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Pianist and Composer John Escreet Releases New CD "Exception to the Rule" on Criss Cross Records.


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Asked for context on the unqualified success of Exception To The Rule, his Criss Cross debut, John Escreet cites his eclectic itinerary during the months leading up to the session that produced it.

“I was in shape from the experience of doing different things," the 26-year-old pianist-composer remarked a few months later, noting a series of high-content antecedent engagements: October performances by drummer Tyshawn Sorey's quartet in Amsterdam and Paris; an early November trio concert at New York's Jazz Gallery by his own trio with Sorey and bassist John Hébert; ten days in Portugal with the collective quintet The Story; a few days in Toronto and Montreal with another Escreet-led project with saxophonist David Binney, guitarist Nir Felder, drummer Nasheet Waits, and bassist Zack Lober; and several New York performances by Escreet's quartet with Binney, guitarist Wayne Krantz, and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Each situation is linked by, as Escreet puts it, “allowing the music to go anywhere, not to fear taking it to some unknown places, and having the mental capacity, conceptual knowledge, and technical skills to do that." He adds: “All those musicians have their own voice, their own sound and direction, their own stamp that you hear within the first one or two notes, which is what I hope to achieve as a pianist."

These qualities define the ambiance of Escreet's fourth leader album since 2008, performed by an ensemble—Binney, Waits, and bassist Eivind Opsvik, who had previously convened in May 2010 at New York's Jazz Gallery and in July at the North Sea Jazz Festival—that, Escreet notes, “realizes there are serious things to learn from all genres of music." They are ideally positioned to execute Escreet's sonic narrative, which incorporates an assortment of intoxicating, highly refined rhythms, electronica, 20th century classical music, and a broad timeline of jazz expression.

“Often my pieces have complex, involved writing, with intricate counterpoint or crazy interval leaps, or very specific hits and tight rhythmic parameters," Escreet says. “Horn players often complain it's too hard to play, even though they do a fantastic job. Whatever I write, I want the musicians to do the composition justice, for it to be played properly and dealt with in its own respect. I want the composed parts to be very composed and the improvising to be very improvised, whether or not the form stretches or gets elastic. I never put any restrictions on what can happen with that."

Born and raised in Doncaster, Yorkshire, in the north of England, Escreet was a prodigy, found at age four to have perfect pitch. Already intrigued with jazz at 14 for “the freedom to play whatever you want and create something of your own," he boarded at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, where, to meet school requirements, he “got serious about classical music." However, he adds, “I knew I'd go into a jazz program somewhere when I graduated." He enrolled in the jazz course at London's Royal Academy of Music, earning a degree in 2006. “It was a great course, and a very diverse program, but I sometimes wasn't pushed far enough," Escreet says. “When I showed up, I could play pretty well. A lot of my listening at that time was Keith Jarrett playing standards, so I knew a lot of tunes, and sometimes the teachers said, 'Oh, you sound great,' and just let me get on with it, rather than telling me to check out other things and really question what I was doing."

While absorbing the food groups of modern jazz piano from McCoy Tyner to Kenny Kirkland ("I was massively into Kenny; it's everything I like about piano"), Escreet quickly established himself as one of London's busier pianists. He led a post-bop quartet with tenorist Julian Siegel and drummer Gene Calderazzo, sidemanned in a funky group with trombonist Dennis Rollins, was a founding member of the progressive unit Empirical. Meanwhile, around 2004, he became attracted “towards another kind of music, other kinds of piano players"—Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor.

“I wore out Andrew's big band album, A Beautiful Day," Escreet states. “The sound and sincerity got me. Cecil seemed like a whole other way to play the piano—I don't have to use that sonic choice all the time, but it's great to have as an option." He developed proficiency at playing “heavy, very precise rhythms and metric modulations accurately with two hands." But, he adds, “I hadn't sorted things out in terms of finding my own voice; I was putting on different stylistic 'hats' on any given gig, but I realized that the greatest players don't do that."

Aiming to rectify this situation, Escreet moved to New York City in 2006, matriculating formally at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a Masters (2008), and informally, in the “university of the streets." Every Thursday morning during his first year, he studied with Kenny Barron, in his final year at MSM, who “recognized I was going for something and encouraged it." Escreet credits Barron's successor, Jason Moran, for “presenting me with other options, playing with my mind to get it to work, making me study older stuff, the stride players like James P. Johnson, or even further back, like Scott Joplin." But Escreet regards Binney, whom he met and first played with in March 2007, as “the single most important person" in helping him carve the path by which he evolved to the sensibility that we hear on Exception To The Rule. “Dave clicked a switch in my brain and brought me to my own realization of finding my voice," he says. “When I came to New York I was a complete jazz-head, playing somewhat more straight-ahead, but he kicked me into shape. He told me what I needed to get together, what was good and what wasn't good. He said, 'You have so much potential, and you're so open to stuff and you play great, but then sometimes you spoil it by playing something that sounds practiced or learned, like a Herbie Hancock chord or a Herbie lick to finish it.' He was very vocal about that stuff. But his advice was kind-hearted with good intentions, and he cared enough to keep hiring me and talking to me about my musical development. We have different aesthetics and concepts, but he helped put me on my own path."

