of concert making and recording that I’m speaking about are changing. Live concerts are generally less live than ever before to the extent that they became hijacked by audio (and video) equipment. Pop music is for all practical purposes no longer live at all. But even in jazz there is more and more unnecessary and inappropriate amplification. Oddly enough, musicians now approach concerts more like recording sessions, with long sound checks and every concert we do being recorded, almost thoughtlessly so. But in this case the musicians have almost no control over the issues of balance and blend. In far too many cases the amplified sound is often ruinous to the music. I’m not saying it can’t be done right, just that it rarely is. And what’s the point, really? There are so few situations in jazz that require amplification, assuming that the musicians know how to play at appropriate volume levels that allow them to properly blend and balance their individual sounds on stage. And by getting the audience to come towards you a bit more (in their attention) rather than enveloping them in amplified sound (and in some ways pushing them away) actually heightens the intensity of the listening experience.
Would it be overstating the case to say that the live performance is becoming a lost art? And yes, I am implying that live performance is inherently an acoustic performance. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to make music using electric and electronic instruments and to sometimes amplify my own sound. But I realize very keenly that past a certain point (and we don’t always know exactly where that point is) things become a bit less live. I realize this every time I attend a performance of classical music, which is almost always completely acoustic. I feel such incredible power at these concerts that comes not from volume of sound but from focus. The physical reality of the human body existing in the sonic environment, actually being part of the very fabric of that environment, both “sender” and “receiver,” musician and listener, to the point where they are one and the same. What is more powerful than this?
So then to the idea of live recordings. One inherent issue I face is that the way I would like to play to the audience in a room acoustically is not the same way I would want to play if there is a microphone recording me. Think of stage actors versus film actors. Or opera singers versus pop crooners. When playing a larger room (such as a festival, in the case of the Willisau concert) playing to the room acoustically would simply be too “big” of a delivery for the recording equipment. Microphones are nowhere near as sensitive as the human ear and so they are placed more closely to the instruments in order get the same impression of presence that a human listener may get from much farther away. I was aware of this and tried not to push too hard to try and fill the room and so it came out OK. But I can hear on many live recordings (ones that will never be released) that I’m playing a bit more than the microphones can handle and so the context is wrong. They sound terrible to me because the weight of the sonic energy is disproportionate to the content of the musical ideas. Conversely, in many other situations, microphones are too far way. This is a major problem with audience made audio and video. The microphones are not picking up nearly enough detail and so the music is missing all of the tone color and textural information that is a big part of what I do. It would be the same as recording a conversation from too far away. You can tell it’s voices you’re hearing, you may make out some of the words but you can’t really hear enough to make sense of the conversation. And yet so much of the music put up on line is exactly like this.
So these are the reasons I find live recordings to be such a conundrum. Fortunately the Baltimore concert with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black, One Great Night Live, was done in a recital hall that had very good acoustics. It was a fairly good match between the room and the way we recorded. Also, the live solo concert Solo Live at Snugs was done in a smaller space and the way I played to the room was about the same as I’d play to the microphone. But there was still a sonic element to the room acoustic that made me play the way I did and which is not audible on the recording. So it’s still not a perfect situation. But we do the best we can and whether I’m playing a live concert or recording in the studio I want to honor my relationship with those folks who are as committed to the act of listening as I am. Finally, as to how music is increasingly experienced today, I understand the role of new technology and new media but I’m also aware that these devices are often deeply antithetical to the act of listening with our full attention. Yes, they are just tools, not inherently good or bad things, just that we should not give up too much unknowingly. And we do indeed give up something to gain something. In many ways, the social critics were right about television. Going back further, there were valid points about the intrusion of the telephone into daily life. Even going back to the idea of timekeeping, there was considerable resistance in the nineteenth century to the imposition of a standardized nation-wide method and the profound effect it had on all of our activities. But it’s good not to have trains running into each other when timekeeping in different cities is not precisely coordinated. Yet things are moving so quickly now that I’m not sure the conversation is keeping up with the pace. We may not realize how much of our humanity is being traded away. I realize this seems far removed from the question of live and recorded music. But acoustic music is rarely experienced by audiences any longer. If I can remind people of what that’s like, how truly powerful that experience is, then I feel I’m doing some good. As long as that works, I’m happy to be in the game. When and if it stops being viable I will have no regrets.
TC: Continuing on a similar thread, as a label proprietor, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?
