Sunday, June 2, 2019

Responsibility | Ellery Eskelin


This word has been coming up more and more in my life, and has all sorts of implications regarding the concept of FREEDOM.

FREEDOM when I was a bit younger, might have been perceived as the relative absence of responsibilities. This seems to be written into the code of the Bohemian mindset of the creative artist or musician... It's keeping a low overhead, keeping our financial obligations & time restrictions to a minimum in order to prioritize a certain brand of creativity in our daily lives. Taking on too many monthly bills can put a serious cramp in our free time, and that can be tough to manage when we are trying to develop our craft and our work, let alone book gigs, perform, make records, etc.

At a certain point after I turned 30, I noticed that the "freedom FROM X, Y, or Z" was becoming its own burden. I wanted to be free to do whatever felt right for me, without being concerned with what implications that may or may not have concerning my career, let alone my IDENTITY. Eventually we realize that responsibilities bring meaning to our lives.  

This means that I've recently discovered that INTENTIONALLY TAKING ON RESPONSIBILITIES feels like a better exercise in freedom to me at this point in my life.

Within reason, of course. I am still cautious - I still need to keep a low overhead, and I still have to wait awhile before making any big purchases, and I almost never go on vacation. These are no longer points of pride about the sacrifices made for my art, but rather, shortcomings that require evaluation and adjustment if I am to live a sustainable and enriching life!

This life in music comes with a boat load of responsibilities! 

Practicing our instruments
 Training our ears
 Learning and composing music
 Teaching (and learning how to be a better teacher)
 Selling recordings
 Booking gigs
 Advertising those gigs
 Playing the damn gigs
Paying the band
Presenting or curating in any capacity
 and the list goes on...

All of this on TOP of the normal everyday responsibilities we have as citizens of Earth...

WHAT DO WE WANT? The clearer we can be as our artistry develops, the clearer our vision for our lives can be, the more responsibility we need to take on in order to bring that vision to life.


The more responsibilities we are willing to take onto our shoulders, the more freedom we might be able to earn with respect to:

The music we might get to play
The musicians we might get to play with
The venues we might get to play in
The audiences we might get to play for
The influence we might have in our communities...

If we know what we WANT, we know what the music NEEDS from us, then it becomes CLEAR what we have to do to create a SPACE for that to exist. This is the essence of what I mean by responsibility.

(This is all without taking SOCIAL JUSTICE into account, which in 2019 is a HUGE responsibility for artists of all types. There is much to advocate for AND against, there are many underrepresented people who deserve allies, friends, community, & belonging. Isn't that sort of what this is all about, on some level?)


AS IMPROVISERS we really need to take a hard look at the word RESPONSIBILITY as it applies to our music-making. Not just the managing of the aforementioned necessities, but in the UNFOLDING of our CREATIVE PROCESS.

An improviser capable of performing entirely unscripted concerts must take responsibility for learning as much as they can about the nexus of sound/timbre/tone, melody, harmony, rhythm, form, texture, space, energy, resonance, inflection, expression, intonation, articulation, traditions & idioms, development of ideas, interaction with other musicians, and so much more...literature, poetry, history, psychology, religion, cinema, theater, dance, visual art...we can draw inspiration from anything and everything. This unfolds over the course of our entire lives.

We are filtering all of this information simultaneously through the lens of all the music we have ever heard (our history) AND through the filter of who we are, what we hear, and how we are feeling NOW IN THIS MOMENT. Of course, we are also accounting for the energy and choices of any other musicians who are playing in that moment, along with anyone who may be listening in the audience.


It is entirely possible (and recommended, in fact) that we take our study of any music we learn this seriously. This brings depth, nuance, subtlety, coherence, and power to our improvised performances. It also brings a sense of freedom and adventure to the performance of "traditional" music of any variety, be it jazz, blues, classical, folk or anything else.


What do we sound like?
Who do we want to play with?
Where do we want to play?
Who do we want to play for?
What's it for?

It goes without saying (or does it?) that writing a blog, curating a concert series, offering lessons for musicians for the love of teaching, going to concerts & supporting other artists, taking care of our minds and bodies, and showing love and support for other people are all responsibilities that are of utmost importance on this path!


These responsibilities are a privilege, and are to be regarded as such. No one asks us to take these responsibilities on. In our culture in America, responsibility is most often translated into money, status, or value in a very different way than what we are talking about here. VALUE is in the eye of the beholder.

You can take Responsibility in Your Music Right Now by simply picking up your instrument, and playing something simple, direct, honest, and fun - bringing your full attention into communicating your love for music through your sound and inflection. Take something you think you KNOW, and play it like you've never played it before. Do this until you feel like you REALLY GOT IT.

Now put your instrument down. Close your eyes, and imagine ONLY ever playing from that space. Only LISTENING to music performed from that space. Imaging CULTIVATING A LIFE from that space. How does that feel? This spirit of inquiry - this sense of adventure?



L-R: DM, Ellery Eskelin, Mike Kuhl, Jeff Reed in Bertha's

Back in 2010, I went to the Windup Space to catch a concert with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, & bassist Michael Formanek. I had no idea what I was in for, and no clue that this concert would change my trajectory forever.

