Alliance for Improvised Music


This interview was conducted via e-mail in the Fall of 1997.  Since then I’ve gotten to know Ellery a little better, mostly online.  He’s a nice guy, an interesting guy, with lots of interesting opinions on music, and one not afraid to mix it up a little on jazz bulletin boards.  These days, you can occasionally find him on

Anyway, bear in mind that at the time of this interview, I was not that deeply familiar with Ellery’s music.  Re-reading it now, I see lots of areas I wish I had followed up on.  

Walt Davis: What do you have against bassists? :-)

Ellery Eskelin: HA! Guess I should'a seen this one coming...Hey some of my best friends are bass players. Seriously folks...Check out "Setting the Standard" and "Forms", my first two recordings. They both feature Drew Gress on bass (and Phil Haynes on drums). Drew and I have known each other since 1977. (Drew's got a CD coming out on Soul Note next year). OK so it's been awhile, those albums were recorded in '88 and '90. The bands I've been leading since then have each been an attempt to put the saxophone in a unique context for improvising. I've discovered that I play differently in each situation I'm in. I tend to think of these groups as what they "are", not what they "are not" in terms of the instrumentation. I'm particularly interested in putting together groups that are an alternative to the traditional rhythm section/soloist paradigm. Plus, I like what happens when I open up the bottom of the sound spectrum. It opens up the air around each instrument. I'm also very interested in freeing up the roles of the instruments, creating a fluid situation in which no one person is ever relegated to serving one function. We all carry the music at all times. I like to think of that game called hackysack (sp?). A cooperative game in which a group of people kick this little cloth ball around with their ankles trying not to ever let it hit the ground. That's what I'm trying to do with musical elements. I certainly do not mean to imply that a bassist cannot function that way, it's simply a period that I'm going through. You'll also note that I play in bassist Mark Helias' groups as well as Tom Varner's Quintet. These bands give me plenty of satisfaction where bass players are concerned. I also just did a duo with bassist Mark Dresser last month as part of a month of Thursdays at the Internet Cafe here in NYC. I actually feel a very special affinity for the bass. It's the first aspect of the music that I remember latching on to. My mother (she plays Hammond B3 organ) had some Dizzy Gillespie Big Band records in her collection which she gave to me when I was very young. I learned to sing along with every part of that music beginning with the bass lines.

WD: A bit more seriously, you often play in ensembles with "non-traditional" instrumentation. When you compose, do you have specific instrumentation (or specific musicians) in mind? Somewhat related, what attracts you to playing partners?

EE: Yes, I certainly think of the specific instrumentation and specific musical personalities involved when I write. I'm attracted to musicians with very strong, individual musical personalities. One criteria I like to use in choosing a musician is whether they could play a solo concert on their instrument. This way I know that they will be adept at changing roles. Another thing I like to do is once I've sort of figured out what a player's preferences and strong suits are I begin to write things that are somewhat less than comfortable for them or things that will make them question or guess a bit as to what I'm after. Rather than completely spell it out I'll leave just enough uncertainty in their minds. I find that players often really improvise under these circumstances rather than rely on those things that they know well and feel they sound the best in doing. It also happens to me as well. I write exclusively on the piano, not on the saxophone. I then have to rehearse the group, get them together and discover that I'm the last person who has a chance to get their shit together since the music I write is not always idiosyncratic to the saxophone. What happens is that everyone begins to find ways to fill out the music which means that we are all finding new things on our instruments and in our conception.

WD: Speaking of which, can you tell us something about Andrea and Jim and their music? What is it about this trio that you find particularly interesting and rewarding? This is as good a time as any to convince folks to turn out for the show, so have at it. :-)

