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Wayne Escoffery: The Only Son of One

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These new releases offer two sides of the abundantly gifted, extremely confident tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, who is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. A longtime sideman to trumpeter Tom Harrell and a member of Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy band and the Mingus Big Band, Escoffery has developed a strong presence as a bandleader over the course of seven previous releases. His eighth, his debut for the Sunnyside label, is a major leap forward conceptually from 2009’s soulful organ-group outing, Uptown.

The Only Son of One traces Escoffery’s personal journey from his rough start in North London, where he was raised by a loving mother and her abusive Jamaican husband, to his emigration at age 8 to the United States, where he took up the saxophone and eventually came under the wing of Jackie McLean at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. Escoffery’s composing here often alludes to a spiritual awakening.

Grounded by bassists Hans Glawischnig and Ricky Rodriguez and drummer Jason Brown, The Only Son of One is further shaped and colored by Orrin Evans’ forceful piano and Fender Rhodes comping and Adam Holzman’s synth seasonings. Escoffery plays passionately on top, revealing a love for John Coltrane with his sheets-of-sound approach on the energized opener, “World of the Bardo,” and wailing with cathartic abandon on the turbulent modal number “Banishment of the Lost Spirit.” He digs deep on the searching vehicle “Perilous Desires,” mellows out on the mysterious title track, and blows with exuberance and rare authority on the lone straight-ahead swinger, “If I Am, Who You Are.”

“Selena’s Song,” a potent waltz-time tribute to his courageous mother, and the soothing meditation “Presumed Innocence” feature retro Mini-Moog solos by former Miles Davis sideman Holzman that conjure up ’70s Chick Corea. Following a restful “Color Spectrum,” Escoffery switches to soprano for an intimate duet with pianist Evans on the gentle, improvised “Two Souls” to close out his most diverse and rewarding collection to date.

On the Grown Folks Music session, led by elder statesman and former Monk drummer Riley, Escoffery summons up bold tones and exudes a relaxed, old-school vibe on renditions of Monk’s “Friday the 13th” and “Teo,” along with such affecting standards as the buoyant “Lulu’s Back in Town,” a swinging “Without a Song,” a Latin-tinged “If Ever I Would Leave You,” and “Laura,” an album highlight on which the saxophonist channels his inner Dexter Gordon. On the tasty ballad “A Weaver of Dreams,” Escoffery blows with Trane-inspired depth. Bassist Ray Drummond anchors this straight-ahead session with his usual authority while guitarists Avi Rothbard and Freddie Bryant provide some six-string sparkle along the way. Riley’s masterful, understated performance throughout demonstrates that, at age 78, he is still one of the greats.

Originally Published