Monday, February 26, 2018

CD Review: Wayne Escoffery - Vortex

Wayne Escoffery

Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery's latest album was born out of the social/political climate of the previous year, as he is raising a young son in the midst of "an age of unconscious white privilege and empowered white nationalists, in an age of increased gun violence and brutality against children and young black men, and in an age where the people leading the country are the ones exemplifying  the worst in men and scaring youth rather than inspiring them," as he states in the liner notes. (One can only imagine how he felt two weeks ago, following the shootings in Parkland, Florida.) When Escoffery grew up, born in England of Jamaican descent and living in the United States, he dealt with issues of racism and not being "black enough," so the fact that he was having to deal with these issues all over again as a parent was troubling.

It makes an intense topic which Escoffery uses it to release passion and conviction in his playing. Vortex features his first recordings with pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. They have been playing together for two years, though the saxophonist also worked with Peterson and Okegwo in other settings.

The group's cohesion is evident in the album's opening moments. "Vortex" is propelled by a rapid tenor line. Both Escoffery and Kikoski seem right at home, firing off solos at this blurry tempo. The instrumentation for the majority of the album, as well as the musical execution, evokes the classic John Coltrane Quartet.  "Judgement," which serves as an intro to Peterson's "Acceptance," adds to that. Without sounding like an imitation to their forefathers, the brief rubato theme, with piano runs and loose drums fills, has a contemplative quality even as it pushes forward. "Acceptance" follow immediately, rolling along in 15/4, emphasizing one rhythm in the theme and another beneath the solos. The quartet takes to the groove naturally, revealing the depth of their unique rapport. Escoffery's solo features him taking a scalar line, reshaping it through repetition and pushing himself further.

For an update of "To the Ends of the Earth," a standard done by Nat "King" Cole," Escoffery consciously puts it in Coltrane context. Kikoski begins by playing the vamp from "My Favorite Things" to ground the melody. When the group proceeds with the theme, it recalls the way Coltrane himself reshaped "Out of This World" in a similar manner. It includes a few Trane-style wails in the solo but again, Escoffery uses them more as a tip of the hat on the way with his own solo.

Vortex also includes trumpeter Jeremy Pelt on "In His Eyes," adding warmth to a mid-tempo Escoffery original. The track is one of two where Peterson gives the kit over to young drummer Kush Abadey. The regular quartet is also joined by percussionist Jaquelene Acevedo on three tracks. Both Abadey and Acevedo appear on "The Devil's Den," a minor key piece inspired by the current administration. Heard in that context, the wails from Escoffery's soprano and the chord that the band punctuates at the end of each chorus both make sense. Which is another way of saying that the song's back story doesn't need to be known to fully appreciate it, but it can make the listener more conscious of the structure when it does. Tense times have once again created a strong piece of art.

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