Wayne Escoffery Quintet – Live At Firehouse 12 (2014)

Wayne Escoffery returns to his hometown New Haven, Connecticut to tape a live performance with his latest quintet and the feels right at home during the gig, captured on his upcoming album Live At Firehouse 12. This is a continuation of sorts of a turning point for the talented tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader.

2012’s The Only Son of One was not only Escoffery’s musical expression of a difficult childhood, but also an originative way of reconciling the traditional and contemporary worlds of jazz that he is equally comfortable residing in. He got this vision fulfilled by augmenting a standard piano/acoustic bass/drums rhythm section with an electronic keyboardist. He brought such a quintet into the New Haven date, packed with the talents of Jason Brown (drums), Rashaan Carter (bass), Orrin Evans (piano) and Rachel Z on keys.

There are only four numbers presented here, and the total running time is a little brief at less than thirty-six minutes, but the five-piece band did plenty enough to make leave an impression and cover a fair amount of ground. The introductory piece is new for this album, an Escoffery/Rachel Z collaboration called “ZWE1.” Z’s job here is to paint the backdrop with a lot of synthesizer spacey textures which the former Steps Ahead keyboardist does with taste, setting the stage for Escoffery’s entrance about 3/5 of the way in to lend some mournful, searching expressions over some ambient sounds. He seamlessly transforms his lines into the middle eastern figure of “Gulf of Aqaba” from his organ-jazz record Uptown, which is probably better suited for this fusion-tinged setting. Escoffery blows some powerful statements on this tune, followed by Evans’ more considered remarks.

And then there’s the title track to that said pivotal release, “The Only Son of One.” It commences begins with Rachel Z’s short lyrical synth solo filled out by Evans’ piano, portraying a beautiful, ghostly melody. Escoffery cradles it with both keyboardists unselfishly enhancing what he’s doing, and Evans follows with a pretty solo. As the song moves into an arcing chorus, Z augments the intensity subtly by modulating her synth.

The program closes with its only cover. “Blue Monsoon” was originally recorded by Sonny Stitt, one of Escoffery’s heros, and he chooses to kick it off with a captivating a capella performance full of hefty tone and soul. He, Carter and Evans bind together on the first part of theme and then Rachel Z and Evans switch off, leaving Evans to play the funky bass line on his left hand. Evans also solos first, a fine one, followed by the saxophonist, who rains down the sax like the monsoon.

With superb engineering and mixing that successfully filters out virtually all extraneous sounds, Live At Firehouse 12 feels like a hybrid studio/live album, with all the advantages of both present on this disc. Wayne Escoffery and his crackerjack crew bridge the gap between acoustic and plugged-in jazz as if the gap never existed.

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Live At Firehouse 12 is due out March 4, by Sunnyside Records. Visit Wayne Escoffery’s website for more info.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.