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The John Escreet Project

Matthew Kassel
Contributing Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

David Binney, standing center stage, worked a silver MacBook as the John Escreet Project slowly eased into its first piece of the night, “Don’t Fight the Inevitable,” on Saturday, November 27 at Upstairs Jazz Club. It wasn’t exactly clear what Mr. Binney was doing—his hands were hidden—but he seemed to be looping some clanging sounds, like those from a music box.

The use of electronic looping in this set didn’t really seem necessary. It’s not that the group could have done with out it, but Mr. Binney rarely worked the computer throughout the performance. It was a matter of orchestration.

The John Escreet Project—including pianist Mr. Escreet, alto saxophonist Mr. Binney, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Nasheet Waits—was offering rolling, episodic music.

After the first piece ended—about 30 minutes later—Mr. Escreet revealed that it was actually a medley. It worked with or without that knowledge. (The group would play one more medley that night.) In fact, the group could have played the entire approximately hour-long set without stopping—not because the musicians could have endured it, but because the audience would have probably been happy to follow along. (It wouldn’t have been like this performance.)

The musicians were creating a movie of sound on stage—a sort of montage of attractions—working around the beat, in its interstices, and then closing in on it—not fully, but just enough to leave you wondering where they would go next.

This group managed to give a very active role to accompaniment, making motifs and vamps and little bits of noodling into a cogent whole. In an untitled piece, Mr. Felder, playing a Fender Stratocaster, worked some subtle, echoey notes around Mr. Escreet’s stuttering piano. It wasn’t clear if both musicians were soloing or if it was a pre-arranged section.

There were obvious solo sections, but they didn’t feel forced or perfunctory or cordoned off. The wise trombonist Bob Brookmeyer has said that solos should only happen “when absolutely nothing else can happen.” This group seems to have qualified that.

It’s not that the solos were the last thing that could happen, but when they came, they were often refreshingly the last thing you’d expect.

Mr. Escreet often worked his soloing in and around short vamps, revealing the breadth of his sound, incorporating funky Jaki Byard-like dexterity, McCoy Tyner-like chord voicings, spooky tone clusters. (From England, Mr. Escreet studied at the Manhattan School of Music, notably with pianists Kenny Barron and Jason Moran.)

Mr. Escreet worked up a motivic piano line in the last piece of the night, “Magic Chemical (For The Future),” the second and last part of a medley. The piece remained tranquil as Mr. Binney—who may or may not still have been working the MacBook—occasionally added in some soft saxophone accompaniment. The beat quickened, got a sturdier footing, and Mr. Binney flew into it—no build, just blam!—unfurling a beautiful, sultry saxophone solo.

It didn’t feel like he had been holding back for that one moment. And it wasn’t that absolutely nothing else could happen. But nothing else did, and that’s not what you expected.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.