Binney displays his technical derring-do on the set-opening title track, nailing the tricky melody despite missing the night-before-the-session gig that served as a rehearsal. It's a tour de force, launched by a 55-second incantational prelude by Waits on tom-toms and a bass line inspired by “a Busta Rhymes-J Dilla track," before transitioning into an E-flat pedal section on which Binney stretches to the outer partials. When he's done, Escreet sets up a contrasting feel, playing complex lines over Waits' kinetic grooves. “When I was writing it, I heard Nasheet on that last section particularly," Escreet remarks. “He's the most dance-inducing drummer I know."

Then Escreet launches a collective improv, entitled “Redeye" with a rumbly, repeated theme that contrasts chords in the treble and bass range, in response to which Binney improvises a “baby aliens" sound world with electronics.

“Collapse" is an anthemic quartet piece inspired, Escreet states, by Tyshawn Sorey's predisposition to compose through “cell structures which he develops with a minimal amount of material." It begins with four chords, each a four-note voicing and each with a different time signature—a measure of 5/8, of 7/8, of 3/4, of 4/4. “There's a melody on top of those chords, followed by a bass line over the same set of chords, then the melody and bass line come together over those chords. It has a lot of detailed counterpoint, which came about because I was practicing Bach's Goldberg Variations. Even though it doesn't sound like it, it's a finger-twister; you have to be very specific about which fingers you lift up at which place. After I solo on those four measures, there's a second section—the same four measures (all in 5/4, though) going up through a cycle of major thirds—on which Dave solos. The bass line on this section isn't transposed through major thirds; it's a through-composed line that weaves throughout this transposed structure. There are a lot of rhythmic hits, but it's loose. I love the way Nasheet and Dave play on this section—lots of elasticity—everything I love about this music. Elasticity is what I'm all about; I like having things thrown in the works and dealing with something unexpected. The ability to thrive or to stay on course in those kind of situations brings out your true musicianship."

There follows an improvised Escreet-Opsvik-Waits triologue entitled “They Can See," a peaceful unveiling on which Escreet again explores the piano's registral extremities. “With these things, it's all about sound world," Escreet says of this and “Wide Open Spaces," on which Opsvik displays his exemplary arco tone. “You have to play something that has a lot of character or makes a strong statement. The content can be complex, or very simple and sparse, but it has to have direction and meaning. You must have faith in your instincts and bandmates, relinquish control and give it up to some kind of higher power—which is about as religious as I get."

“I wrote it as a counterpoint exercise," Escreet says of “Escape Hatch," which he debuted last year with his Hébert-Sorey trio. “There are no chord changes, but there's harmony in the bass line that you improvise on." After the leader's brilliantly executed solo at lightning tempo, Binney declaims whirling shapes with vocalized tone. On a subsequent rubato section, Binney's tintinnabulating electronics contextualize Escreet's nachtmusik motifs.

After a hymn-like electronica interlude entitled “Electrotherapy," Escreet returns to the world of groove with “The Water Is Tasting Worse," another intervallic exercise on which he executes with micronic precision a bass line and right-hand counterpoint line in different meters. “The material for this first section," he says, “is made up almost entirely from one arpeggio, extracted from one little thing that Lee Konitz did on 'Subconscious-Lee,' which you may not be able to recognize—I displaced the octaves and otherwise messed with it." The rhythm section assumes responsibility for the beats as Binney solos astringently over Escreet's ametric, color-saturated comp. A second section ensues, comprising three different chords, cycled into measures of 5/4, 5/4, 3/8, and 5/4. Escreet does the math, noting that the space can also be read as 10/8, 10/8, 3/8, and 10/8, a total number of 33 eighth-notes, which can be divided into three equal sections of 11/8, but because the piece was new, the group eschewed those possibilities.

On the second group improv, “Restlessness," Binney creates an eerie electronic sound world; Escreet dampens the strings with his hand, establishing a percussive theme. Waits instantly responds. “Suddenly you're in the midst of making music together; the piece just made itself," Escreet remarks.

The recital concludes with “Wayne's World," reprised from Escreet's debut record, Consequences, on which Tyshawn Sorey played drums. “Nasheet knows this piece well, we've been playing it for a couple of years now, and it's a different piece in his hands," Escreet says. The pianist's rubato, quasi-classical prelude morphs into a skittery abstraction, executed with trademark flair. At around 2:30, the opening rhythmic cycle starts to take shape. It resolves at around 3:07, when Binney states the melody and launches an intense, cohesive three-minute solo. When he concludes, Escreet mirrors his own opening postulation with a gentle unaccompanied passage. Waits and Opsvik enter the mix, and feed the fire for the remainder.

“I have total respect for Gerry Teekens for allowing me to do exactly what I wanted, even though it might not necessarily fall within the usual Criss Cross aesthetic," Escreet sums up. “That is always conducive to the best music-making. I would never, ever do a recording just for the sake of doing it. I only record when I feel I have something to offer, something to lay down in the studio, something of value to share. Anything else does no one any good."

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This story appears courtesy of Two for the Show Media.
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