Jazz: Playing the Duke

Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery tours Israel as part of the Hot Jazz series.

Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery. (photo credit: PR)
Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery.
(photo credit: PR)
Wayne Escoffery’s first professional point of reference was definitively the integrated jazz style of fusion.
It was the likes of fellow saxophonist Joe Henderson who first sparked the London-born, US-raised youngster’s improvisational imagination, although the 40-year-old reedman says he always keeps at least one eye and ear trained on the works of the jazz pantheon guard.
The latter makes Escoffery’s forthcoming tour of this country, as part of the Hot Jazz series, a seamless fit. The nationwide circuit takes in eight shows, from May 9 to May 16, with the program based on scores by iconic pianist, band leader and composer Duke Ellington and Ellington’s longtime score collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.
There will also be some Escoffery originals in the repertoire.
Escoffery has accumulated an impressive discography, putting out nine albums to date, including several that feature vocalists, and a couple with then wife Carolyn Leonhart. With that in mind, it is easy to see why Russian pianistvocalist Natalia Smirnova Butman is in the lineup for the Israeli tour, with the quartet completed by a couple of Israelis, bassist Dor Samoha and drummer Shai Zelman.
“I have worked with Natalia, and also with her husband [drummer] Oleg Butman, quite a bit. We’ve traveled around Russia a lot together. Natalia’s a great musician,” says Escoffery. “I love working with vocalists. I actually don’t work with many and I’d like to work with more.”
The Hot Jazz gigs will provide the saxophonist with an opportunity to feed off Butman’s singing, and the Russian will add her vocals to several numbers in the shows here.
In fact, singing has been a part of Escoffery’s artistic continuum from the word go. He was a member of a boys’ choir, and vocal elements and textures remain a prime source of inspiration. “That was really my first formal musical training, being in a boys’ choir,” he recalls. “It was a great introduction to music.”
Jazz musicians often talk about making their instrument “sing,” and Escoffery seems to have had a head start in that department. It also impacts on his compositional work. “When I write melodies I normally write more lyrical melodies as opposed to melodies with lots of notes,” he states.
“That also affects my playing, for sure. Vocalists have really influenced my playing, so I definitely try to think of myself as singing while I’m playing, rather than just mechanically pushing buttons.”
Escoffery has had substantial help with steering clear of a “mechanical” approach to his craft, and has been able to learn from some of the most creative souls in the jazz game. Over the last 20 or so years, he has shared the band stand with a plethora of celebrated musicians from across several generations, such as now 88-year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trumpeter Clark Terry who died earlier this year at the age of 94, 75-year-old stellar pianist Herbie Hancock and venerated 85-year-old pianist and educator Barry Harris, in addition to his own contemporaries. Escoffery has also been happy to contribute to a more voluminous setup, with the Grammy Award-winning Mingus Big Band.
Alto saxist Jackie McLean, who died in 2006 at the age of 75, was also a powerful influence on the young Escoffery when he attended the Hartt School performing arts conservatory of the University of Hartford, Connecticut. “I consider him kind of my musical father,” says Escoffery. “He took me under his wing when I was about 17 or so, and he brought me to the Hartt School where he taught.”
McLean who himself paid his learning dues with the likes of modern jazz founding father Charlie Parker also provided the youngster with a direct link with the roots of the art form. “I spent a lot of time studying with Jackie, and I really learned about the history of the music and he really set me on the right path, to develop my skills. There’s nothing that beats being able to learn from, and spend time, with a master of the music like Jay Mac [McLean].”
Escoffery maintained a steep and highly prestigious learning curve when he moved on to the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston. “It was a great environment there,” he notes. “It was a very intense environment, and you worked with a small ensemble every day.
All the musicians were at a very high level, and we all took what we were doing very seriously.”
As good as they may be, educational institutions tend to operate in a cloistered, protective environment, so getting some “university of the streets” experience, out there where it really matters, performing for the public, is an indispensable factor in any budding professional musician’s developmental timeline.
“It was a good time to be at NEC, and it was also a good time to be in Boston,” Escoffery recalls.
“There were a lot of great musicians together in Boston at the time – musicians we all know now – people like [trumpeter] Jeremy Pelt, [vibraphonist] Warren Wolf and [36-year-old Israeli saxophonist and Red Sea Jazz artistic director] Eli Degibri. We were all in Boston at the same time.”
In addition to leading his own bands, Escoffery works regularly with acclaimed 68-year-old trumpeter Tom Harrell. I caught their act at the Molde Jazz Festival, in Norway, last summer, and the reedman says he benefits greatly from playing alongside Harrell, on several levels. “Working with Tom, I consider that almost like getting a doctorate, in composition. His composing, it’s really quite amazing. I have seen my composition change and develop over the last few years, and that’s definitely due to Tom Harrell’s influence. His sophisticated harmonic sense and his melodic sense have definitely made a big impact on my writing, and also on my playing. I am lucky to be able to spend so much time with Tom.”
And we are fortunate Escoffery is heading this way, to share some of his lyrical treasures with us.
The Escoffery Quartet tour kicks off at the Rehovot Municipal Conservatory on May 9 at 9 p.m., followed by shows at the Jerusalem Theater (May 11, 9 p.m.), Zappa Club, Herzliya on May 12 (doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.), the Einan Hall in Modi’in on May 13 (9 p.m.), Tel Aviv Museum on May 14 and 15 (9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
respectively) and Abba Hushi House in Haifa on May 16 (9 p.m.). There will also be a children’s show at the Tel Aviv Museum at 11 a.m. on May 16.
For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 and www.hotjazz.co.il