Wayne Escoffery


Review by Brad Walseth

Recorded live over a two-day engagement at New York City's famous Smoke jazz club, Veneration is a portrait of a young musician clearly on the rise. This 31 year-old tenor saxophonist has earned his reputation through hard work and study, and the story of his ascension is inspirational.

Born in London, he and his mother relocated to New Haven Connecticut, where he joined the internationally known Trinity Boys Choir and began taking private sax lessons. Attending a number of programs for gifted musicians, Escoffery's talent was noted by alto-saxophonist and educator Jackie McLean, who took the young man under his wing, giving him a full scholarship to The Hartt School where McLean was founder of the jazz program. Escoffery was chosen for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at Boston's The New England Conservatory where he studied with a who's-who list of exceptional jazz musicians.

In 2000, Escoffery moved to New York City, where he has flourished as a much in demand sideman. He became a steady member of the world famous Mingus Big Band, and also was hand-picked by Wynton Marsalis to tour as a frontliner with Lincoln Center's Music of the Masters. He is currently working in Tom Harrell's quintet, as well as backing his wife - the singer Carolyn Leonhardt (he is bassman Jay Leonhardt's son-in-law). Additionally, he has released two previous albums as leader.

As might be surmised by the path this young man has taken Veneration is the work of an artist who in, reaching maturity, "venerates" his elders without aping them, and begins to build upon them. Escoffery uses his lessons as groundwork, from which - confident in his abilities, he lets it rip in cascades of extended lines. You can hear fragments of those who have influenced him in his playing - especially that of his mentor McLean - whose "Melody for Melonae" is given loving treatment. I am not sure he has quite found his own voice yet, but clearly Escoffery is striving in that direction and still has plenty of time in his evolution. As it is, he has taken a bit of a middle ground - neither settling for commerciality nor obliterating convention, which in the end makes for a solid and musical listening experience.

Song choices are interesting: Dizzy's "I Waited for You," Booker Little's "Bee Vamp" and "Looking Ahead," Ellington and Strayhorn's "Isfahan" and Freddie Hubbard's "Skydive" show considerable range and a taste for some lesser known standards. The musican also adds his own "Tell Me Why" - a poignant tune highlighted by the artist's switch to soprano sax, on which he proves equally adept. Additionally, Escoffery shows remarkable judgment in his choice of playing partners. Drummer Nash is a tasteful and propulsive accompanist, while Glawischnig proves to be the melodic force he has been reputed to be on the bass. Perhaps the most vital choice was that of vibraphonist Locke, whose brightly beautiful lines and chords fill the piano/guitar role, sparkling like diamonds. The interplay between the bandmates is exceptional - this is hot stuff!

This is a worthy album that should gain Escoffery some well-deserved attention, especially from those saxophone fans still mourning the loss of Michael Brecker. Venerating his forbears while moving forward with confidence and dignity, this young man is a star on the rise, and I am confident we will be hearing much more from this young lion in the future.

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