EE: I met Jim first, through Tim Berne. I did an early gig with one of Tim's quartets (which eventually became "Blood Count", I think) and Jim was new in town. I was really intrigued with him. He had some really quirky shit going on. I got together with him to do some duo playing and was pretty astounded to discover that he could play right along with all the fucked up phrasing I was doing. Usually I have to introduce players to what I'm thinking about and clue them in a bit on that issue. Jim got it right away. I decided I wanted to form a group with some sort of chord instrument since most of the bands I've been involved with had no piano. I searched around through some organ players but couldn't really figure out quite what I wanted. At about the same time I began hearing music by improvising accordionists on trips to Europe and realized that that was a fantastic instrument. I began a long search of accordionists in New York City and drew up a list of potential players. Andrea's name came up a couple times. I was not familiar with her but went to check out a couple gigs she was on. I had a hunch she might work so I asked her if she'd like to get together with Jim and I which we did. After the first tune I immediately knew that that was it. It turned out that Andrea plays sampler as well which meant we could also cover some of the organ stuff I'd been thinking about. I like the fact that Andrea's background is pretty different than mine. It's a nice catalyst.

WD: Back to the composition theme, how much of your music is composed vs. improvised? Or perhaps how structured is your music would be a better way to ask it?

EE: Each tune is different. I look for a specific shape and structure for each one. Sometimes I operate from a very intuitive space basing these structures on what I see around me. I think there's a lot in life that we tune out just in order to process reality. I like to notice these odd instances, little things that are completely inconsequential and strange. I like to translate that experience to sound. It's not always what you think of, but what you notice. The ratio of improvisation to written material varies from piece to piece. Some parts are completely notated for one person while another improvises freely. Also, rather than use every piece as a means to improvise seamlessly between sections (as is often done by other composers) I usually ask the band to improvise musical sections that are equal in weight and contrasting to the written parts. Sometimes the improvising has more to do with choices that are very specific to the piece at hand rather than being completely open. I'm trying to remove any "fluff" from the improvising and get right to the point. I'm interested in focusing on specific ideas, textures, etc. rather than using improvisation as a developmental tool exclusively.

WD: I want to talk a bit about one of your most recent releases, _The Sun Died_, which is a tribute to saxophonist Gene Ammons. I guess the most obvious question is in what ways did Gene Ammons inspire you .... or more bluntly why Gene Ammons? Were Marc Ribot and Kenny Wollesen familiar with his work? If not, how did they approach it?

EE: Gene Ammons was perhaps my first saxophone hero, at around age 13 or 14. I always loved his sound and delivery. He could (and still does) make me cry on ballads (like his reading of "The Sun Died"). I was initially attracted to R&B type tenor players and Gene Ammons certainly had some of that sound in his playing. But I always regarded him as a jazz player and have been puzzled and a little bugged that he doesn't seem to get the recognition he deserves from the jazz community. As long as I'm on that subject I'll mention Rahsaan Roland Kirk as another one who doesn't get spoken of nearly enough (I do one of his pieces with Andrea and Jim, "The Inflated Tear" on the new CD, "One Great Day..."). Yusef Lateef as well...

I always wanted to do these tunes, since I was a kid I dreamed of recording "The Sun Died" one day. I finally arrived at a sound that grabbed me; saxophone, guitar and drums. It makes for a completely different type of interaction, very fluid. I hadn't played with Marc Ribot although I had heard him several times and had a strong suspicion that he probably knew this music (which he does!). I checked out a few drum/guitar combinations. Everyone played great but I found a very attractive chemistry with Kenny in the band. He really has a strong knowledge of that type of music, loves to play a groove but knows how to break it up while maintaining the feel and propulsion. Voila! (By, the way, many of the selections on my CD "The Sun Died" come from an Ammons/Stitt LP called "You Talk That Talk" on Prestige which has only just been reissued on CD under the strange title "Gene Ammons, Masters of Acid Jazz". There seems to be some other selections included as well and I haven't heard this reissue but I can easily recommend the cuts from "You Talk That Talk".

