John Escreet is restless. The 30-year-old pianist left his homeland England for America out of college; he spent all of last year hopping from Mexico to China to Austria to Brazil; he sheds musical styles and ensembles like snakeskin. It is precisely this constant movement and drive for something new that makes him one of the most fascinating and important figures in jazz today.
When you catch Escreet at The Jazz Gallery this week on March 23, he’ll be fronting a trio with special guest. But this is not the group that recorded Escreet’s most recent album, 2014’s flowing Sound, Space, and Structures (Sunnyside). “On purpose, I called guys who I don’t play with that much,” Escreet said in a phone interview. He’ll be joined by a cohort of musical peers who have never played as a single unit before, including bassist Harish Raghavan. Escreet explains the gameplan for this brand new group without any apprehension: “I just picked a few different pieces out of my catalogue, new and old, that I think would work well. And even if they are old tunes, I can tell that they’re going to be so different; they’re going to be deconstructed probably in quite an epic way.”
Escreet’s scope and ambitions are indeed epic. Sound, Space and Structures is his sixth album, and each one before tramped into messy, fertile new territory: post-bop, funk grooves, free jazz. He even dipped into writing for string quartet after a commission from the Gallery; his resulting partnership with the Sirius Quartet was highly successful, and yet just another exploratory mission conquered. “Anything is difficult if you’re unfamiliar,” Escreet says of the process of writing for strings. “The more I did it, the easier it became.”
As Escreet expands his musical experimentations, he also expands his musical network. His most frequent collaborators are entrenched in what Escreet sheepishly alludes to as the “young New York jazz community”: Sanchez, Ambrose Akinmusire, David Binney, John Hébert, Tyshawn Sorey, Adam Larson. But as Escreet tells me, “I don’t like to be tied down to one community too much.” He’s tangled with Chris Potter, fellow Brit Evan Parker, and Wayne Krantz, to name a few.
How to describe Escreet’s playing? A comparison to Andrew Hill feels appropriate, but not remotely close to capturing the whole of Escreet’s playing. “I’m drawn to pioneers,” he says. “People who created their own thing that nobody can emulate.”
So perhaps it’s best to come to The Jazz Gallery without any concrete expectations. “I’m just interested in too many different things,” Escreet says. I don’t think his listeners mind too much.
The John Escreet Group plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, March 21st, 2015. The group features Mr. Escreet on piano and Harish Raghavan on bass, as well as a drummer and special guest to be announced. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Purchase tickets here.