Greatness isn't measured on the clock. The Beatles recorded for a scant six years, and - depending on how you slice it - were together for about nine. John Coltrane's "classic quartet" coalesced in 1961 with a line-up that lasted until 1965. And the Sex Pistols changed the world in less than two years.
Marking their tenth anniversary, then, isn't what makes Ellery Eskelin's trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black great. But it's a milestone worth marking, and an event the group is celebrating with a new cd (their ninth for the Swiss label HatHut) which finds the trio joined by guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Melvin Gibbs. Eskelin also shot, edited and released a dvd documenting the band's 2003 European tour. Another tour this year is taking them across the US, to Portugal and then to Quebec, where they'll open the 21st annual Victoriaville festival. If simple longevity didn't make them great, hard work, regular recording and annual trips across America and Europe did.
Ellery Eskelin with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black (as they are properly billed - "I really think 'Ellery Eskelin Trio' is way too polite for this band," Eskelin said) made its first public appearance on March 20, 1994, at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street in lower Manhattan. On the heels of a more traditional line-up with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Phil Haynes, Eskelin had a particular new sound for which he was searching.
"When I put my band together, I was really looking for an accordionist," he said. At the time, he was intrigued with some European players - including Hans Hassler and Jean-Louis Matinier - but was interested in finding someone in the States. He drew up a list, he said, but Andrea Parkins kept coming up as he talked to other musicians.
He was already playing with Black ("Jim I had met somewhat before that time," he said - "We got together in late '93 and I just dug the sound immediately."), when he went to hear Parkins play with Ikue Mori at New York City's Roulette. In adding her to the line-up, he got someone who was already versed in keyboards, sampler, organ and piano as well. "I decided to use that because it was obviously a strong part of her thing," he said. "Her approach is not idiomatically jazz-oriented, so to get her to play things that go in that direction, you get some really interesting results."
From the beginning, he said, he had in mind forming a working unit.
"I was thinking of it as a band for sure," Eskelin said. "I knew it was going to be more than just a one-time project. Given the instrumentation, I think it surprised people when we did more than a couple of gigs and made more than one record. In the beginning, I might have seen three records as a reasonable achievement."
Parkins recalled approaching that first performance with apprehension and excitement.
"I remember the night," she said. "It was packed. I don't know if it was packed because of us or because John Zorn played after us. I wasn't sure what he was after, and I wasn't sure I could make it work. In order to make Ellery's music work, there's something tranformational that happens, there's a kind of sense of the moment. I remember thinking, 'I think this is good, but I'm not sure.'"
The trio soon reached Eskelin's three-record "reasonable achievement" and went well beyond. Their first release, Jazz Trash, issued by Songlines in 1994, was interesting for the instrumentation, but showed little of what the band would become.
"I've gone back and listened to that and thought, 'Yeah, that's definitely a first record by a band with a concept," Eskelin said. "It's not like the band got better; it changed. But I don't think I could go back and improve on Jazz Trash. I'm thrilled with that record. I think all the records are different enough to warrant having made them. It's more about documenting the changes and not a trajectory of getting better and better and better. Jazz Trash had a certain charm to it. It was kind of rickety in some ways, but I love that sound."
Soon after, they began a fruitful relationship with Hat Hut, and perhaps there is the argument for what makes a band thrive for a decade. With funding initially from the Swiss Bank Corporation and then private sponsorship from the furniture company Vitra and its chairman Rolf Fehlbaum, the band was able to work with some promise of a future, essentially a five-year recording and touring contract starting in 1998 - something unusual in the current jazz market. While such a relationship undoubtedly helped the band create and work toward a vision, securing that relationship, according to drummer Black, was another part of Eskelin's talent.
"He is really good at getting people to do handshakes and getting things done," Black said. "It's been very good for the band."
At first, the band was trying to find the sound Eskelin heard, something based on his love of old gutsy saxophone and organ trios but with challenging arrangements and mutations.
"It was a question of what exactly was this music we were playing," said Black. "I mean, it sounded good on paper, it made sense right away, but I was like 'OK, how can we do this?' There's a combination of elements that you've not quite heard before, and that's exciting."
For Parkins, the energy and overt emotions, the jazziness of the heads in Eskelin's compositions, were a surprise.
"He has charts that reek of majorness," she said. "I remember being really freaked out about it. I thought, 'Is this good?' It felt like too much flavor, corny.
"Right now, I think we're a great pop band," she added. "There's a lot of heartfelt, thematic, uncynical chord progressions that happen with a sense of rhythm. It is a tension and it works really well."
