Ever since he released his debut recording, Consequences, on Posi-Tone Records in 2008, British pianist John Escreet has persisted in pushing at boundaries. On his subsequent rhythmically adventurous recordings you can hear the influence of avant-pianist Andrew Hill and former teacher Jason Moran, but as beguiling as those recordings were, they were more like really good sketch books with one or two amazing tunes with ideas for days and musician line-ups where everyone, none more so than the pianist, played their ass off.
Sabotage and Celebration, his fifth album, finds Escreet in his element. His inspiration comes from a vortex of musical styles, sounds and instrumentation—he’s a passionate enthusiast for disparate composers like Ligeti, Stevie Wonder, avant-garde jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, McCoy Tyner and the ultra-modern pop group, Knower, as well as current events that transpired during his composing process and the album’s production. These are very good things because the finished music on Sabotage makes it Escreet’s most cohesive and rewarding work.
Since settling in Brooklyn, Escreet has maintained a durable work ethic, releasing four solo albums in six years, playing many sideman gigs, touring with trumpeter Christian Scott throughout Europe and, most importantly, continuing as the pianist in drummer Antonio Sanchez’s group, Migration. In May 2013, Escreet had the distinction of performing a commissioned piece at The Jazz Gallery in New York, and consistent gigs leading groups at various jazz venues around New York and Brooklyn.
If you’ve heard any of his previous four recordings, you’ll recognize the heady mix of jazz fusion, avant-garde improv, alt-rock and rhythm and blues, all of which come together on Sabotage and Celebration in a most effective way. Since the double blast of Escreet’s small group recordings in 2011, The Age We Live In (Mythology) and Exception To The Rule (Criss Cross), the pianist professes that he listens to a lot of string albums, both classical and jazz, and admits he got carried away once the writing process took flight—these tunes were written during the suspension of normalcy in New York after Hurricane Sandy and refined in the studio on November 7, 2012, the day after the US re-election of President Obama. When a youthful jazz musician (Escreet is just under 30) describes his creative process as being driven by making new music, you listen to his records with an ear tilted for the unexpected and Escreet certainly, confidently, delivers a from-beginning-to-end listening experience that’s boldly expressive.
The album begins with a simmer of live strings, a gentle wave of harmony that dissolves into an off-kilter melody. A darker mood is established, the dramatic element a distinct Escreet trademark, and this brief prologue comes to its end, unresolved and unrequited, before shifting to the funky rhythm that drives track two, “He Who Dares.” This excellent tune is thrillingly cohesive with a sweet front end of blended horns. Tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and alto player Davis Binney make for a slippery duo, their horn parts characterize the staccato melody and flow-through to Escreet’s proud theme. Here, the leader has one of his sharpest and most pleasurable solos, flavored with Hancock-like licks, yet certainly Escreet’s own.
The 11-minute+ centerpiece of the album, the title track, has it’s own definitive arc fueled by the pianist’s frustration with oppressive American voter ID laws, the disenfranchisement of a huge swath of American voters, the tension on election night and the literal celebration of its outcome. This composition covers these many moods and feelings—it’s outrageously ambitious and challenging. Escreet teases with a spare, haunting theme, rolls in a fog of strings, ominous and pregnant with suspense, which mutate into a thrash of horns, an aural pummeling from Potter and Binney whose dueling instruments shriek in tandem until they fade into Escreet’s placating piano. This section, an ode to the avant-garde, shifts to a modern jazz vein, albeit fast-pitched and lifted by bassist Matt Brewer, the authentically soulful drummer Jim Black and a killer piano hook.
There’s the tuneful pop-flavored “Laura Angela” with a buoyant Fender Rhodes feature for Escreet, pegged with a back-in-the-day CTI/Bob James-derived groove. His “Animal Style” jumps out with a skewed melody, fierce Jim Black beats, elastic Brewer bass and a tight blend of horns. The last track is perhaps the album’s best. “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams” is an hallucinatory fantasy that combines the beauty of Escreet’s writing with guest guitarist Adam Rogers’ sinewy fretwork, the ethereal vocals of LA pop-performance artists Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi, a glorious ocean of multi-tracked strings, extra bleats of brass from trumpeter Shane Endsley and trombonist Josh Roseman, a funky backbeat of handclaps, a rapturous soprano sax solo from Binney, all the while with Escreet moving and grooving on harpsichord(!).
Is it too much? Not when so many distinct elements seamlessly flow together and it ultimately crowns Sabotage and Celebration as a singular achievement that spotlights John Escreet at his best. This album is definitively the proper way to experience his outsized talent. (7 tracks; 51 minutes). To read more about John Escreet, read Nick's interview with the pianist/composer on his blog, JazzInSpace.blogspot.com
This article is from the November 2013 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.