EE: With my own label, Prime Source, I haven’t released on any of the “ephemeral” formats, only physical CDs. Somehow I feel a deeper artistic commitment in making a physical product. And from a business standpoint there is a larger profit margin with physical sales whereas digital sales do not make enough of a return. And streaming makes no sense at all that I can see. Of course you have to be in a position to sell CDs. That means having a solid base of support, which I’ve developed over many years primarily by virtue of an e-mail list. I can always depend upon a core group of listeners who will purchase each new release (thank you!). And over the years that group grows, slowly but surely. The other component is direct sales at the concerts we play. These two areas each make up 50% of sales. Over the period of a year or two I can make back my initial investment of having paid the musicians, studio, artwork and manufacturing costs. Trio New York is almost out of print so I may decide to offer that digitally at some point. But I would never offer a digital format at the same time I’m selling physical discs. I understand that some folks may prefer to get these titles as downloads or by streaming but the fact is I simply cannot afford to release music in that way. Digital sales are probably shrinking as streaming increases. With the rise of mobile devices, the move away from the desktop computer (and the fact that the desktop computer no longer comes with a CD drive) would seem to spell the end of CDs. I am aware that at some point physical sales may not keep pace yet they have lasted longer than conventional wisdom has been predicting. The basic advantage is that they are tangible, which has some worth to some people. We see this in the trend of LPs being manufactured in rising numbers, although I’m a bit skeptical that this is as meaningful as it may first appear. I have no intention of pressing LPs.
I realize that this model does not work for everyone, and I’m not even sure how long it will continue to work for me. As for my thoughts on the recording industry at large, I am at least heartened to see that there are a growing number of musicians who realize that the initial hype about the internet saving us from the music industry was short sighted. In my opinion we have a new boss. There is tremendous pressure to play into this new system in the name of exposure but where is the money going? Primarily to the companies who make the gadgets we use. And to the companies who profit from our collective content. So we need to be aware of the global context which includes corporate players, political power and issues of social justice. If we have any ideas about being a force for good in the world by virtue of our work then I think we need to take a hard look at this interconnectedness and our role in it.
So this conversation is really much larger than it may first seem. I spoke a bit about new technology and what it is doing to us socially, not just to our listening habits. In a very real way, here in New York City, every day I’m amazed at the number of people who walk out into traffic while looking down at their phones, ear buds in the ears, oblivious to what’s going on around them. And I also I notice many missed opportunities for interaction. I know for myself what the on-line experience can do to my mind, conditioning me to respond in ways that have little to do with reality. The fragmentation, the superficiality, the deluge of un-contextualized information. It’s an amazing tool, one that I try to make the best use of. But increasingly I find myself needing to take greater measures to moderate my time and use of it. Which leads me to ask, what is it that we are giving up for all of this distraction? These distractions are not benign. If you’re not paying attention, you’re missing your life. I realize that may seem overly dramatic, but then I’m 57, no longer 27.
So how much do we want to play into this system? For example, part of the role of being a label proprietor and professional musician requires self-promotion. Social media has become the norm but it’s a very strange way to do that if you ask me, the medium itself making every interaction about “me.” It skews the premise of this being at all “social.” Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said in an interview that “the difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you.” So while I use it I am very cautious about it. Offering audio and video on-line may be viewed as promotion but increasingly it becomes primary content for most viewers who will then develop ideas and attitudes about your work without ever having actually experienced it firsthand (be it live or on a well-produced, well listened to, recording). And ironically, with all the advances in technology the sonic and visual quality of so much of the material being shared is like going backwards technologically. Someone who records three minutes of a band from the audience on their iPhone is now your PR person and I’m sorry but that material sounds horrible, is a waste of time to look at and will turn off more people than it turns on. So I am very careful to be aware of the structural changes that the technology brings to the experience of art. In fact, I would love very much to disassociate those things as much as possible. We discussed recording as a medium and I explained that while I see a great usefulness there I am careful to make a clear distinction between the experience of listening to a recording and the experience of listening to a live performance. As of yet I have seen very little in the way of usefulness in computers as a way to experience music beyond video and audio, both of which already existed. (Virtual reality holds no interest for me). The computer is a convenient delivery system but because we can access so much material as well as do so many other things with it, it can also be also a tremendous source of distraction and alienation. The medium becomes the message, as Marshall McLuhan wrote. Personally I am growing a bit weary of screens and speakers. They are useful, so I don’t want to overuse them. And I don’t want to confuse them for the things that they convey.
Ironically, because the mode of listening that mobile devices plays into is at odds with the kind of listening we’ve been talking about means it may still be possible to make the case that a dedicated listening session done at home, focused and undistracted, is a viable and desirable activity. Or that a concert experience, one that may even be entirely acoustic, one that challenges you on some level, to which you give your entire attention, is a worthwhile use of your time. Even life affirming. That may seem a tough sell but the more I think about it, the more need there seems to be for it. A basic human need. To have unified, focused and single-minded experiences for our mental health if for no other reason. Personally, I am listening to far less music in my daily life, intentionally so. In this way it means so much more when I do go out to hear something. Or if I do decide to sit for an hour listening to something at home, undistracted.
