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Flying Home

Jazz saxophonist Ellery Eskelin revisits his Baltimore roots

Ben Constable
Michael Galinsky
Eskelin with Andrea Parkins (right) and Jim Black.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/3/2010

Ellery Eskelin plays concerts at Towson University's Recital Hall on March 3 and March 5.

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One of the past decade's landmark avant-garde jazz albums was recorded at Towson University on Dec. 9, 2007. Released in 2009 as One Great Night . . . Live and credited to "Ellery Eskelin with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black," the CD was remarkable for its unusual instrumentation, its unusual approach to composition/improvisation dilemma, and the unusual degree of road-tested rapport among its three musicians. These qualities had been evident in the trio's 10 previous studio recordings, but on this night there was an extra emotional edge, for this was a homecoming for Eskelin.

He was coming home to the school where he earned his bachelor's degree in music in 1981. He was coming home to the Baltimore area, where he had lived from age 2 (when he moved from Los Angeles, in 1961) to age 24 (when he moved to New York, in 1983). He was coming home to the region where his mother Bobbie Lee had led an organ trio in the early '60s and where her son had learned his craft in the '70s, mostly through hundreds of jam sessions with such local legends as Mickey Fields, Arnold Sterling, and Gary Bartz.

You can hear an echo of that soulful Baltimore sound when Eskelin's tenor sax opens One Great Night . . . Live with an unaccompanied melody, full-chested and tender. None of his Maryland mentors, however, ever played in a trio with an accordionist and drummer, and when Parkins' squeezebox enters with an unexpected harmony, "The Decider" takes a left turn into eerie, free improvisation. Black's brushes slap out a beat that doesn't so much reinforce the saxophone rhythm as provide a conversational counter to it. This three-way dialogue is as unplanned as it sounds, but two-and-a-half minutes into the piece, Black picks up his sticks, knocks out a funky push-and-pull pattern, and Eskelin and Parkins jump into an obviously pre-planned passage as physically forceful as the opening had been tentative and exploratory. After a minute-and-a-half of that, the unity splinters into more free improvisation.

It's an extraordinary piece, for it stands ordinary jazz practice on its head. Instead of playing the theme first and then improvising on that tune and its chord changes, Eskelin has composed a piece that begins with open-ended improvisation and only later brings the three players together for a theme that bears only a remote connection to what preceded it. There are no conventional solos, no conventional accompaniment, for all three musicians are in the foreground at all times. Sometimes they're making it up as they go; sometimes they're playing a notated section, and it's the contrast in those sudden shifts that gives this piece--and most of Eskelin's recent compositions--its drama. It's an approach that accommodates his Baltimore roots as well as his 27 years as a member of New York's downtown scene.

"The head-solo-head approach to jazz and even certain types of free improvisation associated with the '60s began to feel limiting," Eskelin explains, "just because it seemed as if everything had been done within them by the time I started to play.

"If I tell a group of musicians, 'We're going to improvise freely without any [written] music,' several things aren't going to happen," he continues. "You're not going to have any rhythmic unison and no melodic themes, and I want those elements in my compositions. So I say, 'After such and such a time, I want the drummer to play this rhythm,' or 'I want us all to play this theme.' But I don't want to lock it down. I want to give them a lot of freedom to decide what they're going to do after the drummer plays that rhythm, after that melody ends."

That negotiation among the three musicians, that give-and-take between the music's determined and undetermined sections, marks all of Eskelin's music. On that particular night in Towson, however, there was something extra, a sense of closure, of returning with an original sound and a web site full of glowing reviews to the city he'd left as a skinny, unfocused, unknown kid. He's having that feeling again right now, having returned to Towson University March 1 for a week-long residency. He's conducting workshops (free and open to the public; check with the school's Improvisation Ensemble toward a Friday, March 5 concert (open to the public but ticketed). Eskelin will also play a ticketed concert at Towson University on Wednesday, March 3, with his latest quartet, featuring trumpeter Dave Ballou, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Devin Gray.

Ballou still remembers the night Eskelin recorded One Great Night . . . Live. As the current coordinator of jazz studies at Towson's music department, it was Ballou who invited Eskelin's trio to the school's recital hall that night. It was Ballou who encouraged student Tempee Warmack to set up microphones all over the school's recital hall. There was no expectation that the tape would ever be released, but when Eskelin got Warmack's rough mix in the mail, he was so impressed by the clarity of the sound and the emotion of the performance that he put aside his longstanding prejudice against live recordings and asked his Swiss label, hatOLOGY, if it would release the concert. It did.