WD: This is one of those questions I usually try to avoid, because it may sound as if I'm trying to define a trend, see a movement that's not there, drop whole groups of musicians into boxes, or get you to speak for other musicians but .... Jazz as a whole has been doing a good deal of looking back lately, and not just among the more "mainstream" crowd, but also among the "avant-garde." Wynton and the "young lions" are often criticized (and often praised) for it, but over the last ten years or so we've also seen "avant-garde tributes" to Eric Dolphy (Oliver Lake, Buddy Collette), Herbie Nichols (Roswell Rudd, Misha Mengelberg, Herbie Nichols Project, Buell Niedlinger), Sonny Clark/Freddie Redd (John Zorn, Bill Frisell & George Lewis), Albert Ayler (Giorgio Gaslini, Prima Materia), and Gene Ammons, to name a few. So I think my questions are: what are the differences between the more mainstream retrospectives and those of more outside musicians? do you think there's an intentional effort to respond to the mainstream by showing how to "look back while looking forward"? and do you think there's a conscious (or sub-conscious) effort to highlight some of the more obscure musicians of the bop/hard bop era? (except for Nichols, calling those guys obscure isn't quite right, but it's definitely a less obvious group than the Monk/Miles/Blakey/etc. sorts of tributes we get out of the mainstream)

EE: Big question...I can't speak for many other musicians here. I think it's probably a natural thing to want to address the past at this stage. It seems that jazz at it's most conservative definition is practically dead. Recycling seems inevitable. As for jazz as new music and vice versa, it's also an interesting way to bring out a new perspective not only on the music that you are reinvestigating but your own music as well. Whenever people are familiar with the material it's easier for them to hear what it is that you are doing that may be unique.

None of that really enters into my mind when I think of repertoire however. If I feel a connection to the player or their material then I'll do it. Otherwise I'm not really into tributes so much. Sometimes I'll look in the record bins and see these things and think what the fuck is going on? But of course I can't be too judgmental about it since "The Sun Died" is essentially a tribute even though I don't refer to it as such. I think it's more about us and what we do rather than focusing so much on Ammons. I will take this opportunity however to mention that when I was in Chicago in May for the "Empty Bottle Festival" I got a call from Gene Ammons' widow. We spoke on the phone subsequently and I later sent her the disk. She responded in a letter saying that she really liked it and appreciated the fact that someone was paying respect to her late husband. That felt good.

As far as the music today is concerned, I like the fact that there is no dominant movement. I think that there is definitely a new music being forged but it is a multifarious one. The thing that connects it is the fact that composers are each writing music that is personal to them. They are each dealing with history in their own way. I find this to me completely liberating. I think the idea of a new jazz messiah is long gone. The music is too fragmented for that. To me this is most definitely a good thing.

WD: Now away from the stuffy "state of jazz" questions: please tell us some about your dad and his music.

EE: Sure, in a nutshell, my father, Rodd Keith, and mother separated when I was very young. I had no further direct contact with him before he tragically died in 1974 (I was 15). He was described as a genius by everyone I've ever spoken to about him. He was a bit eccentric and eventually became very involved with drugs in the Hollywood music scene. (I was living with my mother in Baltimore). In order to make a living he worked for these companies that solicited the public to send in lyrics which would be recorded and pressed into records. Fame, big bucks etc. was the ploy. Rodd set the lyrics to music, sang, played keyboards and sometimes saxophone and other instruments and put together the recording sessions. I was shocked when I recently found out that these records were becoming collectors items and that Rodd had become a cult sensation. I've always had a profound relationship with him even though we never really met. My mom says he used to play records like Stan Kenton's "City Of Glass" in my room when I was a baby, convinced that it would somehow have a beneficial effect...well, I guess that could explain a few things. I'll direct anyone who is interested to the article that I wrote about Rodd for LCD (WFMU's magazine).

Anyway, this music turns out to be rather strange, pop sounding for the most part but very loose. I find a lot of parallels to improvisation in it. A bunch of musicians playing music they've never seen or rehearsed while the tape is running. Hanging on for dear life, mistakes and all. Beyond it's humor I feel this music is actually rather profound. It brings up a lot of issues about art and trash, good and bad. Transcends them all in my book. I released a CD compilation of Rodd's music on the Tzadik label, part of their new series of "Lunatic Fringe" material. It's called "I Died Today-The Music of Rodd Keith".

WD: Now to the traditional questions. Can you tell us a bit about your background, how you got into jazz, what other music did you grow up on, what were/are some of your favorite artists and influences?

