The gifted and convention-busting tenor saxist Ellery Eskelin has appeared regularly in irregular settings over the past 20-odd years, but one of the most ear-stretching (and thus ear-massaging) is this chamberesque jazz group. Eskelin is joined by longtime ally Jim Black on drums, Andrea Parkins on accordion (plus piano and sampler) and the conspicuously free-spirited and improvisation-fluent vocalist Jessica Constable. Added to the group’s mix is Philippe Gelda on keyboards and voice, making for a variegated improv-plus-structured recorded performance, Quiet Music, a two-disc/two-hour set cut more or less live in France’s respected French studio, Studio La Buissonne.
Quiet music? At times, maybe, but hardly soft and easy. Eskelin demonstrates his distinctive mélange of flavors and intensities throughout, and the band exudes intelligence without borders. The album is framed by two extended cuts—suites, if you will. On “Coordinated Universal Time” (11:22) and “Tomorrow is a New Day” (22:35), the project’s stylistic stage is set, between free zones, scored sections and patchwork of planned and spontaneous text between the instrumental waves. “Quiet Music” mulls and lurks, abstractly, while the snaky postbop head on accordion and sax on “Split the Difference” manages to, well, split the difference between a tumbling swing feel and modernist musings. “Like I Say” starts with a steamy sax/drums tete-a-tete, and settles into a simple four-bar phrase, looping hypnotically over Black’s driving-but-tricky groove.
Besides being an impressive and expansive statement of what this unusual band is all about, Quiet Music also marks the throwing of Eskelin’s hat into the expanding ring of artist-run labels, in this case his new company Prime Source. Independence of spirit prevails on the musical and organizational fronts. It’s a fine business-wise how-do-you-do from a veteran-in-training.