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Ellery Eskelin: Forms

Forms is a rerelease of Ellery Eskelin’s 1990 recording of the same name on the Open Minds label. It features the tenor saxophonist’s late-’80s trio with drummer Phil Haynes and bassist Drew Gress. The album is made up of plainly titled originals (along with a pair of jazz classics-Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” and Gillespie’s “Bebop”), obviously meant to show-off Eskelin’s considerable range to best advantage. “Blues” isn’t a blues, but it’s got a strong blues feel, using a “Killer Joe”-type riff to set up a hard-swinging solo section. “In Three” is a harmonically amorphous waltz-time tune, “Ballad” is, well, a ballad. You get the idea.

A notable aspect of Eskelin’s work is the way he balances frenzy and control; while you never get the feeling he’s holding back, his most emotionally intense moments are typically as cogent as his theme statements-faster and more complex, perhaps, but just as clearly spoken. Gress and Haynes form a dynamite rhythm section, equally adept at swinging and tearing down the house.

The argument can be made that, in New York during the ’90s, too many jazz musicians took an either/or stand: they were either total free-blowing improv heads or card-carrying members of the Church of Wynton. Like his contemporary and fellow saxophonist, the late Thomas Chapin, Eskelin managed to bring together the best of both worlds. While he’s certainly favored experimentalism, Eskelin’s skill in dealing with jazz conventions lends his music depth. Not a lot of post-free players evince so thorough an understanding of older forms, and even fewer manage to so seamlessly incorporate them into a modern concept. I’d like to hear Eskelin return to this style of playing more often.

The DVD On the Road is an hour or so of Eskelin’s homemade video (with the attendant lower-than-low production values) documenting his band’s summer 2003 European tour. Eskelin’s current and long-standing trio with accordionist/samplist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black (with guest vocalist Jessica Constable) are shown on- and offstage at various small venues all over Europe. It’s a good band, yet you’d never know it by watching this misbegotten mess. The intent is presumably to do a cinema verite documentary of what it’s like to tour with a group of wild and crazy jazzbos. Instead, it’s an incoherent shambles-haphazardly slapped together, chronologically confused and lacking sufficient explanation as to who these people are and what the hell’s going on. The sound’s bad, the editing’s bad-shall I go on? Only hard-core Eskelin fans-say, his immediate family-might find this DVD interesting.

Originally Published