Eskelin, Versace and Sorey in Times Square

IN a set of freewheeling improvisations and gutsy renditions of standards, Ellery Eskelin, Gary Versace, and Tyshawn Sorey cohered effortlessly at the Limerick Bar at Rosie O’Grady’s in Times Square on Monday. I’m tempted to call it the Ellery Eskelin trio, as his emotive tenor largely led the proceedings, but the music felt collective in the best sense of the word. Playing for a crowd that seemed an even mix of musicians, fans and lucky tourists, the free-minded unit balanced tradition and spontaneousness in a way that typifies great jazz, clashing only with bar’s wood-panelled walls and generally stuffy decor.

After an introduction by Roberto Romeo — owner of Roberto’s Woodwinds upstairs from O’Grady’s, and the sponsor of this promising concert series — Eskelin launched into a seemingly abstract exposition. It was a technique he would repeat throughout the set; in each case, Eskelin’s honking, wailing and slippery phrases served as an idiosyncratic introduction to a standard. It took about a minute for Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays to emerge from Eskelin’s discursive introduction, and his trio was quick to respond. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey cannily maintained the hushed, but focused mood with mallets on toms, and quickly turned the stick to added a wash of cymbal sound as Eskelin expounded on a condensed version of the theme.

Gary Versace’s Korg keyboard quickly established an insistent ostinato that hinted at changes, before falling into what can only be described as a syncopated drone. Versace’s lilting bass tones provided the perfect counterpoint to the rumbling exchange between Eskelin and Sorey, quickly bringing the whole pot to a boil. Like every selection during the set, the trio favored an episodic approach to Yesterdays. Furious improvisation gave way to completely abstract chords from Versace that seemed to open the sky for Eskelin’s meaty upper register, before the telepathic trio swung like hell through inspired solos from the leader, Versace and Sorey.

Throughout the set, the trio seamlessly blended old and new in ways that elicited telling reactions from the diverse audience. Saxophonist Michael Attias bobbed his head to jagged cross rhythms from his seat at the front of the audience, following and delighting in the trio’s masterful deconstruction of Monk’s Off Minor. The nine-minute take began with an exchange between Eskelin and an efforvescent Sorey, that featured a relatively straightforward reading of the melody over a seismically shifting drum beat. It’s almost criminal that this was my first time seeing Sorey in person — as he is ubiquitous in the scene that I have covered for five years now! — and he didn’t disappoint. Throughout the set, Sorey’s drumming evoked countless styles while always swinging. His dialogue with Eskelin on Off Minor was a highlight, stretching the beat one moment, only to mark the top of the chorus with downbeat crashes that summoned Dave Grohl, or John Bonham. His endlessly inventive phrases, and postmodern sensibility meshed perfectly with Eskelin and Versace, and one can only hope that this trio sticks together and records!

After rousing applause and a re-introdution of the band, Eskelin entered with another condensed solo, this time on the melody to Lover Come Back To Me. I’m not sure if it was the material or the Stan Getz record that played before the set began, but the saxophonist seemed to channel the elders in a way that I haven’t heard him do before in concert. The results were thrilling. Sighs and smiles greeted the breezy, masterful introduction to Lover, and developed into groans of pleasure when Sorey entered with an impossibly swinging brush beat. The exchange immediately conjured classic pairings — Getz and Haynes, Rollins and Philly Joe — and was heightened by Versace’s buoyant bass line. A perfect ending to a fantastic set, and a reaffirmation that swing and experimental jazz need not be mutually exclusive.

If you’re in Time Square this Monday, the 24th, check out The Princeton Jazz Quartet at 8pm, followed by Steve Wilson’s quartet at 10pm @ Rosy O’Grady’s Bar 149 West 46th Street (Between Broadway and Sixth Avenue). The cover is $20, but that includes both sets AND a drink. You can’t beat that these days, and you’ll be supporting the admirable goal of bringing jazz back to an area that has become a desert of commercialism and failed bombing attempts.

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