Sunday, 7 April 2013

Interview with Tenor Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin

Ellery Eskelin creates with a vintage Conn
New York tenor saxophonist and composer Ellery Eskelin was gracious enough to consent to an interview on Crazy Bent Brass Tube this week. Ellery is a consistently interesting improviser and he recently celebrated 30 years in New York doing what he loves. He is a prolific and creative recording artist as well as the author of the intelligent blog Musings from a Saxophonist. My questions are in bold (RA) and Ellery's answers follow (EE); I did not edit any of his responses.

Interview with Ellery Eskelin, April 7, 2013

RA: When did you make the conscious decision to follow music as a career regardless of the economic consequences? And creative improvised music to boot? Didn’t your parents want you to be a dentist or an accountant? 

EE: I've wanted to be a jazz musician since I was ten years old. That desire overrode everything else. My parents were very supportive of me being a musician although they did have concerns about the type of music I played. 

RA: How have you managed to stay fresh and creative for 30+ years? Most of the so-called “young lions” have never progressed and are stuck in a rut in middle age – downright boring to listen to. 

EE: The process is exactly the same as it was the first day I got the horn. Still trying to figure out what I can do on it. I'm not too concerned with style or idiom. There's too much music that pulls on me. Plus, the old masters set the bar so high that I'm constantly inspired to push myself every day.

RA: What is your creative “well” – where do you pull inspiration from day after day?

EE: I love what I do. And it’s the way I express myself in the world. Plus, there's so much to do and such a limited time to accomplish it in. 

RA: Do you have a specific approach or “strategy” in mind when you begin a solo? If so, can you give some insight? 

EE: Whenever I'm improvising I think about what the music needs and try and do that. It requires an immediate, in the moment, non verbal state of mind, so that usually necessitates a feeling of movement, a gesture or a sense of phrasing just as I'm about to play. Once I have an idea of a musical shape the notes come to me at the very last moment, as I'm playing. 

RA: How have you avoided recording “Ellery Eskelin with Strings”? (or have you and I am unaware?) 

EE: See "Vanishing Point" (hatOLOGY 577) recorded in 2000 with Mat Maneri: viola, Erik Friedlander: cello, Mark Dresser: bass, Matt Moran: vibraphone. Completely improvised music. I'm rather proud if it. 

RA: Have you ever been forced to play weddings and bar mitzvahs or teach 8-year-olds to stay in music? 

EE: I played weddings when I was coming up. At a certain point, the singers could no longer follow my solos without getting lost so I sold my tuxedo and got a day job (shipping clerk at a record label) until my touring picked up enough that I could let that go as well. 

I've not yet taught a young person but I think I would enjoy the opportunity to approach things a bit differently, more direct ear learning and an introduction to basic I IV V harmony and improvising as soon as they could get around the horn a little. 

RA: Your most ridiculous day gig? 

EE: Well, I was a weekend janitor in a shopping mall for a little while during my school years. I like to think of that as good honest work. Worked on a commercial roofing crew for a summer. All the guys would keep telling me, "stay in school if you don't want to wind up doing this for a living"! 

RA: How do you deal with the egos in the music business without it getting under your skin? Seems like a large proportion of talented musicians are not nice people. 

EE: Actually I don't find that to be the case. The large proportion of the musicians I've met in my life have been pretty down to earth. 

RA: Do you feel you are missing out on anything in life because you pursued creative music as your profession? What about your family – have they missed out on something? 

EE: No, but when I realized that the president was younger than me it did get me thinking. But ironically there is something about going deeply into a subject that teaches us about the world and deepens our appreciation of other people and their work. As for family, I am blessed that they understand and support what I do. I hope that my values and actions can point to some other ways of looking at things in general. 

RA: It appears that you have to be a virtuoso to play any of today’s jazz styles. This kills the music as a people’s music because it limits participation in the creative process. How can the music survive and progress without becoming another form of classical music dependent on the conservatory? 

EE: I don't agree that being a virtuoso limits the audience's participation. If anything a certain kind of demonstrable virtuosity is something that audiences often grab onto even if it's not always deeply artistic. But jazz has never been a popular music with the public at large. In my experience the best thing for any musician to do is commit 100% to their vision and play with the commensurate conviction required to evoke some kind of emotional feeling in the listener. And besides, virtuosity comes in many forms. I consider Ben Webster to be a virtuoso in his sublime delivery of ballads. 

RA: I have a talented 16-year-old who plays tenor. But music is not her only talent/interest. Any suggestions on how she can stay engaged as a performer? Most young people quit playing after school. 

EE: Not sure how to answer that question. But in as much as music is a social event (playing with other people and playing for other people) I would imagine that maintaining that social connection would be beneficial. 

RA: Do you have some recommended learning resources for those not interested in pattern playing or paid-by-the-note tenor styles? 

EE: The idea of "learning resources" in itself seems to imply some kind of organizational methodology that often runs counter to want you're speaking about (which to me has more to do with the nuances of one's delivery). I recommend modeling one's playing after vocalists as a way of avoiding calisthenics and the playing of too many notes. Concentrate on phrasing and the active use of silence. Personally I don't like to think so much in terms of "lines" as much as I want to think in terms of melody. Having a strong sense of what you're doing with (or against) the rhythm also helps. 

RA: Thank you, Ellery.

Here are links to Ellery's web site, blog, and Facebook and YouTube pages:
web site

1 comment:

  1. Very nice article and very inspiring...thanks leny