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Ellery Eskelin - Ten

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Artist: Ellery Eskelin

Album: Ten

Label: Hatology

Review date: Feb. 17, 2005

It seems amazing that tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s trio with sampler/accordion whiz Andrea Parkins and percussionist Jim Black has been around for a decade. Since their first release Jazz Trash (on Songlines), they have benefited from the support of the Hatology label and have steadily crafted one of the most distinctive group voices in improvised music. For the most part they have explored compositions, constructing frameworks that play to – rather than hamper – their improvisational abilities, yet they have occasionally put together somewhat different projects (such as a quintet adding Joe Daley and Erik Friedlander), as is the case with this recording. Here the trio is joined by vocalist Jessica Constable (who also gets some time on the trio’s recent DVD, a tour documentary), electric bassist Melvin Gibbs, and guitarist Marc Ribot (who also played on Eskelin’s terrific tribute to Gene Ammons, The Sun Died).

These 12 pieces are all apparently composed by Eskelin, but they have a looseness and, more importantly, an openness that feels different than this trio’s work often does. They’re nothing like the crashing miniatures of 12 (+1) Imaginary Views, the thick texturalism of The Secret Museum, or the genre deconstructions of Arcanum Moderne. Instead, this wide-ranging music feels almost like a consolidation of the previous decade’s explorations, even though it contains plenty of surprises; you can hear the whole history of jazz in Eskelin’s horn, as well as this trio’s entire journey in the music they play here.

The uncanny communication of the three primary players is at the heart of the disc, and each of the performances offers a different look at their spontaneity, their integration of voices, their love of both form and freedom. Rare are the tracks where all five players are together; instead, the disc builds over the course of the hour. It begins with a raging Black/Eskelin duet, proceeds from there into Eskelin’s ethereal duo with Constable (they do some lovely co-quavering). The trio proper gets a lot of room to wail, as on the delirious “Anyone’s Guess,” where Parkins’ tone-mashing organ bridges the distance between Black’s off-kilter thudding and Eskelin’s dense, gnomic phrases. “Say it Again” sounds like a standard from Neptune, the disassociative qualities this trio often generates blending with a skewed sense of swinging lyricism. When Melvin Gibbs enters on “Ask to Be,” his unpredictable intervals contrast marvelously not just with Parkins’ cranky keyboards and Eskelin’s fluttering but with Constable’s Björk-ish vocals. “More Than That” is a kind of broken-down funk for Eskelin, Gibbs and Black. Marc Ribot finally makes an appearance on the seventh track, a duet with Eskelin, and plays in his most recent style mixing lushness and fractiousness with greater success than at any other point in his career (he is equally effective on the skulking, hushed “I Couldn’t Say”).

As much as I love listening to these duo and trio pieces, and as much as I appreciate Eskelin’s commitment to variation within the group’s overall discography, I’d love to have heard more sextet improvisations like the crazed “No Illusions” or the powerful closer “Take Me,” which features the only actual lyrics of the entire session. But that’s just taster’s choice. This disc is a fitting tribute to the longevity of one of the finest working bands in improvised music.

By Jason Bivins

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