So that’s what I offer in the way I make and present music. I’m still optimistic. And I have to trust that given the opportunity, enough other folks will find value in this kind of thing as well. The act of listening, of paying attention, is powerful. A radical and subversive act, even.
TC: On a similar tangent, despite the myriad problems posed by mobile technology, especially in relation to our appreciation of living in the moment, do you find any inspiration in current technological advances or new stylistic movements?
EE: Yes, of course. But I feel that at my age, in my position, I need to speak in a way that offers a balance. I think it’s important to understand just what the creative act is, not to confuse it with the tools we may use. After all, a saxophone is just a tool. A computer is also a tool and you can even use it to create music. Technological advances have made so many things possible that were not possible before. But I don’t think that being a human being has changed all that much. I would like to understand the creative act from its source (if there is such a thing). All we have is this body and this mind in this moment. And that’s constantly changing. What if I didn’t have a saxophone? What if I didn’t play music? Those things are not who I am in any fixed way, they are what I do. Creativity is not contained in any of those things. In a way, those “things” do not really exist. Or maybe I would think of them less as nouns and more as verbs. “Doing” can certainly be a creative act. Finding dignity as a human being is a creative act.
Stylistic movements are a different discussion than technology. And I’m less interested in style in and of itself. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested or inspired by new music and art. Quite the contrary. It’s just that I want to get beyond the style and into what it is that really speaks to me. The style can certainly tell you something, there is important information there. I don’t reject it. I just don’t want to give it more importance than it deserves. Same with technology. New technology and new style can certainly be exciting and inspiring. Re-embracing old technology and old style can also be exciting and inspiring, at least to some people. But these things and these attitudes change. Neither technology nor style is inherently creative.
TC: While we’re on the topic of creativity and simply being human, how do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of your various groups?
EE: When putting together a group, I usually have a specific sound in mind of what instrumentation to use and then it’s all about choosing musical personalities that will create a particular dynamic. In the case of bands that I write music for I am very specific in rehearsals about making my intent in writing a piece clear, only to be very accepting of the course that things may take in concert. As long as I feel that the intent was understood and addressed then there is all the more freedom to build and take that somewhere, even somewhere completely different. So I depend upon the musicians to bring something of themselves to this process. In fact, I’d like them to feel that they can be totally themselves while realizing whatever plan I might bring to the table. But it is essential that we all understand that plan so as to fully understand the potential. Also, the music I write is specific to the project and players involved. Rarely does music I write for one ensemble work well for others. There have been a few exceptions.
As for improvising ensembles (where I’m not writing music) it’s all about choosing the players. I need to have a strong and clear idea in mind of what I imagine the sound will be but then just let it go. I may say some things by way of explanation of intent but this can be tricky, it’s very easy to say too much. For the recording Vanishing Point (strings, vibraphone and saxophone) I chose a combination of players that had never played together as a group. And I purposely decided not to get together to rehearse or check out how things might sound. I wanted everything to come together for the first time in the studio while the microphones were on. I was confident in the musicians and I trusted my hunch that it would work. The music flowed very well. We played a few things without any discussion and then as we went I prefaced some of the improvisations by saying a few words. For example, after a few pieces that went towards more pointillistic sounds I said “Let’s make this piece about harmony.” And it had a big impact on the music to say that at the right time, and by not describing what I may have meant by it. I was surprised by how well it worked, but over time I began to second guess whether I was abdicating my position as a leader by not giving enough direction. So at a certain point I simply asked everyone, “Do you want me to say more or do you want me to say less?” “LESS!” came the reply, in perfect unison. I couldn’t have directed that response to be any clearer if I tried.
Interestingly, this question may even apply to playing solo. There can be a certain amount of pressure to approach a solo concert with some preparation, perhaps some strategies or concepts or material to work with. Or even just a concept to go from. All of those things are justifiable and potentially useful. But I’m finding the best results at this stage come from letting the music reveal something to me. Rather than impose an agenda on the process just let the process unfold naturally. It’s taken awhile to be able to fully trust that but the more I do the more possibilities arise.
TC: Although it was released a few years back, I’m curious how Mirage (Clean Feed, 2103), with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and upright bassist Michael Formanek initially came about and how it fits into your purview, as a collective ensemble?
