In 1999, Escoffery moved from Boston where he studied at the Thelonious Monk Institute, to the Mecca of jazz music, New York City. Reflecting upon the past eight years and evaluating his career to date he says, "I have had so many opportunities and they seem to keep coming. I am keeping my fingers crossed because I am blessed to have some of these opportunities. I just hope to keep working more with my groups, and more as a sideman. I really think working as a sideman is important. There are still a lot of great musicians out here that I want to play with. I hope to continue doing what I am doing."
Escoffery provides some insight as to the value he places on playing as a sideman at this point in his career, "When you have your own group you are under your own terms. You do what you want to do and you are aware of what your limits are. It is up to you whether or not you want to push those limits. When you are a sideman, you are going to be asked to do things that maybe you haven’t thought about before, or perhaps that you might not have thought that you would like to do. You keep developing skills (as a sideman) that you are going to need to become a better musician."
The saxman then draws an example from his personal experience working with the Tom Harold Quintet. "Tom Harold is an incredible musician and writer. His compositions sound simple, but when you play them, the harmonies are so complex. With every song of his that I learn, I have to take it home and study it to really understand the harmonies that he is using. When I am composing my own things, I am always trying to come up with some interesting harmonies, but it is inevitable that I am going to write things that I am comfortable with and that I am hearing. When you are dealing with a mind like Tom Harold’s, you are dealing with what he is hearing, and that is going to push you. Like I said, I take those compositions home, practice the changes, try to understand the harmonies, and it changes my playing. I play in a different way when I play with Tom, than when I play with my own group, the Mingus group, or anybody else. This is just one example from many where I wouldn’t be getting the knowledge and the experience of pushing myself in this way if I were not a sideman in (another group)."
There is another part of Wayne Escoffery’s life that causes him to stretch musically, and he does not even have to venture outside his home to experience it. He is married to the wonderfully, talented jazz vocalist Carolyn Leonhart, who by the time this piece appears in print, will have just concluded an extended tour with Steely Dan.
Escoffery and Leonhart have been collaborating on a new CD If Dreams Come True that is scheduled for release later this year. Initial indications are it could hit the digital and store shelves by late summer. All of the compositions have been arranged solely by Escofferey or in collaboration with Leonhart. "I think the album sounds great and the strongest thing on the CD is Carolyn’s singing. She sounds incredible. It (the CD) really embodies the sound of our group. I am part of Carolyn’s group when she goes out," Escoffery explains.
The somewhat (smile) biased Escofferey comments concerning his wife’s singing, "Carolyn can sing a standard like nobody’s business. She has been singing standards since she was seven years old, so she can sing them in her sleep. I think what she does is bring these jazz standards into a more modern setting. The colors and time signatures that we use really give a great sound to the standards."
"One of my dreams even before I met Carolyn was to play with a great vocalist. I used to sing when I was young so I have always had a good appreciation for singers. Some of the first recordings (I owned) were of Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. I have always wanted to play with a good vocalist. The first year that Carolyn and I were dating, I didn’t want to work together because I didn’t want to complicate things even more. Now that we are married ,it is inevitable and I am really happy about that. It pushes us in different directions. It is allowing me to experiment in different ways with the voice. A really good friend of mine Izzio Gross (played with Woody Shaw), a Brazilian pianist now living in Germany, once told me, ‘Always write a song with a good melody that can be sung.’ That is what I usually try to do. For the most part, I try to write songs that have great melodies that can be sung. A great testament to that is the fact that Carolyn writes great lyrics and she has written the lyrics for a lot of the songs that I have composed," says Escoffery.
Continuing to talk about the Escoffery / Leonhart collaborative efforts Escoffery observes, "The other thing that helps push me in different directions is she is able to sing in different time signatures. I think one of the first times that we did something together was at a jam session, when she was going to sing a standard. I asked her if she had ever tried it in five and she said no. She sang it in her head for a minute and then said, ‘Okay, let’s try it.’ We did and it was seamless. We have experimented with time signatures many times. When she sings them, it doesn’t sound mechanical or like we are trying to be complicated. It just sounds like a good song because of the way that she does it. A lot of times when I compose stuff, she is at my side, and I will ask her questions such as does this sound too weird or complicated or does it sound good. We really guide each other in a great way so it has been a good experience musically."
All of the stretching and pushing boundaries culminated in Escoffery’s current CD Veneration: Live At Smoke. The CD was recorded over two nights, the first of which featured inclement weather conditions and what Escoffery describes as a virtual monsoon. Three sets were performed on the Friday night and three sets on the Saturday night. "Three sets per night were just enough because it allowed us to play every song at least twice," says Escoffery. "We only really rehearsed one time before the recording. We (went with) whichever takes were right. I chose the takes that sounded most right and the tightest. I just trusted that the level of musicianship was there and it was. I didn’t really stress too much about my best solo or anyone else’s best solo. I just picked the songs that sounded the tightest and went from there," he says.
The song "Bee Vamp" features what sounds to be a solo by Escoffery, however, he says, "It is a loose melody to begin with and it almost sounds like I am soloing through the whole thing, but it is actually a written melody. I think I did say let’s just start and I will blow a little in the beginning and then I will come in with the melody. It was planned but every night it ended up feeling different," says Escoffery.
Escoffery recruited an old acquaintance vibraphonist Joe Locke, to play on the album. Veneration: Live At Smoke. The two first met at the Thelonius Monk Institute and then in 2000 while Locke was working gigs at Kavehaz in New York’s Soho district. "I think the group was called the Wire Walkers and it was more a jazz fusion type of music. I sat in with him a couple of times and we had a lot of fun," says Escoffery. It also helped that Locke had played gigs at Paul Stache’s Smoke and was familiar with the acoustics and general feel of the venue.
Escoffery gave Locke wide berth in terms of creative license. "I just let Joe interpret the chart. With the Booker Little song "Looking Ahead," it was originally written with horns, trumpet and saxophone. There are actually some written parts and Joe played those written parts. In general, I just let him voice the parts in the way that he wanted to. When you have great musicians like Joe you can give them a skeleton of what is supposed to happen and with vibes there is a plethora of sounds and colors that you can get. I knew that it would be in my best interests to give him as much space as possible to see what he would come up with."
The other musicians performing on Veneration: Live At Smoke are bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Lewis Nash.
With two previous studio projects, Intuition and Times Change, to his credit why did Escoffery choose this time in his career to do a live CD? He responds, "I have been playing and performing the last few years with a lot of groups and I have become comfortable performing live. It made sense for that to be captured on a CD." We are glad this superbly talented musician and songwriter made that decision because Veneration: Live At Smoke is a beautifully crafted album.