EE: Jazz was my first love. All the 6th graders were high on the Beatles and I was trying to tell them about Stan Getz. A lot of strange, empty stares I got. As I mentioned before, my mother plays Hammond B3 organ and played with her own groups in Baltimore in the early 60s. I learned a lot of standards from her. I started out by listening to the Big Bands, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Ammons & Stitt, Lee Konitz, John Coltrane, Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, everyone really. In elementary school I used to draw posters of my favorite jazz musicians. They were and still are heroes to me. I grew up a little too late for the 60s counterculture thing but I remember thinking that jazz musicians were the real counterculture. I attended five of the annual Stan Kenton band week long summer music camps starting when I was 13 years old. That band was fucking awesome to hear live. By the time I got to high school I finally discovered Jimi Hendrix (through John McLaughlin) and by the time I hit college my listening was broadening into a lot of classical music although I still loved jazz above all. These days I'm catching up on all the stuff that I missed out on when I was a kid. Stuff from rock, punk, pop...all the stuff I turned my nose up at back then. I guess I'm backwards from everyone else of my generation. It's usually the reverse story. Anyway, I'm currently listening to the Yoko Ono box set, Cibo Matto, Stereolab, Beck, Sonic Youth and a lot of stuff that would probably make most jazz aficionados throw up. I'm loving it too! I think a lot of exciting musical developments are happening in some fringes of pop culture. I'm particularly inspired by DJ culture, beginning with late 80s hip hop (like Public Enemy) and into ambient, techno and other hybrids (like DJ Spooky). So besides all my jazz influences (I'm into everyone, although Coltrane might be the one I'd single out for a special personal affinity) I'm listening to anything and everything. I keep WFMU on all day. They're a free form radio station.

WD: I'm starting to think this is an impossible question to answer, but there are some musicians in the area playing improv (and others interested in playing it) -- any advice for them? Any advice for the rest of us about how to go about building an audience in the area?

EE: Keep an open mind and always try to expand your horizons. Don't get caught in the trap of comparing yourself to what's going on in your own scene or thinking that you're better than other musicians or types of music. I've had my head turned around on more than one occasion by finding out that there's some heavy shit going on outside of New York. Even within the scene here, there's is so much going on that if I were to content myself with feeling like I'm more adventurous than the other "jazzers" here, I'd get pretty soft pretty quick. Jazz does not have a lock on improvisation any longer and there are musicians in other arenas who will force you to reassess your entire thing provided you are open to what's going on. You don't always even have to like it, but you can always learn something and add to your own music.

As far as audience development I'm not quite sure how to answer that yet. This will be my first tour in the States with my own group. Five years ago this would have seemed impossible. I've noticed a lot more interest in this type of music stateside then I can ever remember. Something's going on but I'm not sure what it is. I see the audiences here coming from punk and rock more than from jazz. Ask me again after this tour. If all goes well I'll try to expand it next year. The difference between the States and Europe touring wise is that the distances here are far greater, we have no rail system to speak of to compare with Europe, and the financial support here is pretty abysmal. Still, I'm encouraged. The Empty Bottle Festival in Chicago was a great case in point. I played a solo saxophone concert for a listening audience of 200. People are into this music. We just have to get to them. Well publicized, well organized concerts are attracting audiences.

WD: Other than your own, what music have you been enjoying lately? What about books, art, movies, etc.? And what plans do you have for the near future?

EE: Good question since I spend more time in art galleries and movie houses than I do in jazz or music clubs. I mentioned some music I've been into earlier but I can say that I gain as much inspiration from other disciplines, visual arts particularly. I recently went to the Museum of Modern art and saw an exhibit of paintings done just this year and last by three artists I'd never seen before, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, and Luc Tuymans. They're all about the same age as me and are all approaching painting in much the same way that I think about playing to some degree. It's interesting since painting has been pronounced dead on more than one occasion just as jazz has been.

As far as future plans...I'll be continuing to write for the band with Andrea and Jim. I also have an idea for a larger group that may come out of the improv series I just did last month. All told on that series, there were vibes, drums, bass, more drums, cello, accordion and tuba. There's something in there and I plan to figure it out.

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