© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wayne Escoffery plays his truth on his ‘Like Minds’ album

Wayne Escoffery
Jimmy Katz
Wayne Escoffery

I met Wayne Escoffery in 2000 when he joined Eric Reed's septet. A rising star, Wayne stood out in both height and musicianship. From the beginning I knew that he would become a force in the jazz world. In addition to leading his quartet, after 23 years of residency, Wayne remains a member of the Mingus Big Band. He is a busy man. When not touring, he teaches at Yale University and NJPAC. We are delighted that Wayne took time out of his schedule to talk about his new album Like Minds (his second on the Smoke Sessions label) that features the newest band member, Mark Whitfield, Jr., who has taken over the drum chair previously held by the late Ralph Peterson, Jr. Wayne will be bringing the band to Smoke Jazz Club April 20-23 with Nicholas Payton as a special guest.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Sheila Anderson: Let's get right into it. Your CD is really terrific. I shouldn't say this publicly, but there aren't a whole lot of recordings where I actually like every single song. Sometimes I have my favorite, but I love every single song on this release. You did a great job. Let's talk about the title, who the musicians are that are with you and especially bringing in young drummer, Mark Whitfield, Jr. When did you start working on this?

Wayne Escoffery: I did start writing the music during the pandemic. One of the songs makes reference to this. I had this fan who I’ve become friendly with. At the time I didn't know him but I was teaching his daughter via virtual saxophone lessons. I was dealing with a lot and having a hard time during the pandemic. He knew I wanted to get out of New York and be in a better environment. He offered me this amazing home in Treasure Island, Florida on the Gulf coast. He wasn't using it for the whole year and he was like, “You know what? Here's the keys. Go down there whenever you want and hang out.” I took several retreats to this amazing home. It's practically a mansion. I wrote a lot of the music in Treasure Island and one of the songs I wrote on the album is called “Treasure Island.”

Well, talk about like minds. You’ve been working with David Kikowski for many years. Ugonna Okegwo is on bass and you have a lot of special guests. Talk about the title song, “Like Minds,” which I read in the liner notes that you had young Mark Whitfield, Jr. in mind when you were writing the song. What was it about that you were hearing?

Mark's an amazing player and his technical proficiency is just like none other. He has a really unique way of playing in the cracks of a tune. In “Like Minds” you'll hear the saxophone melodies kind of searing on top, and then there's a lot of bass figures, that Ugonna and Kikowski are playing.

I just thought it would be a good platform for Mark to play in between all of that and to add some fire and intricacy to the piece. He did exactly that. With a lot of these guys, I don't say much. I just write the music and I trust them. That's why they're there. I trust them to interpret it which is part of the reason it's called Like Minds because we've been playing together a long time. I think we think similarly about a lot of things. I knew he would do what he did which really brings that piece to life.

 You had worked with Mark before?

Yes, it was after we lost Ralph Peterson almost two years ago who was my drummer for many years. Since Mark is really Ralph's prize pupil, I'd known Mark. We all know his father, Mark Whitfield, Sr. I've known Mark since he was a kid like we all have in the jazz community. I'd been playing with him on and off in little gigs around the city.

Every now and again when Ralph couldn't make it, I would call Mark. When Ralph left us, my first thought was to get Mark to come in. It's really like a passing of the torch. Ralph really loved Mark and his playing and always talked to me about him. I think Mark's happy to be a part of the group and it really feels like a like a family at this point.

Well, speaking of young, you were young when you started working with the Mingus Big Band. Actually, I think you had just come out of college. You were working with Eric Reed. You've been with The Mingus Big Band for 23 years and counting. When you first got into the big band, how intimidating was it for you?

A lot of my favorite players were in that group or had at least played in that group. All the cats on the scene now went in and out of that group. Whether it’s people like Chris Potter, Don Braden, Mark Shim or Seamus Blake. When I got there I was sitting beside many of my heroes, like John Stubblefield and even Vincent Herring. The first gig I did, Randy Brecker was on it. Jeff “Tain” Watts was on the gig. as was Dave Kikowski. I felt I was surrounded by the elite of the jazz community. It was definitely intimidating but that's what I needed. It also gave me an opportunity to step up and find my own voice, and produce what needed to be produced. I really cherish that experience.

Speaking of going back in time, you had the honor and privilege to work with Jackie McLean. What kinds of things did he pass to you that are with you to this day?

