More than a decade after issuing his debut LP, John Escreet finally felt prepared for a rite of passage: recording his first trio album.
On 2022’s Seismic Shift—unlike on his past six offerings as a leader—there wasn’t a guitar, saxophone or trumpet to accompany Escreet. Instead, the English pianist was solely bolstered by Eric Revis’ woody, booming upright bass and the supple snap of Damion Reid’s drums. Just like Ahmad Jamal on At the Pershing, Bill Evans on Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Duke Ellington on Money Jungle, there was nowhere in the soundfield for Escreet to hide.
Not that he would need to: several of his key collaborators agree that he could have done this earlier.
“I would have argued that John was ready a long time ago for a trio record,” says saxophonist David Binney, who accompanied Escreet on his first five records as a leader and put him in his bands. “John has had the goods for a long time,” says drummer Antonio Sánchez, his longtime employer as part of his band, Migration. “This is one of those moments where you have to just do it,” Reid adds. “Who knows how long he would have felt ready? But he seems like he’s comfortable playing with me, and we have a connection musically.”
Let’s hear it from the man himself: what compelled him to wait until now?
“It was an honest and accurate reflection of what was happening in my musical life at that moment in time,” he tells JazzTimes plainly. “Which would happen to be me delving into a trio format with Eric Revis and Damion Reid.” But a tossed-off insight about an older album provides even more insight into what makes this guy tick: “I will not record some s—t before it’s ready. I refuse. I will not do it.”
This declaration speaks to both Escreet’s smoldering intensity—which is bracing even through a Zoom window—and his commendable restraint as an artist.
“That’s very respectable and mature to wait until you have something to say,” Sánchez notes. “If you’re a good jazz musician, it’s so easy to get a trio together, go into the studio, and play some tunes. A lot of people do that, and I think it dilutes the art form.”
Because of Escreet’s needle-sharp intent, top-tier rhythm section, and inspired compositions and improvisations, Seismic Shift doesn’t dilute anything one iota. Rather, it’s a terrific entry in the pantheon of luminous, challenging jazz-piano-trio albums.
“I was always serious [in school], but there were little eight- and nine-year-old prodigies running around, just tearing up Rachmaninoff concertos.”
Manchester to Manhattan
Not bad for an artist born into a nonmusical family. Escreet was born in 1984 in Doncaster, England. Despite not being musically inclined, his parents were supportive; they enrolled him in piano lessons when he was four. Early on, televised pop acts with live musicians—especially those with jazz players—stimulated his imagination. When he was 14, he enrolled in Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester.
“It was a classical-music school; it was hardcore training,” Escreet describes. “I was always serious about what I was doing, but there were little eight- and nine-year-old prodigies running around, just tearing up Rachmaninoff concertos, for example.”
Naturally—given his temperament—he didn’t buckle under that pressure, but thrived on it; today, he calls his Chetham’s experience “a great environment to be in during a very important time in my life.” He graduated from the school at 18, and studied as an undergrad at the Royal Academy of Music in London for four years.
Which pianists got Escreet going early on, influence-wise? “I’ve always been into the obvious, famous piano players, but also into the slightly more adventurous and obscure ones who can really get my attention,” he says, citing Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor, and Andrew Hill—as well as Stanley Cowell, a lesser-known figure who would go on to loom large in Seismic Shift. From the contemporary crop, Escreet shouts out Jason Moran, Craig Taborn, and the late Geri Allen.
In 2006, a 22-year-old Escreet emigrated to New York and began a two-year master’s program at the Manhattan School of Music. Two years later, he graduated and released his debut album as a leader, Consequences, featuring Binney, bassist Matt Brewer, and two top-flight innovators at the beginning of their ascents: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.
In his early years, Escreet performed with Sorey in a couple of his early bands: one a quartet with saxophonist Aaron Stewart and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, the other a quintet featuring saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Todd Neufield, and bassist Christopher Tordini, which went on to record Sorey’s 2011 album Oblique.
“I think [the Consequences tour] it was Ambrose’s first time in Europe, and Tyshawn in that era … it was just hysterical,” Binney says. “And seeing John’s hometown … it’s just such another world.”
Escreet’s senior by more than 20 years and an already-known quantity on the New York scene, Binney took the pianist under his wing at the outset of his career and got him his first record deal.
Early on, he says, Escreet was “kind of straight-ahead, and kind of anti-anything that wasn’t straight-ahead. We used to have discussions about that. I tried to open him up a little bit into other things, and he did open up into other things… I just tried to help him out, because I liked him and thought he had something to offer.”
