A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

John Escreet is a versatile musical omnivore, moving fluidly between different facets of the jazz community. The pianist’s Learn To Live features Nicholas Payton, Greg Osby, Matt Brewer, Eric Harland and Justin Brown, while his Trio features John Hébert and Tyshawn Sorey. No matter the setting, Escreet can be found exploring different types of improvisation, groove, structure, and form.

More recently, Escreet has been busily touring and traveling with drummer Antonio Sanchez, which was what he was doing when we caught up with him for a quick phone interview. We spoke about his upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery, for which Escreet invited guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Damion Reid for an open-ended evening of composed music and improvisation/exploration.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to hear what you’re planning with Ben and Damion. I know you’ve played with both of them, but have you played together as a trio?

John Escreet: No, we haven’t played together as a trio. Honesty, I haven’t got that much planned at the moment: Right now, I’m thinking of keeping it trio, doing some electronics, maybe bringing a couple of synths. Damion has played a lot of my music before, but Ben and I have hardly played together, maybe once. We’ve been trying to play together for a while. It’ll be fun, and I’m excited to be playing with them both.

TJG: What is it about Ben’s playing that pulls you in his direction?

JE: It’s unique, very improvised and open. He’s an all-around strong musician and very creative guy. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. Damion was the first person I called for the gig. I felt like trying a new combination, something unfamiliar: Damion and I were throwing ideas back and forth, and he mentioned that he and Ben had also been trying to play together for a while. I hit Ben up, he was into it, and that was that. I like the fact that I’m leaving it open, in terms of what can happen on the gig, you know. It’s all loose, and I know if I just let those guys do their thing, it’ll probably be good.

TJG: Who’s music will you be playing?

JE: A couple of tunes of mine, which I’m about to send out this evening. Damion knows them already, but Ben hasn’t played them yet. I have some other things in mind. Some of this stuff is through-composed, specific lines and things, but the improvisation is also loose, so the music can be both at the same time.

TJG: The piano/drums hookup is a crucial one; how do you tend to interact with Damion?

JE: I find it very easy to play with him. He latches onto whatever the essence of the composition is, ingests it in some way. Strong ideas, lots of interaction, lots of fun.

TJG: Do you have any goals for this gig? The Jazz Gallery can tend to be an incubator or playground for people to try new concepts out. Anything in mind, maybe in terms of interaction or your own playing?

JE: Not specifically for this gig at the Gallery. I want to take full advantage of the opportunity, try things out and see what happens, yet I don’t want to come in with predetermined expectations. Opportunities to present in that setting don’t come around often, so I’m excited. Like I said, I’ll bring a few synthesizers, I’ll play piano, I’ll play Rhodes with my pedals if they have it. I’m letting it be whatever it’s going to be.

TJG: I’m a fan of your trio with Tyshawn Sorey and John Hébert.

JE: Thank you. Conceptually, the gig will probably be quite similar to that. A lot of composed stuff, but real loose, open, improvised all at the same time. In my mind, I’m imagining that zone with this upcoming trio too.

TJG: I think of you as a musical polymath, which can also make it challenging for people to know who you are and what you’re about. How do you prioritize projects when you’re working in so many musical realms? Do you think about structuring your time and your direction?

JE: Thank you, and yes, I understand that the more diverse you are as a musician, the more confusing it can sometimes be for other people, which is not always an easy situation to put myself in, and can even be detrimental. But you can’t let that alter your direction. You have to develop what you want to develop. Allow it to be as spontaneous as possible. I have a broad range of interests, which is all it comes down to. If I want to develop a certain area of my music, I’ll be working on that for however long, whether a few weeks or a year or two. It’s just about pursuing your interests at any given moment to the best of your abilities, and trying to be as thorough as possible. Maybe, if my interests gravitate somewhere else, I’ll let other things lie for a moment. You can have multiple things happening simultaneously: It’s hard to structure sometimes, but I’m interested in a lot of different stuff all the time, so I make it work.

John Escreet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, November 16, 2019. The group features Mr. Escreet on piano & keyboards, Ben Monder on guitar, and Damion Reid on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.