A lot of things. Oftentimes I think about some things that he said, and they have different impacts on me the older I get. But one of the main things he talked about was understanding the history and the legacy of the music through your instruments. Really understanding the whole history of the tenor saxophone and the history of the music—from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington all the way of course through Bird, Gene Ammons, Lester Young and to keep going. JMac studied John Coltrane's music and was a fan of avant garde music. He was a big proponent of transcription, and understanding the history of the music and your instrument.

He was also the first jazz legend who I ever met. I didn't really grow up with my father, so he was very much like a father figure. Just being around him taught me how to act around an elder statesman or a master of the music. I really learned a lot from him. Even now as a father and a college professor myself, I think back to a lot of the things that he said and the way he said them and how he carried himself as a man and as an educator. I view those things a lot differently now that I'm in this position and stage in my life.

You have also worked with so many great musicians, including Tom Harrell, who is on your release.  Talk about what Tom brings to this recording.

I love Tom so much. We have a very special connection. I was in the band for 10 years and I think it's fair for me to say that our connection on the front line is a really special one. Every time we get together and play, it feels like magic and a blessing. Having him on these two tracks is really special. He was one of those people who kind of furthered my education. In many ways I feel like I got my doctorate I got a little nostalgic reading the liner notes and even seeing the picture on the cover under the West Side Highway and remembering that Fairway is gone and Tobo? is gone and St. Nick's Pub is gone hrough studying Tom's music and just being in his band. Playing on that high level for 10 years with the amazing group of Johnathan Blake, Danny Grissett and Ugonna Okegwo. It was awesome.

Now Tom has written some really great songs, that are perhaps in the standard category. Not only have you written five of the songs on your CD, but you also wrote a song and the lyrics that features Gregory Porter. Talk about that song and what it's like to write lyrics.

Interestingly enough, I write lyrics somewhat regularly. I don't usually include a lot of my melodies. I used to be a singer when I was younger. I used to sing in a boys' choir. In a lot of ways I think of my concepts coming from that early education as a vocalist. I think and I hope to have a melodic vocal quality. So sometimes I actually write lyrics, but I don't put them out.

I wrote specifically for Gregory Porter to sing “My Truth.” Like I said earlier, we all went through a lot during the pandemic so it's just kind of a statement of the yin and yang of my existence. My own personal struggles and also just what I see around me. You know—war, peace, love, pain, the whole thing. So that's where that comes from.

Wayne Escoffery "Like Minds" video

Another song is called “Rivers of Babylon.” Talk about that song because I didn't realize until I read the liner notes that it's sort of our equivalent in the U.S. of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

It's a Rastafarian song, that was originally done by this group called the Melodians. Later it was featured in the movie The Harder They Come. I grew up always hearing that song. Just like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “When the Saints Come Marching In” or something like that. It's a song that I always loved and I didn't realize that everyone didn't have that same relationship with the song.

My family's Jamaican. I was born in the UK, but most of my family is Jamaican. They're either born in Jamaica or their parents were born in Jamaica. I grew up hearing that song and I thought everybody knew it. Since I've been here in America, I realized actually, no, that's something that Jamaicans or West Indians might be more familiar with. Anyway, I've always loved that song. I've always wanted to play it or sing it or something like that. It was great to have Gregory Porter interpreting it.

I thought it was interesting in the liner notes, the writer said something about, “How did you get Gregory Porter?” and I just started thinking, we all started somewhere. I got a little nostalgic reading the liner notes and even seeing the picture on the cover under the West Side Highway and remembering that Fairway is gone and Covo is gone and St. Nick's Pub is gone. I got very nostalgic and almost a little weepy because I remember when Gregory Porter and you were at St. Nick’s Pub. You ran the jam session, right?

Yeah, I ran the jam session for many years where he was doing the vocal nights. Good memories.

I wanted to ask you about something in your song “Sincerely Yours.” You say it's a contra fact of a contra fact. For the benefit of us lay people, can you explain what is a contra fact? I somehow missed that in theory.

A contra fact of melody is pretty much when you just write a new melody over a preexisting, song form or set of chord changes. The most famous contra fact is a rhythm changes song, like when George Gershwin wrote, “I Got Rhythm.” There's “Lester Leaps in.” There's “Anthropology,” there's “Oleo.” There are all these songs that have been written over rhythm changes. A contra fact is just when you write a new melody over a song. “Groovin High” is a contra fact. “Ornithology” is a contra melody which is written over “How High the Moon.”

Specifically, regarding your song, “Sincerely Yours,” what are the contra facting going on there?