The pianist followed up Consequences with 2010’s Don’t Fight the Inevitable, for Binney’s label, Mythology Records. That album featured the same group, but with Nasheet Waits in lieu of Sorey. “I remember him having a lot of vitality in his playing,” Waits says about Escreet. “He was always alert, astute… I can hear echoes of Jason [Moran] in his playing, because he spent quite a bit of time studying with him.” He branched out stylistically with his next Mythology offering, The Age We Live In, featuring Binney, guitarist Wayne Krantz, and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
“That was a departure from the old band,” Escreet says of that album, which The Guardian described as possessing “a jolting contemporary-funk feel peppered with Binney’s twisting alto-sax melodies.” “I kind of shifted, because I wanted to get into some other area of music that I was interested in.”
Binney then helped Escreet get a record date for Criss Cross, which resulted in 2011’s Exception to the Rule. Binney was back, with a reconstituted rhythm section: Eivind Opsvik on bass and Waits on drums. “Those sessions [for Criss Cross] are kind of a quick, one-day thing,” Escreet says. “[Nasheet] knew a lot of the book, and a lot of the music … therefore, minimal preparation was needed.
“Not to be lazy,” Escreet clarifies. “It’s just that I wanted to capture something that was ongoing and currently happening.”
Enter the Whirlwind
Escreet had known bassist and Whirlwind Recordings founder Michael Janisch since he was 19 or 20; that connection led to 2013’s Sabotage and Celebration, his first for the label. His final record with Binney as an accompanist to date, it found the pair accompanied by Brewer, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Jim Black. That quintet had done some gigs together in November 2011; they could have recorded together then, but Escreet demurred. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is good, but it’s not ready to record yet,’” he says. They ended up nailing it in the studio the following year, during Hurricane Sandy time.
“I was into string writing,” Escreet says of his creative mindset during that time. “Which was not featured so much on The Age We Live In, but Sabotage and Celebration starts out with that orchestral string piece.” All involved stretched out in the arranging and post-production processes: “It’s all over the place,” Escreet marvels. “It’s an epic, wide-ranging album.”
Following Sabotage and Celebration were two albums for Sunnyside Records: 2014’s Sound, Space and Structures and 2016’s The Unknown, both featuring saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. “[Those two albums] go back to a trio I had with John Hébert and Tyshawn, about 10 years ago,” he explains, with an addendum that’s something of a refrain: “I didn’t feel I was strong enough to record the trio at that time.”
Augmented by Parker, the group recorded both Sunnyside albums in a purely improvised format. (“There’s not a note of composed music on either of those albums,” he adds.) He characterizes Parker as a “free-jazz icon,” and the experience of recording with him “hugely significant for me.”
Sound, Space and Structures divided those extemporaneous creations into “bite-sized chunks”; The Unknown, organized as a 45-minute part one and 29-minute part two, recorded on the same tour of the Netherlands, is more reflective of that quartet’s live show.
Escreet followed that improvisational dyad with 2018’s heavily electronic Learn to Live, his first (and to date, only) album for BRM Records. Joining him there were trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Greg Osby, bassist Brewer, and two simultaneous drummers: Eric Harland and Justin Brown.
“I hate to use the word fusion, but it’s definitely more in that zone,” Escreet says, citing his use of Rhodes and Prophet synthesizer. “It couldn’t be more different than the new one I just put out.” He means Seismic Shift, which—like each of its predecessors—was simply an effort to document where he was at in his musical life.
“If you’re into the real s—t, check out Stanley Cowell. If you’re into the fake s—t, don’t bother.”
Breaking It Down
Seismic Shift initiates with “Study No. 1.” “As the very boring title suggests, it’s a piano study,” Escreet says dryly. “A slightly older piano study that I wrote, just to address some technical issues on the piano.” He means the rhythmic dimensions of his left-hand playing — and the results are far from boring, but bracing and cerebral.
“Equipoise” is a piece by Stanley Cowell, a brilliant pianist, composer, and educator who only belatedly got his flowers despite performing with Max Roach, Charles Tolliver, Art Pepper, Bobby Hutcherson, and other leading lights. “He’s something of an underdog, and he only got his dues toward the end of his life,” Escreet explains. He got acquainted with “Equipoise,” one of Cowell’s better-known compositions, via the version on Cowell’s 1974 solo-piano record Musa: Ancestral Streams; after Cowell passed in 2020, Escreet communed with the album like never before.