As they've grown into their sound, the band has worked backwards in a sense, from working through charts to employing more improvisation. 12 + (1) Imaginary Views, released in 2001, was the group's first all-improv outing. A new record, with guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Melvin Gibbs, is due out later this year.
"Each idea [on Imaginary Views] was real simple: OK we're gonna start an improv, but during that improvisation I want this to happen," Eskelin said. "Like "Middle C," it's just a middle C on the staff. I think when I showed it to them, they laughed at me. It was the first time I said, 'Here's the material and I'm not going to arrange it.'"
"Middle C" might epitomize the trio's sympatico. The track opens with Eskelin's soulful playing, some scattered percussion and a sort of synthesized gong from Parkins. A drum roll and a swell of sound from the keyboard, a moment of organ and in about 90 seconds they find the piece, a nervously building trichotomy. Parkins overlays accordion, Black gets busier, drops out and returns. Just before the four-minute mark, they settle into a succinct, logical ending.
"We're thinking about middle C and we drop in and out," said Black. "I think it's a really good piece. The simplest idea could be a whole world in itself, given to the right people."
The piece is a tight piece of music, almost - as Parkins might put it - a pop song. It sounds as if it could have been a full score, but it's really just the work of a band that knows how to play together.
"I do admire the whole idea of having a band," he said. "I like one-offs - the first time I played with Han Bennink we shook hands five minutes before we hit the stage."
But that kind of spontaneity, he said, is a very different thing than the relationships built over years of playing together. He cites as an example NRBQ, the wide-ranging countrified blues and jazz group formed by Terry Adams in 1967. Eskelin had the chance to play with them recently at Brooklyn's Northsix.
"From the first few notes of the soundcheck, the feel was just awesome," he said. I thought this was the real thing. There's no other way to get that except for just being on the road constantly. And it was just as loose as any jazz gig I've been involved in. I realized that's a band, and what a wonderful thing to have bands out there."
Eskelin was raised in a musical household, listening to Gene Ammons (to whom he later paid tribute on the excellent The Sun Died with Marc Ribot and Kenny Wollesen), Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt as a child. Later, he discovered Coltrane's Giant Steps, and then Interstellar Space, which he described as a "revelation." But the music in the house wasn't just coming from the record player.
"I grew up listening to my mother play Hammond B-3 organ," he said. "When I was 10 years old, I decided I wanted to play saxophone and be a jazz musician."
But when Eskelin moved to New York in 1983, he found the old-school approach of woodshedding and auditioning for heroes was disappearing.
"You don't have apprenticeships anymore," he said. "I remember going to sit in with Art Blakely and trying to get noticed, and I just had to go and do my own thing. I got pieces of that, but I realized things were different. The 10-year-old kid who wanted to play jazz and had his idols never really got satisfaction. By the time I was on the scene, a lot of those people were dead and there were lots and lots of young saxophone players."
Instead he built his own house, playing with his contemporaries (notably with Joey Baron's Baron Down with Steve Swell) and started making tracks as a leader. He was named one of "25 for the Future" by Downbeat in 1999 and the trio was described in the British newspaper The Guardian as a band that "knows how to play simultaneously from the head and the heart, and for whom musical risk-taking has become a way of life."
The group brings in guests occasionally, as with the new project with Ribot and Gibbs or their ongoing collaboration with vocalist Jessica Constable. But they never uses substitute members, ensuring a consistency in sound. Still, that sound always has its origins in Eskelin's pen. They've recorded pieces by Monk, John McLaughlin, Lennie Tristano, Charlie Haden, Coltrane, Gershwin and even Eugene Chadbourne, but even with two other composers in the band, the songbook is written by the leader.
"I haven't thought about that really" Black said, when asked about bringing his own compositions to the group. "Ellery's never asked and I've never suggested. We're already bringing our music in every time. We don't need to mess it up with more charts."
Parkins concurred. "I think Ellery would be open to it, but [Jim and I] both have our own outlets," she said. "It's really been about Ellery's vision, but he gives us so much room.
"It's engaging on every level, and what could be better than that?" she added. "I think it's really rare that you get to do that in your professional life. The only thing that's not challenging is how we get along, and that's good."
It's a chemistry that would seem to ensure if not another decade at least plenty of time on the road in the years to come.
"I don't take it for granted that it's going to last forever," he said. "Every year that it goes on, I say, 'Hey, great!'
"It's still challenging, it's still developing," he added. "There's a lot more there than you would think given that instrumentation. I has more to do with the people than the instruments."
And it's a safe guess those people will be along for the ride.
""I'm not in a rush to stop," Parkins said. "So far he seems excited about continuing. If he's there, I'm there."
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