Jazz in New Places: THE JOHN ESCREET PROJECT/TAYLOR HASKINS & RECOMBINATION AT DROMby Harper Willis
NYU senior Adam Schatz and recent Brown graduate James Donahue have set out to prove that jazz is still alive and vibrant. Together, with the help of a few eager interns, they run Search and Restore, a non-profit company that promotes and books live jazz and improvised-music shows in New York City. The company recently celebrated its second anniversary, an accomplishment in itself considering the challenges and risks inherent in such a venture.
Admission to Search and Restore shows is a relatively modest $14—less for students with a valid ID—and there are no drink minimums. Concerts are at small-to-mid-sized venues and tend to pack in students, hipsters, and aging-artist types who can’t afford to drop $50 at the Blue Note or the Jazz Standard every time they want to hear live music. Search and Restore’s regular acts include young talent as well as established musicians. Typical venues are not straight jazz clubs, but more adventurous venues like Le Poisson Rouge, Rose Live Music, and the Knitting Factory. The bills are in general top-notch, and the December 20 double-bill at Drom, in the East Village, was no exception.
The night was brutally cold, but regulars at S&R shows tend to be hardcore, so the bar was hopping by 8:00 p.m. The John Escreet Project took the stage at 8:30. Escreet, a 25-year-old English-born pianist and composer, has established himself as an original voice on the New York scene since he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 2008. He wandered onto the stage wearing jeans and a green hoodie, and plunked himself down at the Fender Rhodes. The rest of the band soon took their places: David Binney on alto saxophone, Nasheet Waits on drums, and Joe Sanders on upright bass.
Without ado, Escreet plunged into his first piece, “Jagged,” which began with a series of jarring intervals, played on the electric piano with hard, staccato attacks. The rest of the group lurched into motion, each player entering on a displaced beat and gradually moving toward the musical center as the tune gained momentum. Binney came in over the top with softer, more legato melodic phrases. The band briefly settled into a groove, but soon flared into a blazing crescendo of noise and shifting, angular rhythms that gave way to solos by Escreet and Sanders.
The young pianist coaxed an impressive dynamic range out of his Rhodes, with its amplified steel strings—the pianist’s answer to the electric guitar. He grouped his lines into dense clusters but left plenty of space between them, in a way suggestive of Monk’s phrasings. At the same time his de-emphasis of tonality and his predilection for rhythmic complexity placed his sound squarely in the present. Sanders, who took second place at the 2009 Thelonious Monk competition, played with a clarity and precision rarely heard on the upright bass. The affinity between the two musicians—their youthful energy and musical sincerity—emerged clearly during the course of the set, and formed the musical center of the band and perhaps the night.
Escreet, like many talented composers of his generation, manages to explore multiple dimensions of music simultaneously. He often juggles complex harmonic, dynamic, rhythmic, motivic, and melodic elements in both his composition and his improvisation. The tunes Escreet performed at Drom were formally complex, but there was nothing contrived about them—they seemed to ebb and flow rhythmically according to their own internal logic. Each section came off as a natural response to the previous one, or as an outpouring of a spontaneous impulse from the bandmembers’ collective imagination.
Escreet’s compositions were at times so complex that even Binney, a master on the alto saxophone, looked tense with concentration, as if walking a tightrope in the wind. Too often, great musicians switch to autopilot if the material doesn’t inspire or challenge them, but there was none of that here. The hour-long set left the audience hungry for more.
Following the more esoteric opening act at Drom was Taylor Haskins’s “electro-acoustic” outfit Recombination, a group that specializes in solid, in-the-pocket grooves punctuated by shredding solos. Recombination’s fearsome lineup includes Haskins and drummer Nate Smith, members of the Grammy-winning Dave Holland Big Band, as well as New York heavyweights Ben Monder on electric guitar, Todd Sickafoose on upright bass, and Henry Hey on synth. The band’s basic formula layers electric and acoustic sounds over modal grooves in a variety of time signatures.
The ambient chatter at the Drom died down quickly as Recombination pushed through its set. Monder kicked up the delay and distortion to a more intense level than usual. Haskins ran his trumpet through a pedal that doubled the original note a fifth above, adding to the wave of electronically sculpted sound pulsing and glitching over the acoustic rhythm section. The five musicians on stage often sounded more like ten.
Recombination closed their set with an unexpected and impressive arrangement of the Aphex Twin song “Alberto Balsam.” The choice seemed in keeping with the general tone of the night: You can still find jazz that feels young, fresh, and playful if you know where to look.
Harper Willis is a Brooklyn-based musician and writer.