John Escreet Interview, NYC

By Filipe Freitas

John Escreet, 2018 ©Clara Pereira

John Escreet, 2018 ©Clara Pereira

Name: John Escreet
Instrument: piano, keyboards
Style: modern creative
Album Highlights: Don’t Fight The Inevitable (Mythology, 2010), Sound Space and Structures (Sunnyside, 2014), Learn To Live (BRM Records, 2018)

Your latest album is a fusion of genres. Avant-garde jazz, funk, rock, and electronic music are discernible. Who are your main references for each style?
I have so many different influences from across the musical spectrum, that I try and distill into my own personal vision. I really don't like to categorize them so specifically. I draw inspiration from Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, Herbie Hancock, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, George Duke, Autechre, Messaien... there's just way too many to mention.

Explain how and when the idea of incorporating two drummers playing simultaneously came up?
Well, I had never done a recording of my own before with two drummers, although I had played and recorded a couple of times in that setting and always loved being in the middle of two drummers. Initially, the recording was supposed to be quartet with Osby, Brewer, and Harland. We had performed in Langnau, Switzerland the previous summer and the concert was killing, so I had originally intended to document that. Fast forward to early February 2018 a couple of weeks before the recording session, I had this weekend engagement at The Jazz Gallery in New York, leading a group made up of myself, Nicholas Payton, Matt Brewer and Justin Brown. Those gigs were wild too!!! So I figured that as I had a recording coming up soon, it would make no sense to leave them off it. They were now familiar with all the music and I really wanted them to be involved too. So I just decided to have everybody take part in the recording. The thought of Harland and Justin playing together excited me immensely... two of the baddest dudes playing drums today, both supreme musicians. They had never played together before but I knew they had mutual admiration for each other. I was never in any doubt that it would be anything less than amazing.

This album, made of composed material, is completely different from the previous two (with John Hebert, Tyshawn Sorey, and Evan Parker), where free improvisation dominates. Did you feel this was the right time to change direction?
Honestly, I don't see it in terms of 'changing direction.' I've done many previous albums where the music has been more composed. It's something I've always done and have always continued to do. Even when I had the completely improvised project with Hébert, Tyshawn and Evan I was still writing and trying out music in other groups. I've always continued to compose. I just chose to document something else for the past couple of albums. You eventually come to see it all as the same thing: good music that you hope will engage the listener and move the audience. The essence is the same, it's just the delivery method that changes.

You're also busy as a sideman, touring recently with Jamie Baum Septet+ and now with Antonio Sanchez Migration. How do you feel about these projects in general and your contribution in particular?
I enjoy both of those projects and feel that I am able to musically be myself in both groups. That's very important, to have your personal contribution appreciated as opposed to just "filling the piano chair." Jamie's music is very thru-composed and extremely intricate and has a lot of world music influences. I only play acoustic piano in that group. Antonio's band is a lot of fun and I've been doing it for a number of years. The music is a lot more electric, and I play Rhodes/effects as well as piano. We play his long-form compositions which can really go into some other territories - it can be loud, and feels more like a rock concert at times, which I totally dig!

How do you see the jazz scene today? Any idea to make it better?
The scenes need to integrate more and be more open to one another. That would make it a lot better if people were willing to learn from outside their immediate musical circles and be a bit more open-minded. Also, people need to be kinder to one another, but at the same time be more diligent. Bullshit needs to be always called out. Masters and mentors need to be acknowledged while they are still with us, not after they have passed. Promoters need to have integrity and foster the longevity of real music, not just succumb to the latest short-lived fads. Those are just a few things that would help nurture and grow the jazz scene in my opinion.

With titles like "Broken Justice (Kalief)", "A World Without Guns" and "Humanity Please" you seem very conscious about our world's problems. Tells us more about these pieces as well as your compositional process.
"Broken Justice" was inspired by the tragic story of Kalief Browder. It was actually a completely improvised piece in the studio which I titled afterwards. The music seemed to really fit the mood of how I felt about his situation at the time.
"A World Without Guns" is more of a reflective, meditative piece. The United States has a unique gun epidemic that is dangerously out of control, but guns also cause misery and violence all around the world. Just imagining a world without any of it seems like such a far-fetched thing, but at the same time it just seems so obvious and makes so much sense.
"Humanity Please" is just the vamp section of the same tune, which we expanded upon... hence the similar titles which are in a way interchangeable.
As for my compositional process, well that depends, and tunes often evolve over the course of several performances, as was the case on the new album. Everyone in the band had played most of the music at some point over the course of a few gigs. There were, however, a couple of tunes that were brand new, that I just brought into the studio on the day. We rehearsed them real quick and then recorded them right off the bat... those tunes were "Opening" and "Test Run", hence the title.

Can you tell me two persons who have influenced you the most as a musician?
Tyshawn Sorey and David Binney.

And two persons whom you've never collaborated with but you'd like to.
Bill Frisell and Stevie Wonder.

What was the first jazz record you fell in love with?
Keith Jarrett at the Deer Head Inn, and Sarah Vaughn at Mr Kelly's are two of the earliest ones I remember... there's many.

What would you have been if not a musician?
Not sure, but something that involves traveling and seeing the world.