EE: I was invited to put together a group by a musician’s run organization in Baltimore for a festival they were producing. They gave me a list of musicians who were part of their collective and Susan and Mike were on it. Mike I’ve known for many years since when he was living in the New York area. We had played a bit with Gerry Hemingway’s group. Susan and I had never played but I’d been hearing wonderful things about her. I could imagine the sound and so the choice was easy. This first performance was very encouraging and was followed up a bit later by a second performance and recording at Towson University (also in Baltimore), which is Mirage. We recorded the entire performance and then stayed afterwards to record additional material in the same concert hall without an audience. All of the pieces on Mirage are from the after-concert session with the exception of the extended piece “Downburst,” which was live. The music is completely improvised. I especially enjoy this setting as sonically it allows for such great clarity and presence of each voice.
TC: Thinking specifically of your unaccompanied solo set, Solo Live at Snugs, your phrasing is very distinctive and you have an instantly recognizable tone. How did you arrive at your particular sound? Did you have any influential teachers or mentors early on?
EE: I’m sure there are all kinds of influences, everything I hear goes in there in some kind of way. If there is anything unique about it it’s probably the result of at one point having consciously tried modeling my phrasing on things other than a saxophone. That was around the time of my first solo saxophone concert in the early nineties. I’m not sure I can remember all of what was going on and what the timeline of events was, but putting together a program for that first concert kind of forced my hand in getting to the bottom of a number of things that were “in the air” and then putting it all together. Kind of retraining myself. To be honest, a challenging and not altogether pleasant process but ultimately rewarding. Reassessing many of the most basic ideas I had been taking for granted, like “what is a phrase?” A process that raised question after question.
The idea of “training” was in effect with some of the other projects I was also doing at around that same time, such as drummer Joey Baron’s Baron Down. That group really turned my head around musically in ways that I wasn’t sure I was going to like at first. I had a very earnest idea about what a jazz tenor saxophone player was supposed to be all about and Joey put me in a position where I had to let go of that. But when I did it opened up a whole other world of possibilities. And in fact I never really lost anything, it was an expansive experience, and one that I did not see coming, at least in the way it did. Joey showed me how to get the most out of the least. How to change the context of events midstream.
So this process of training involves a certain degree of pushing out of one’s comfort zone. I did the same thing when putting together my group with Andrea and Jim. As with Joey’s band, we rehearsed a lot before doing any concerts. It was a matter of getting things that at first did not seem so natural to become second nature. I did the same thing in preparing the first solo concert, kind of locking myself away for a few months, not playing with anyone else and coming out of it in a very different place than I went into it.
Every one of the ideas that I developed and thought of as my own surely came from somewhere. I think that’s rather true for most anyone. But what makes an expression “one’s own” has everything to do with how it’s all put together. And I think that draws on the totality of one’s experience and outlook as a person.
I investigated a lot of the extremes (at least for me) that I could perceive and execute on the horn at that time. I combined it all with a sense of lyricism but I freely and proudly left things in shards along the way. I was looking for structure in creating unique phrase shapes. Breaking things up and putting the parts back together in as many ways as I could think of. That’s left an indelible mark on my playing. So even as I’ve lately been investigating more of the core of the saxophone’s sound and leaving behind many of the more extended techniques the overall sensibility remains although it’s probably more subtle. At one point I was really trying to explode the horn and at times make it sound like anything but a saxophone. These days I really want it to sound like nothing but a saxophone, at least in terms of those aspects that most define the instrument in its original conception, as invented by its creator, Adolphe Sax, and how it was played into the early twentieth century. Not stylistically but as a matter of knowing what it was built to do and getting the most out of that. I used to think that going away from that was endless, and maybe it is. But surprisingly, I’m finding that going inside, towards the origins of the sound is also endless. Kind of amazing, really.
TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?
EE: I’ve been wanting to commission a contemporary chamber ensemble piece that will allow me to improvise in that setting. I’m making some progress but it’s a longer term of development to get things going in this world so I’m reluctant to say much more at the moment. But it would address many of the fundamental aspects of how I’ve been looking at things lately, musically speaking.
There has been some contemporary music that deals with improvisation in limited ways but to my knowledge nothing to the degree that I’m thinking, in which I might have some sort of compositional license as an improviser. In music that is completely composed, when all the elements are in balance, all the proportions correct, there is a great deal of power that comes out of the resulting focus and clarity. That’s a model for how I like group improvisation to be. And yet I’ll always be an improviser and so I want to deal with a piece of music that might offer that kind of structured environment to work in.
Unlike years ago, when there seemed to be quite a divide between that world and the world of jazz and improvised music, things now seem to be coming closer together. There are a great many gifted composers who have a greater awareness of what’s going on in other areas. Most musicians in jazz and improvised music compose for themselves. But I think that something unique could come from an alliance of this nature. Not any kind of jazz meets classical thing, but a singular language. I can’t quite say what it is but I have enough sense of the possibilities to know that it can work.
© 2016 Troy Collins