"Ellery has a lot of ties to this area," Ballou points out, "but no one has brought him back here because he's not a straight-ahead player and he's not totally free-improv. He fits into the cracks--which I totally identify with. There wasn't an announcement that this was Ellery's homecoming, but it worked out that way. Joe Briscuso, his old saxophone teacher at Towson, was here, and they were reminiscing. Jim and Andrea were sensitive to that. Tempee set up way more mics than you would expect, so it has an unusual depth for a live recording.

"The trio played some during the afternoon workshop, then they talked over the music as they ate dinner before the concert," Ballou continues. "Because they'd already played in the room that day, there was a good vibe when they came back. And because they had been introduced to the music during the workshop, the students were more open to it than they might have [otherwise been]. Plus, there were elements--Andrea's electronics and Jim's rock--that connected to non-jazz music the students listen to. To me, that's what jazz is really about--a process of creating new music out of your influences. If you look back at the history of jazz over the past 100 years, that's what it's all about. Styles and influences can change, but the process is ongoing."

"It was a little disorienting to be in that building again," Eskelin admits, "because it took me back to being a student again. I walked in and thought, I'm here for my saxophone lesson. No, wait, I'm here to give the lesson. So that was a little strange. But we had just come off a European tour, so the trio was in really good form. We had just done a workshop with the students, so we were thinking about the music. The sound was very good in that hall. It all came together."

Eskelin's parents met in Baltimore. Bobbie Blankenship, raised in Dundalk, was already an accomplished organist when pianist Rodney Eskelin came to town to handle the music at a local church. Soon they were a couple and a musical team, performing as Rodd and Bobbie on the TV show, Just a Song at Twilight, in Wichita, Kan. That's where Ellery was born in 1959, but soon the family was in Los Angeles, trying to break into showbiz. By the time they were on the brink of homelessness, Bobbie took her 18-month-old son back to Dundalk and began to lead her own organ trio at local lounges.

Ellery never knew his father, who died in 1974 after he either leapt or fell from an overpass onto the Hollywood Freeway. It wasn't until 1994 that the son learned that his father had been a key figure in the song-poem business. This was the scam where magazine ads asked readers to send in their lyrics to be turned into records by professional musicians--for a fee, of course. Most of those discs were as generic as you might expect, but some had an eccentric originality, and record collectors started hunting for anything credited to Rodd Keith or Rod Rogers, Rodney Eskelin's aliases. Ellery tracked down Beat of the Traps, a compilation of his father's song-poem work, and realized just how talented his absent father had been. In fact, when Jamie Meltzer's documentary film, Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, was released in 2003, the first person you saw on screen was Ellery Eskelin.

"I got home and put the record on," Eskelin has written about his first purchase of Beat of the Traps. "It was bizarre. My mind stopped working. It was clearly some sort of attempt at pop music but, man, was it strange. It was like nothing I had ever heard and I loved it. The words were rather odd and the music was blatantly fucked up, but it was also really charming. Rodd's cuts really sparkled. He sang and played with a zest and enthusiasm that turned each twisted song into a gem."

Bobbie Lee continued to lead her organ trio until 1966 when her second husband asked her to stop. "I used to crawl around on her organ pedals as a baby," Eskelin recalls. "Even after she stopped playing in the clubs, she played at a lot of house parties, either at our house or at our friends', because many people in Baltimore had a [Hammond] B-3 in those days. My first saxophone teacher, Jimmy Oronson, played with her.

"She didn't think of herself as a jazz player--she played standards and stuck to the melody, but she had a fantastic sense of swing. She really had her own sound. From the time I was a little kid, I lived in a world of adults. When I first went to school, it seemed weird to be with all these little kids. Maybe it wasn't the healthiest of environments, but it was all about the music. At some point, they'd say, 'Get your horn,' and I'd play 'My Funny Valentine' or 'Night Train.' To this day, I still love melody because of her."

While he was still at Woodlawn High School, Eskelin began attending the summer clinics led by the Stan Kenton Orchestra at Towson State, as it was known then. So it was inevitable that Eskelin would enroll at the school, where the jazz program was led by Hank Levy, the noted composer and arranger for Kenton and Don Ellis. Long before Dave Brubeck popularized the concept with "Take Five," Levy was experimenting with odd time signatures, and he had his Towson students playing in 5/4, 7/4, and 11/4.