I'm kind of being funny when I say it's a contra fact of a contra fact. Basically, Freddie Hubbard wrote this really great tune that I've been playing since college called “Dear John” which is a contra fact melody of “Giant Steps.” He wrote a new melody over John Coltrane's ”Giant Steps” and he dedicated it to John Coltrane and called it “Dear John.”

A lot of people actually don't play Freddie Hubbard's intro to “Dear John,” which I think is actually a beautiful piece of work on its own. When Freddie wrote an intro to “Dear John” he then wrote the contra back over “Giant Steps.” What I did was that same thing. I wrote another melody over Freddie's intro, and then I wrote a contra back over “Giant Steps.”

I love it. Like I said, I love every song on your recording entitled Like Minds, so now when I listen to it again, I will hear what it is. I'm going to listen to it differently. I also love your approach to “Idle Moments.” A lot of people record it, but of course the standard is Grant Green. I was so blown away by your approach. Why that approach to the song?

Duke Pearson wrote it and he is a master composer and arranger. I just like playing slow. A lot of people don't necessarily associate me with slow music. Maybe I need to do a ballads record at some point, but I really love playing slow, sexy music and that piece is like that. A lot of people when they play ballads, as soon as the solo section comes up, they double up and I don't think that's the point. The point of playing a ballad, whether it's a love song or a sorrow song, is to explore that love and that sorrow and that dynamic. I really love getting a chance to just slow down and play pretty. Ugonna is really great with that rhythm section, at laying down grooves. It was great to have him there.

You also say that there is a difference in how you approach playing the soprano versus the tenor. What is it about the soprano that “gets more in the melody?”

I do think differently on soprano. For some reason it's always been that way. I don't really hear a lot of fast technical things on soprano. I just don't hear it that way. I came through music on a more contemporary side and one of my favorites is Grover Washington. I think of him a lot. I think when I play soprano I just tend to think more melodically and more, I hope, soulfully, and more blues when I play soprano. That's generally my concept when I'm playing soprano. Also, Wayne Shorter is such a great soprano player, so melodic and specific in some ways in what he plays on soprano. I think I'm influenced by him too.

I also really dig your interpretation of “Nostalgia” and “Times Square” by Mingus.  Now why did you take that approach with that song?

A few reasons. I actually do a lot of teaching and I teach at NJPAC in New Jersey as well. I was there one Saturday morning, early and I was messing around on the keyboard. It was last year because we were celebrating Mingus at NJPAC. I was playing an arrangement for the students and then I was, “Ooh man, I kind of like this.” There was a drummer there named Clay, who I think I mentioned it in the liner notes somewhere. He's a great drummer. I was like, “Hey man, play something on this.” We just started jamming on it. Of course, I thought of Tom since he loves playing on those kind of grooves, so I knew he would tear it up.

You are going to be performing at Smoke Jazz Club in the city, April 20th to 23rd. Who's going to be with you?  Will there be any special guests?

Well, it's definitely going be the quartet with Ugonna, David Kikowski, myself and Mark Whitfield Jr. Joining me is the great Nicholas Payton on trumpet. That's going to be fun. It's funny, Nicholas and I haven't played much together, and we keep threatening to do so. For some reason things just don't line up and we always have to change it or postpone it or cancel it. We're going to make this one happen.

I can't wait. Now is there anything else on the horizon that you'd like to share with us?

Two things. The one is that I'm doing a tour with this band playing this music all around Europe in the spring and maybe a bit in the summer so that'll be nice. All the major cities like Paris, London, all over the place. That'll be fun.

Even sooner than that is on April 2nd, when I'm conducting Charles Mingus’s “Epitaph” at Yale. That's a huge undertaking that I'm working on right now. It's going to be a great opportunity for the students to be mentored by some of the Mingus band members. Mingus wrote the piece for 31 musicians, and about half of those musicians are going to be students, from Yale College and students from the Yale School of Music. The rest of are going to be Mingus big band members. It's going to be pretty epic.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In 1995 Sheila E. Anderson joined the staff of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey where she hosts Weekend Jazz Overnight and Salon Sessions. She has authored four books: The Quotable Musician: From Bach to Tupac (2003), How to Grow as A Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed (2005) (both published by Allworth Press), The Little Red Book of Musicians Wisdom (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and the 2nd edition of How to Grow as A Musician was published in 2019,

In addition to curating jazz at the Newark Museum of Art, Ms. Anderson is a 2017 Columbia University Community Scholar, an inaugural Dan
Morgenstern Fellow by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark
(2020), is a graduate of Baruch College and resides in Harlem, NYC.