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Ellery Eskelin - Quiet Music

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Artist: Ellery Eskelin

Album: Quiet Music

Label: Prime Source

Review date: Mar. 7, 2007

It’s not an inaccurate title, but I think Subtle Music might have worked better. But regardless, this latest Eskelin dispatch – a double-disc – is a corker. Following on the footsteps of Ten (which turns out to have been the last in a long line of Hatology releases, now that Eskelin has returned to his own Prime Source imprint), the tenor saxophonist’s long-standing trio with Andrea Parkins (piano, organ, accordion, sampler) and percussionist Jim Black is supplemented by vocalist Jessica Constable.

Still using a working methodology of recording at the end of tours, when the music is well-lubricated, the band has shaken their sound up a bit (not least by augmenting the trio on recent releases). While some fans of this group – one of the best working bands of the last decade – have professed not to like the stylistic shifts, I find them admirable. And anyways, the change isn’t global. All of Eskelin’s music begins with tone, after all, that marvelous tenor voice that has so many characteristics – deep mahogany, a throaty quaver, a slight acidity during one of his trademark multi-register runs – but is so distinctly Eskelin. Just listen to him work the circular speed riff on which “The Curve” is built. Is there anyone else who can sound so out and yet so like Ben Webster in a single phrase? It’s nice to hear so much unaccompanied Ellery on this track, by the way, and at the very end of “Tomorrow is a New Day,” the pounding and intense 20-minute finale.

Constable sounds fully at home with the group now. Part of this is surely because she’s a fine, inventive improviser (and I’m pretty critical of a lot of vocal improvisers) but also because Eskelin writes so well for her. Listen to how they work subtly on the boundary of pure freedom and abstract composition on “Let’s Change the Subject.” Ironically, there’s even more space in the band with this additional voice. Black still interpolates rhythmic idioms and Parkins is still a tone-mashing wild card, but there are vast open areas in tracks like “Coordinated Universal Time” and also in the hiccups and pauses of the title track, with Constable summoning ghosts. “I Should Have Known” is filled with gorgeous abstracted lyricism, fragments of melody that seem familiar, with Parkins’ alien chord sequences provoking the whole time. The closest they get to actual song form is on the lovely (albeit elliptical) “Read My Mind” and the gently lolling “Like I Say” (where the group is joined by pianist Philippe Gelda, who also guests with organ and vocals on the liturgical sounding “La Berceuse d’Angela”). “48 A & B” not only has a Braxtonian title but also flashes with some Brax-like moments where Eskelin and Black shift on a dime from pitch-bending free play to a staggered pulse track. And for those craving some heat, cue up the straight-up improv-core propulsion of “Split the Difference” (one of only two tracks, along with the fractured jazz of “Cuarenta y Neueve,” with the original trio).

To me, it’s just not a satisfying musical year without a document from this band. Thankfully, they’re as vital and idiosyncratic, as gorgeously strange as ever.

By Jason Bivins

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