"Hank was someone you just liked to be around," Eskelin remembers. "He was excited about what he was doing and you were excited to be doing it with him. Most college bands were repertory bands, but we weren't. We played Hank's compositions. It wasn't a well-rounded jazz education, perhaps, but it provided something more important in jazz--we had an original sound. We had a lot of freedom to find ourselves as soloists. We could fall on our faces, but I was able to pursue my idiosyncrasies without having a college jazz program iron them out."

Eskelin got the missing parts of his education in Baltimore's black nightclubs. He and his peers--bassist Drew Gress, also a Towson student; saxophonist Tom McCormick; D.C. pianist Marc Copland; Baltimore pianist Bob Butta--would show up at the Bird Cage or the Jazz Closet and wait for their chance to sit in with the band. In those days, black Baltimore was in love with the sound of saxophonist Sonny Stitt and organist Jimmy Smith, and the town had its own heroes--saxophonist Mickey Fields, organist Charles Covington, and guitarist O'Donel Levy--who could hold their own with the national artists who came to town.

"We all loved Mickey, and Ellery did, too," Butta recounts. "The old guys were good to us, but they were strict about learning this music correctly--they always stressed that you've got to know those tunes. They'd call tunes we didn't know, and we'd be embarrassed. But they were always in Ellery's corner about growing. He never really was a bebopper, though he could play standards, but he always had an edge to him. I remember Henry Baker, the owner of the Closet, telling me, 'That boy is going to be a really great tenor saxophone player.'"

"Mickey Fields was a world-class musician," Eskelin insists, "but for whatever reason he chose to stay in Baltimore. He was incredibly soulful in his sound and delivery, but he could play anything on the horn. Sonny Stitt was not adverse to humiliating people who got on his stage with him, but Mickey was someone who could hold his own. He was a completely generous and positive spirit, especially to us younger musicians. He wasn't going to yell at you--he was going to lift you up."

Eskelin, though, was not going to stay in Baltimore as Fields did. After graduating from Towson in 1981, he spent a year and a half on the road with the Buddy Morrow Big Band. In 1983, Eskelin threw his horn and clothes into Butta's Toyota station wagon and moved into a tiny Manhattan apartment. He was soon playing with saxophonist Junior Cook and organist Jack McDuff, and taking lessons from saxophonist George Coleman. But even if Eskelin's heart had been in traditional, mainstream jazz, the old system of working one's way from jam sessions to sideman gigs to small-label deals to big-label deals had broken down, the victim of too many players and too few gigs.

So he decided to pursue his own interests, finding new combinations of instruments, new approaches to structure and harmony. By 1987, he had formed his first recording band, Joint Venture, which included Gress, trumpeter Paul Smoker, and drummer Phil Haynes. In 1994, he formed his trio with Parkins and Black. Along the way, he has also recorded with such cutting-edge figures as Joe Lovano, Marc Ribot, Thurston Moore, Joey Baron, Regina Carter, Eugene Chadbourne, Han Bennink, Sylvie Courvoisier, and more.

"I realized there weren't enough gigs for the seven thousand saxophonists in town," he recalls of his arrival in New York in the '80s. "It was a conservative era, both politically and musically, with guys wearing suits and ties and playing hard-bop. I was this oddball jazz guy who didn't fit into the mainstream scene, even though that's what I came to New York to do. A lot of other guys were going to get the call from Art Blakey before I was--those older guys were dying off, and if we didn't get something together of our own it wasn't going to happen. So we started forming our own bands and finding our own venues. Over time, there were enough people in my position who came out of jazz but were doing something left of center to form a critical mass."

No matter how unconventional Eskelin's music has been, it can always be traced back to his roots in Baltimore--to the bluesy sound of Mickey Fields' saxophone, to the unusual rhythms of Hank Levy, to Bobbie Lee's unabashed affection for melody, to Rodney Eskelin's willingness to try anything. When he returns to Towson this week, he will be reawakening those ghosts and letting them loose through his horn.

"I don't want anyone to think I don't love the jazz tradition," he insists. "Anyone who hears the sound that comes out of my horn knows I've listened to those guys and absorbed their sound. I don't want to push that off the table--I just want to use it in a new way. That's not any different than what's happened in jazz down through the years. The goal is to surprise the listener." ?

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