For years, I had been trying to figure out how to improvise freely with other musicians while implying, suggesting, or employing the kinds of devices that are found within music from all over the world - form, melody, harmony, rhythm, and more. I wanted freedom from restriction, but I understood intuitively that there was freedom WITHIN restrictions, as well. Oftentimes, I felt rather cold after jam sessions where folks were either rehashing standard jazz tunes or noodling around on open vamps, often with little to no dynamic contrast - I KNEW there was something more, and I knew that it wasn't simply a difference of getting BETTER by learning MORE tunes, MORE licks, or MORE novelties on my instrument (though to some extent I did go through a period of amassing as much "betterment" in these areas as I could).

I hadn't yet fallen in love with much "free jazz" at that time, but I was drawing on my love for bands like the Paul Motian trio (with Joe Lovano & Bill Frisell) and the Keith Jarrett American & European Quartets, who were able to play with absolute freedom within structures, or play into the stratosphere without losing their footing. I was learning...slowly....what I was that I wanted to DO with other musicians. I suspected this unity of freedom & structure could be reflected in the way people played without any written structures, and I was actively seeking folks who were able to bring a level of focus, clarity, attention, and direction to their free improvisations without being bound by style. People who were alive, and doing it here and now, where I could witness it first hand.

This concert with Eskelin, Alcorn, & Formanek was a revelation for me. This happened relatively late in my life, I might add...I was 25 years old. I thought I knew what I was after with respect to my sound and conception, until this trio broke it all down and put the pieces back together in a way that changed my music forever. They composed music in the moment that had form and shape and melodic contour, yet everything felt like anything might happen at any time. It was simultaneously soothing and enlivening. They opened up a whole world of expressive possibility for me, and changed what I wanted to sound like. They took RESPONSIBILITY for every detail of the music, going above and beyond, while digging deep within themselves and the music.

Ellery plays the tenor with a flexibility of tone, texture, phrasing, melody, and architecture that I had never heard before. He has been able to integrate the whole history of the tenor saxophone seamlessly - from Coleman Hawkins to Evan Parker. Everything is in there, yet he is unmistakably himself. One of a kind.

A few years later, after getting my feet under me, accumulating some experience performing in various contexts with various bands, I reached out to Ellery for some saxophone lessons.  I felt very ready to seek the advice of this powerfully expressive tenor player...

I took a handful of lessons with Ellery over a period of 5 years, which both affirmed and clarified some suspicions I had about the processes involved in practicing vs. performing. We got into the nuts and bolts of sound production on the horn. We got abstract, and broke free from (my) assumptions. We got philosophical, we got mystical. Most importantly, he helped me learn to trust myself, accept the sound that is coming out as a reflection of what is happening here and now, and take appropriate action to work WITH the horn rather than fighting it. He taught me how to ask the right questions, again and again, and how to take nothing for granted. He caught me up and hipped me to the magic of the early pre-bebop tenor players with their lush and beautiful sounds, and reassured me that what feels like a very fractured musical upbringing can bear a very personal fruit if nurtured properly.

Whatever I felt I might have missed out on by dropping out of music school and taking a different path, I gained tenfold by studying with Ellery. I learned how much can be gained in such a relationship when things are wide open, non-dogmatic. I learned about myself. He's also a wonderful person and a true friend who goes above and beyond in making other people feel seen and accepted.

Blood Moon Quintet @ An Die Musik

I was very excited to perform with Ellery twice in the last year, once at Bertha's in Baltimore playing a few standards in 2018, and once with Blood Moon Quintet as a part of my monthly concert series at An Die Musik. Blood Moon Quintet was a joint effort, assembled together with Ellery over the phone, and was a celebration of Baltimore jazz history, as expressed through two powerful sets of completely improvised music. The group also featured Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, Theljon Allen on trumpet, and Eric Kennedy on drums. There will be videos from that performance on here very soon! I hope to make more music with Ellery in the near future up in NYC where he resides and teaches.

I'll leave you with this gem from Ellery regarding freedom & responsibility for improvisers:

"I think musicians today are in a position to embrace freedom in perhaps a different way than it was conceived of in previous generations. At one time it may have been regarded as 'freedom from' certain practices that were perceived as constraints. But enough time has passed that we have the opportunity to consider freedom in terms of 'freedom to'. Freedom as in inclusion, not exclusion. There are a million ways to play the simplest phrase..."

This quote has percolated with me, along with many other brilliant lessons I've learned from Ellery over the last few years. It was clear to me that we were on a similar wavelength before I ever met him, having read his blog and listened to his music.

You can find two brilliant interviews with him HERE & HERE, and his BLOG can be found HERE. It's a great one, and was both the inspiration for my pursuing lessons with Ellery, as well as my decision to pick back up with a blog after 10 years of silence....

Here is one of my favorite recordings from Ellery - an example of a timeless yet modern approach to creativity in the music. This is a free improviser's take on an old standard "My Ideal" and one of my personal favorite recordings.

Thanks for the inspiration, Ellery!
Stay tuned for more essays on sound, phrasing, content, jazz education, classical tradition, curating our own career, and more very soon. Let's see if we can break some of these responsibilities down into some actionable concepts.

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