A saxophonist with expansive lungs and razor tone, Ellery Eskelin is one badass tenor. On his latest recording, Arcanum Moderne (hatOLOGY) with accordionist/sampler Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black, his earnest liner notes nearly match the revelatory intensity of his music.
Try on Eskelin's probing words: "What is it that people are applauding when we play?" he wonders. "It's certainly not about me and trying to impress the crowd ... But then I realize why I'm attracted to music in the first place. It makes me feel like a human being." He adds ruefully, "Hopefully, it has the same effect on them."
In these cold-blooded times, imagine that: music that makes an audience of humans feel like, oh, humans. Perhaps unwittingly, Eskelin has just come up with a proper definition of his own bristling music. And who better to describe art than the artist, this multi-dimensional composer-improviser-troubadour? A musician with deep soul and boundless imagination, Eskelin deserves every hyphen.
In what promises to be the jazz event of the season, listeners can judge for themselves what his band's heady combination of sax, squeezebox and skins really means when Eskelin-Parkins-Black land onstage at Adaron Hall in downtown Durham on Thursday, Oct. 16.
Six years ago, in the Alliance for Improvised Music's second-ever concert, EP+B presented an unforgettable performance. These days, the threesome is tighter--and no less rambunctious, a precocious jazz-inflected cooperative with a punk aesthetic.
"We will have been together 10 years in March '04," Eskelin said in an interview via e-mail with The Independent last week. "It's just been a real good combination, I guess. We each have different approaches to playing, yet the there's enough in common to hold it all together. Plus, Andrea and Jim will try most anything I ask of them."
In an era when most bands seem to coalesce and then explode in a matter of nanoseconds; EP+B is the exception. And because of the personal telepathy developed over a near-decade of one-nighters and endless van rides traversing the U.S. and Europe, each player knows the other the other's every nod and twitch.
On stage, Eskelin answers Parkins' abrupt blast of dissonance with staccato bleats, part blue-saxophone, and part joyous barnyard cacophony. Meanwhile, Black, a hyperkinetic rush of sticks and cymbals, answers with an eruption of rim shots. Was that an angry knock at the door? Nope, just a drummer with sensitive ears and hair-trigger reflexes reacting to the world around him. That's the sound of a Band, my friend, with a capital B.
Born in Wichita, Kan. and raised in Baltimore, Eskelin discovered early on that he possessed the musician's gene. His dad, who lived in Los Angeles, was a composer. Back at home, his mom worked the local club circuit.
"She played the Hammond organ professionally in Baltimore under the name of Bobbie Lee," Eskelin explains. "She played six nights a week for many years. She doesn't consider herself a jazz musician, but she played standards with a very swinging feel."
So at a tender age, Eskelin was exposed to the colorful compositional palette of George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Those rich hues still enhance his playing and writing to this day. "I first learned standards from her," he said of his mother. "I would sing and hum tunes like 'Satin Doll' and 'Cherokee' at 5 or 6 years old."
As a teenager, Eskelin attended annual music camps hosted by Stan Kenton's orchestra at Towson State University, where he later attended college and played in a jazz ensemble led by former Kenton arranger Hank Levy. Following graduation in 1981, he hit the road for a year and a half with trombonist Buddy Morrow. A lifetime of tough but fulfilling dues-paying had begun.
By 1983, Eskelin was ready for a pilgrimage to jazz's mecca, New York City, where both talented players and flamboyant pretenders compete for work. While studying with well-known saxophonists like Dave Liebman and George Coleman, he gigged with an impressive array of experienced bandleaders, including the legendary organist Jack McDuff. In a neat twist of fate, McDuff played a B3, the same instrument his mother adored. Blending McDuff's ice-cool blues and his mom's pretty standards into his own voice on the saxophone, Eskelin was finally ready to step to the front of the bandstand.
Following stints with the Mikal Rouse Broken Consort (a "rock-chamber" group) and Phil Haynes' 4 Horns & What?, Eskelin joined forces with drummer Joey Baron, a fiery percussionist with a mischievous 'tude. That combo, Baron Down, see-sawed crazily between raucous indulgence and turn-on-a-dime precision, like a loud cabaret band gone lunatic. By 1984, the stage was set for the formation of Eskelin-Parkins-Black.
Tamer than Baron Down, yet interactive to the max, EP+B utilizes the full dynamic range. Seven discs on, they're still feeling each other out, trying to discover what lies at the core of their collective identity. So they rage on; they whisper. And they exchange roles, shedding the customary responsibilities of their respective instruments, just to keep things interesting.
Of course, merely interesting doesn't cut it when music of a rarefied order is the ultimate goal. And that's what Eskelin, Parkins and Black strive for every time they unpack the van and go-eyeball to eyeball with another audience in search of inspiration. On Thursday night in Durham--with a little luck--this meeting could be magical.