Anyone who has studied applied music with me has likely heard me talk about Wayne Escoffery, whether I’ve used his name or not. I add or omit details depending on the needs of the particular student, but the distillation goes something like this.
When I was in high school in the early ‘90s there were a bunch of strong, young jazz musicians around in CT who were bound for professional musicianhood. Some were more precocious than others, with some seeming destined to go on to great things. It was interesting, however, to see how each of these musicians dealt with his or her talent over time and how that impacted their long-term artistic and professional success. There was this one player in particular who was really good, really young. At 17 he probably sounded as good as any of the professionals in New Haven, and it would have been pretty easy to coast from that point on. For him, though, it was not an option. Over and over for the next 20 years he chose the path of greater resistance and greater reward. At least once he forced himself into “ugly duckling” phases where it actually kind of sounded as though he had regressed, but only because he was consciously avoiding the things that already worked and devoting himself to further pursuit of the things that weren’t there yet. Not a lot of people can do what he did, calling upon a mixture of discipline, focus, long-term vision and (perhaps most elusive for most people) willingness to spend a ton of time knee-deep in sober assessment of one’s flaws and limitations.
Anyway, that’s the behind-the-scenes story of why Wayne is such a tremendous role model for any budding musician (or, I dare say, pursuer of just about any challenging endeavor). But if those were the “ugly duckling” years, the rest of the world has the privilege now of hearing the “beautiful swan” version of Wayne, where all that hard work melds with all the natural soulfulness and lyricism on which he has steadfastly refused to coast. At this point his discography is pretty large – in this list I had to omit a number of really nice records, including sessions by Avi Rothbard (albeit released under Wayne’s name), Eric Reed, Joe Locke and Wayne himself. I also left off the 3 sessions we’ve done together – of course I encourage you to check out “Playdate” and my records Soul Force (he solos on “Satyagrahi” and has a tenor duel with fellow “twin tower” Jimmy Greene on Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”) and Know Thyself (on which he’s featured frequently), but I don’t claim to have the sort of objectivity to meld these into a list of favorites.
Of course, if he were to read this he would probably roll his eyes at the notion that he has “arrived” anywhere, so the rest of us can appreciate what he’s doing now while licking our chops at the prospect of what the future has in store. But never mind the future. The time is now, and now he is celebrating the release of a new album with his quintet called The Only Son of One . . .
1 ) “Banishment of the Lost Spirit” from The Only Son of One
. . . and how’s that for a segue? The quintet features the dual keyboards of Orrin Evans (a frequent collaborator of Wayne’s) on piano and Rhodes and Miles Davis alumnus Adam Holtzman on synthesizers (which at various points on this track serve both coloristic and solo functions). The compositions (for the first time on record, all Wayne’s original music) are moody, intense and deeply personal. The playing is really superb (they tear the ROOF off on this track, but the varied moods on the record are all well-served). And I don’t buy a lot of physical CDs anymore, but the beautiful packaging and even more beautiful liner notes made me glad in this case). Man, talk about a mature statement.
2 ) “Lulu’s Back In Town” from Grown Folks Music by Ben Riley
The notion of the “jazz record producer” is in many ways antiquated, yet Wayne is starting to amass quite the discography of records produced for other leaders. As a longtime member of Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy group, Wayne has been tapping into that tradition without playing in a stiltedly derivative manner (he’s got plenty of ‘Trane, Sonny, Johnny Griffin and Charlie Rouse in him, but don’t go looking for copped licks from any of them when he plays this music). He has also become one of our generation’s real giants of what’s referred to here as “Grown Folks Music,” authoritatively handling a certain elegance of groove that is sadly becoming rarer in a world where so many 20-somethings’ point of reference is Chris Potter and Brad Mehldau (both great players, but what about Clifford Jordan and Cedar Walton? George Coleman and James Williams? Jimmy Heath and Barry Harris?). This album will be out in late April, but I was fortunate to check it out and hoo boy does it swing (thanks Ben! Thanks Ray Drummond!).
3 ) “Infinity” from Tides of Yesterday by Wayne and Carolyn Leonhart
Carolyn is, of course, also known as Mrs. Escoffery, but their musical partnership is hardly a case of nepotism in either direction. This hard-grooving tune shows off their wonderful blend and interplay, with Wayne taking the role of the song’s composer, Lee Morgan, and Carolyn taking the part of Jackie McLean, Wayne’s foremost mentor. Pianist Toru Dodo gets some seriously tasty licks in as well.
4 ) “Dedication to Wanda” from Hopes and Dreams
This track features a couple admirable and less-discussed aspects of Wayne’s musical personality. One is his tremendous sense of lyricism – people may know him better for his playing in more aggressive context, but this man can squeeze the juice out of a ballad! The other is his attention to important but less-heralded contributors to the jazz tradition, in this case the saxophonist and composer Bill Barron.
5 ) “Dream Text” from The Time of the Sun by Tom Harrell
I’m not sure if it’s legitimate to call Tom Harrell “unsung,” but he is certainly underappreciated given his stunning artistry. Wayne has become something of a right-hand man as co-producer of several of Tom’s albums – the 5th album by this incarnation of the group comes out later this year, with another one planned to document Tom’s Chamber Ensemble. Wayne blows assertively and soulfully on this irresistibly funky track.
6 ) “Pork Chop” from Ron Carter’s Great Big Band by Ron Carter
Robert Freedman, a longtime collaborator with Ron Carter on many of his orchestration-requiring projects, composed and arranged this quirky, swinging, Monk-esque tune. Wayne and Mr. Carter are the featured soloists and, not surprisingly, they both shine.
7 ) “Intuition” from Intuition
When, precisely, did Wayne transition to the “beautiful swan” incarnation of musical maturity? I’m not sure, but certainly his second album as a bandleader finds him in full bloom. This up-tempo modern blues gives a good sense of his power and range, alongside a strong group including pianist Rick Germanson and drummer Ralph Peterson.
8 ) “Never Too Soon” from If Dreams Come True by Wayne and Carolyn Leonhart
Does a Kenny Barron tune guarantee inclusion on a Top 10 list for me? Not necessarily, but it certainly helps if it’s this good. This is another collaboration with Carolyn Leonhart, who penned the lyrics to Barron’s great waltz/ballad “Lullabye.” Wayne’s beautiful playing on soprano is a highlight on a track full of them.
9 ) “Bee Vamp” from Veneration
Wayne’s “Veneration” group was first documented on this live record from Dizzy’s Club in New York. This is one of two Booker Little tunes on the record and Wayne and Joe Locke both tear it up.
10 ) “Open Letter to Duke” from Mingus Big Band Live at Jazz Standard by Mingus Big Band
The Mingus enterprise (Big Band, Orchestra and Dynasty) has employed Wayne for over 10 years. This orchestration of a song from the classic Mingus Ah Um record begins with an extended and burnin’ tenor feature for Wayne.