“It really is kind of simple in some ways, but it gets straight to the heart of things,” Escreet says of “Equipoise.” “It’s hard to describe; it’s melodic, but it’s soulful at the same time. It’s not boxed in.” When asked why a neophyte should know Cowell, he replies somewhat tersely: “If you’re into the real s—t, check him out. If you’re into the fake s—t, don’t bother.”
“Outward and Upward”—named after a phrase of encouragement Cowell himself once laid on him—is an ominous free improvisation that gathers momentum like a dustdevil; the following track, “RD,” stands for “Revis/Damion.”
“It was written specifically for those guys, for the first gig we had,” Escreet explains of the bisected composition. “I was like: Okay, I got a gig with these guys; let me write something for their characters and personalities.”
Escreet calls “Perpetual Love” “more of a melodic kind of tune with more discernible harmony, which is not always the case with my compositions.” “Not to sound cheesy, but there needs to be love and romanticism within the context of all the crazy s—t that happens in the world,” he says. “It’s a nice dynamic to incorporate.”
This harmonizes not only with the juxtaposed moods throughout Seismic Shift, but Escreet’s entire m.o. as an artist. “Any music I present needs to be varied,” he states in the album’s press release. “There needs to be beauty alongside the wild moments, moments of tonality against moments of abstraction.”
“Digital Tulips” sprang up as another one of Escreet’s piano studies, like “Study No. 1.”
“It’s actually very difficult to play in terms of this kind of bassline, together with this crazy melody,” he says of the breathtakingly teeming tune. But beneath the technical bravado, there’s a relatively simple harmonic and rhythmic essence.
“It’s all in 4/4; it’s just a bunch of major chords, or sus chords,” Escreet adds. “It’s very difficult to execute, but once you take the time and effort to execute it, it doesn’t sound brainy and complex.”
Seismic Shift’s title track had been kicking around for a few years with a different title. “It’s a very loose tune, especially in the beginning,” Escreet says. “It’s kind of wide-open improvisationally, but it’s built around these two chords. I wanted it to kind of build from nothing, and then build and build and build and build until it reaches this climax,” he adds. “A wall of sound where everybody goes f—ing crazy.”
Escreet applies the title to several seismic shifts in his life, from the pandemic—which affected everyone, in one way or another—to his own relocation from New York to Los Angeles. Plus, “There’s a lot of seismic activity in California,” he notes. “When we get to the climax of the piece, it sounds like an earthquake—like the sky is falling and the ground is opening up.”
At shy of two minutes, “Quick Reset” does exactly what it sets out to do; it allows the listener to catch their breath before the darkly unsettled finale, “The Water is Tasting Worse.” And longtime followers of Escreet might note that the tune appeared on an album from more than a decade ago: Exception to the Rule. “Because I was a much weaker player back in those days, I feel like we didn’t get it,” Escreet admits. “It’s another technically difficult tune, but even though the head and composed material is technically challenging, the blowing [e.g., improvising] is not.”
Escreet, Revis, and Reid recorded Seismic Shift at Big City Recording Studios in Granada Hills—one of numberless high-quality studios in the L.A. area, but rare in the sense that it didn’t have a “trash piano.” “When it’s a trio and it’s so exposed,” Escreet says, “the standard is different.”
“The three of us together, I feel like it’s unique,” Reid reflects. “I don’t think anyone would have thought the three of us would put a record out together, to be honest.” This is because, in his telling, the music industry pigeonholes people, keeping them in well-worn lanes.
But it’s difficult to imagine Escreet’s next moves as being predictable or preprogrammed; that’s never been his forte. His focus is too sharp; as he put it in the press release, “Any idea put forward, whether composed or improvised, needs to have clarity and purpose.”
“He’s always been intense; that’s for sure,” Binney says. “I liked that. I liked that in the musicality; he plays with an intention that’s intense, and I dug that. I think that’s part of why we get along musically, and even as friends.”
Only someone like Escreet could make a dramatic creative swing like Seismic Shift—and not only make it believable, but memorable. Like the music, the horizon on the cover denotes time, memory, and experience cleaved in two, traumatically and exhilaratingly.
A confluence of drastic events, both personal and global, didn’t destabilize Escreet’s artistry. Rather, it opened a door to what he’s been seeking all this time: aural starkness, a step into the spotlight, a pure triangulation. It’s a shift he prepared for all his life.