John Escreet: The Unknown

In February of 2016, pianist John Escreet, along with regular triomates John Hébert, on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey, drums and vibraphone, embarked on a brief four-date European tour. Escreet’s trio joined avant-garde saxophone stalwart Evan Parker to treat their audiences to a series of extended collective improvisations. The Unknown, Escreet’s first live recording as leader, captures two of these long-form explorations.

Recorded at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis on Feb. 12, “The Unknown (Part One)” commences its 45 minutes with dense chords from Escreet that build to a squall under the thunder of Sorey’s cresting cymbals. A Parker-led cacophony descends into eerie arco exclamations from Hébert, backed by chiming Sorey cymbals that evoke a Zen meditation mood. The bassist locks into a keening unison exchange with Parker, Sorey amplifying the mystery with echoing single-note vibe hits. Escreet’s icy solo lines give way to brawny Parker phrases, and the pianist urges him on with antic backing harmonies before cascading over Sorey’s resonating vibes into the outro. Throughout the piece, the band locks into a feverishly communicative mindset, anticipating each shift in tempo and intensity and riding the inventions they inspire for all they’re worth.

The nearly 30-minute-long “The Unknown (Part Two),” from the following night at Lantaren Venster in Rotterdam, is somewhat more structured, two cluster-bomb free-jazz flights bracketing a contemplative central interlude. Parker screams and bleats over roiling, no-room-to-breathe Sorey fills, and Escreet hammers out sharp-tongued repeated phrases before a fire-tinged solo statement from the saxophonist. An oasis of serenity follows soon, with Escreet and Hébert weaving a breathlessly fragile rhythmic spell. The last 10 minutes dive back down the rabbit hole: Escreet viciously rakes his piano strings and Sorey attacks his kit with fierce, focused drive. The classical set calls this “absolute music.” And to the right kind of ears, it’s absolutely compelling.