“A New and Different Kind of Way”: A Conversation With Wayne Escoffery
Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery is most visible as the second horn in the quintet led by Tom Harrell, an idiosyncratic but reliably straightahead postbopper. (On record, anyway.) But Escoffery follows his own muse when he's the one at the helm; in the last several years, that muse has led him in an increasingly dark, angular, funky direction. It has culminated in a new two-keyboard band—a sound that he himself describes as "quirky"—that he'll be leading at Blues Alley tonight. Ahead of that show, he talked to Washington City Paper about that new sound, and how he got to it.
Washington City Paper: I’d like to ask you about the band you’re bringing to Blues Alley tonight. This is a two-keyboard band, is that right?
Wayne Escoffery: It is. You know, I did a recording, The Only Son of One, earlier this year and featured Adam Holzman and Orrin Evans both on keys. For this tour, actually, Rachel Z has been subbing for Adam, so she’ll be with me at Blues Alley—and also David Berkman on keyboards as well. And we also have special guest [trumpeter] Jeremy Pelt joining us as well, so I guess it’s going to be a big Thanksgiving fiesta.
WCP: That grouping makes the music sound quite unpredictable.
WE: Yeah, we’re gonna have fun. You know, in this group the piano is used as an orchestral instrument, but also as a second horn. And now with Jeremy there, it adds a whole other element. He and I have been playing together for a long time, and we like to explore together so it should be fun.
WCP: Rachel Z is an artist of many musical personalities. Which ones will we see in your band?
WE: That’s actually one of the reasons why I called upon Rachel’s talents. She’s very sensitive and aware of how to create musical palettes and how to add tastefully to what’s already happening. But also, she’s there as a second horn, to add some single-note things and a little quirkiness to what’s going on. It’s a split role in this band, so yeah, you’re definitely going to see some different sides of her.
WCP: The Only Son of One feels like the culmination of a funky, electric direction that you’ve been moving in since, I’d say, about the time of [Escoffery’s 2009 CD] Uptown.
WE: Yeah, right around that time is when I started working toward the sound that you’re hearing now.
WCP: Was there a particular inspiration for moving in that direction?
WE: Sure. Miles is definitely an inspiration, Weather Report is an inspiration, and also Charles Fambrough. Charles did a recording with Kenny Kirkland and Adam Holzman, and that recording moved me in a great way. All those things led to my conceiving of this idea; they really inspired me to put this thing together.
WCP: So it’s interesting, then, that you’re working with Jeremy, who’s also going in those directions lately.
WE: Sure—well, I’ve known Jeremy since we were teenagers. He’s been in and out of that realm; he’s been delving into this sound for quite some time. But yeah, his latest project is a lot like this, so it’s great that we’re in a similar frame of mind right now. As a matter of fact we’ll probably be playing one song at Blues Alley that Jeremy wrote [“In My Grandfather’s Words”], back when I was in his band in Boston together—back in the late ‘90s. We reworked it for this ensemble, and we’ll be doing it in a new and different kind of way.
WCP: You’re probably best known for your place in trumpeter Tom Harrell’s quintet; a much more straightahead context. Will we be hearing anything like that at Blues Alley?
WE: Tom’s always an inspiration, and in fact I left him out when I shouldn’t have in talking about inspirations this latest project. We’ll be doing one of his tunes for sure; I always try to do one of his tunes in my set. And even if we didn’t, most of my compositions are influenced by him in one way or another. I’ve been working with him for eight years; it’s hard not to be influenced by him at this point.
And honestly, Tom’s music is quite, as you call it, “funky.” It has a lot of similarities to what I’m trying to do. And in one of Tom’s sets, we’ll do something groovy, something avant-garde, and then something more hard bop or bebop, in one set sometimes. It’s all music, and it’s all a matter of being musical.
WCP: Do you have other regular gigs?
WE: I’ve been working in the Mingus Big Band since 2000. And then, you know, whatever comes up—our greats are leaving us at such a rapid pace, I’m blessed to be able to play with as many of them as I can; even though I’m focusing on my band and my music, and touring with them, it’s great to be able to play with a lot of the great musicians that are still around with us.
WCP: I just realized I forgot to ask: Who’s the rhythm section that you’re touring with?
WE: Jason Brown is the drummer, he’s on the record and he’ll be playing with us at Blues Alley. Rashaan is a great bassist who’s actually from D.C. We did a great concert at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Conn., this summer, that’s going to come out as a recording. Rashaan was subbing for Hans Glawischnig, who usually plays with us, so long story short Rashaan is going to be on the recording that’s coming out in March and is also going to be working with me at Blues Alley.