Side Note: Ellery Eskelin

Here’s an old find (2018) that I recently rediscovered: Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin as the guest soloist with a chamber music ensemble.

Trumpeter Dave Ballou composed the piece, and we’re seeing it as performed at a University of Michigan recital.

The video drops us into the start of the third movement, an onrush of strings working in different tempos. That motif shows up later as well, but overall the piece is contemplative, with lots of blank or nearly blank space for Eskelin to ruminate.

During the same visit, Eskelin performed with a string quartet, a piece written by Andrew Bishop. The sax part is well integrated, amplifying the mood of the strings rather than, say, cutting across them. But he does get a few moments where the string settle into a drone (a pedal tone?) as a backdrop for a short saxophone statement. You’ll find those at around 3:15 and 5:15.

Incidentally, Eskelin has a deeply thoughtful and informative blog of his own that began in 2010. Highly recommended. Check out this long essay about an unreleased 1979 album (not one of his) that intersected a crucial juncture in Eskelin’s early, pre-free-jazz musical journey — and how Eskelin’s relationship with one of the musicians led to a hunt to unearth the album’s history and finally share it with the world. It’s a fascinating story.

One Clarinet and One Bassoon, Shaking the Air

Zachary Good and Ben Roidl-Wardarb (Carrier, 2021)

arb is an album of bassoon (Ben Roidl-Ward) and clarinet (Zachary Good of Eighth Blackbird) multiphonics — long tones that hover and shimmer. The music basks your ears in the vibrations of sine-wave interferences, but it’s created with just the two acoustic instruments.

Multiphonics can feel abrasive (in a good way) but arb often goes beyond sonic experimenting to build songs out of this sonic sandpaper.

The opener, “Fairchild,” is like a test run. They hold different “chords” of multiphonics for substantial lengths, pausing between the changes. It feels repetitious but the effect, eventually, is that you start listening to the moire patterns built by dissonance, those phantom rhythms literally pulsing in the air. This is an analog process, too; Good and Roidl-Ward are human, and you can feel the small shifts in those interference patterns as each note is held. (The occasional breath gets in there as well.)

That sets the groundwork, but while every piece presents long stretches of multiphonics, they have distinct personalities. “Rege” is like the buzz of machinery. “Prid” features a slowly wandering melody, the clarinet trying one note after another against the backing haze of bassoon. The title track is a mini-suite that includes an outright tune (certainly unexpected) and floating, pretty tones, all refracted through a prism of multiphonics.

“Guby” stands out for the irregular flutter coming from both instruments. The higher-pitched clarinet becomes the lead voice, bleating out in small bumps like a rapid alien Morse code, while the bassoon, similarly percolating in its sound, becomes the overriding background color.

Even though Arb is brief (am I too old-school for calling it an EP?), I found I had to take breaks, as if to cleanse the palate of my ears. At one point when I had really gotten absorbed in the music, it felt odd to hit Pause and stop the throbbing of the air around me. The stillness was a stark contrast and became sort of a side performance of its own.

Loops, Synths, and Electric Violin

E. Doctor Smith, Edo Castro Woodhouse, Michèle WaltherTrio Electrique (Edgetone, 2020)

Sometime around 1990, when I was pushing my musical boundaries beyond classic prog rock, I got interested in the Southern California band Djam Karet. In place of the British keyboards and odd time signatures of the 1970s bands I’d followed, Djam Karet offered instrumental rock built with guitars and effects, a brightly colored, intellectually tinged music that often emphasized atmosphere over showmanship. I supposed they could count as a jam band, but they have that brainy posturing, that “prog” feel. I like them.

Trio Electrique occupies a similar space, driven by melody and definitive rhythms but still painting abstract canvasses. Michèle Walther‘s electric violin plays a prime role, while bandleader E. Doctor Smith builds the surrounding atmosphere, triggering percussion and synth washes and building loops. His arsenal is built around devices such as the Zendrum EFX — a synthesizer drumkit the size of a neckless guitars and similar in spirit to Smith’s own Drummstick. (I think of it as an electric-drum analogue to the Chapman Stick.) Edo Castro Woodhouse rounds on the trio on 7- and 9-string electric basses along with more pedals and effects. It’s a very electric trio, and the CD credits offer the gear list as proof.

Following the rock M.O. of soloing over a riff, “Walking in the Mud” presents a 5/4 ostinato as backdrop to Walther’s airy, patient soloing. Smith does his share of exploring on Zendrum, using the space to explore rather than simply keep time.

Walther’s own work with solo looping performances provides the frontline element on Trio Electrique. Often she’ll carve out the rhythm herself — cutting a rapid 11/8 loop, as on “Musa Velutina,” setting a basis for adding her own solos and touches of synth washes. Castro Woodhouse (it’s his married last name) sticks to the background most of the time, but you do get nice doses of his 7-stringed work on tracks like “Snuck.”

It’s a synth-heavy album, as the title suggests; I’m pretty sure there isn’t an acoustic sound anywhere on here. You could call it new-agey for that reason, but I’m putting it in the same bucket as Djam Karet, with enough jazz/blues touches and odd time signatures to mingle with the prog crowd. This trio formed out of Smith’s desire to do an album with electric violin, and with Walther center stage, they deliver a thoughtful, jazz-rooted album that’s ranges from tranquil to stormy.