Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery wears his mainstream credentials on his sleeve. His sound is rounded, warm and subtly dark-hued while his muscular articulation is steeped in generations of modern jazz cutting contests. Confident and sharp-suited, the London-born New Yorker stamped his authority on this full-house gig from the word go.
Escoffery and his quintet opened at full tilt, romping through the opening theme’s short tricky runs and artfully placed sustains. Drums chattered, cymbals pinged and the 37-year-old saxophonist, buoyed by sprightly walking bass, delivered his first take-no-prisoners solo of the evening. The tune, called “Shapes”, was written in 1976 by trumpeter Tom Harrell, a long-time colleague, and the hard-edged swagger on Escoffery’s solo reflected his long membership of the Mingus Big Band.
But there’s much more to Escoffery’s music than a superior rendition of modern jazz’s recent past. His quintet featured two keyboard players, Danny Grissett on acoustic grand and Rachel Z on laptop and synths, and their layered textures reflected later influences. Drummer Jason Brown tweaked swing and Latin funk with sparse hip-hop beats and short snare rattles for a contemporary touch. And the Escoffery originals that dominated both sets were episodic structures that switched rhythm and mood.
The first set’s “Banishment of the Lost Spirit” opened pensively, featured florid unaccompanied piano and slow-burning sax, and finally ended with a roll-and-thunder drum solo. The autobiographical “The Only Son of One” was an achingly slow ballad to begin with, but ended with the saxophonist’s resilient repeated high notes finally tumbling to a warm mid-range cadence. The second set opener, “The Gulf of Aqaba”, passed from solo synth to Middle Eastern inflections to the sax spitting phonics over a sparse urban beat.
Escoffery was matched Grissett’s equally rooted and fluent piano – the American flew in from Germany as a short-notice stand-in – and the band played with a control and emotional purpose that transfixed the audience from first to last. The highlight, though, was Escoffery’s lovely reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Snibor”, played over Darryl Hall’s two-note bass pedal. Long notes gained a hint of vibrato, new melodies had an injection of the blues and the occasional flutter confirmed that on ballads, less usually means more.