Album Review: Wayne Escoffery - Vortex

Despite my two decade long interest in jazz, I’ve never really made that full leap into the genre—like, watching all of that Ken Burns documentary, sitting down to read the Oxford Press book called The History of Jazz that’s been on my shelf since I was 16, or seeking out old albums from moderately obscure players.

I came into the more accessible avenues of jazz through Wynton Marsalis—though how, at age 14, I had even heard his name, I cannot recall. Since then, I’ve only really investigated (and not even very deeply) the marquee names, like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and only recently, thanks to hours of listening to the Coltrane station on Pandora, have I discovered players like Thad Jones and Cannonball Adderley.

While other contemporary names like Kamasi Washington push the genre beyond its boundaries and make it interesting enough for the Pitchfork set to check it out, there are still artists out there playing in the ‘classic’ style—cool jazz, or post-bob, or whatever you want to call it—lengthy and sprawling pieces that leave a lot of room for improvisation, while still skittering on the surface of a formal structure.

Born in London and raised on the East Coast, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery is one of those artists—paying homage to what is probably the best known (or at least, the most listener friendly) form of jazz, and creating an atmosphere that is both classic and contemporary in sound.

With nearly 20 releases—both as a bandleader and as part of the Tom Harrell Quintet—to his name, Vortex finds Escoffery leading a very capable quartet through a blistering, unrelenting, melodic, and rollicking set of nine tunes steeped in jazz history, all while remaining forward thinking.

The album opens with the titular track, which arrives as the most energetic and kaleidoscopic of the set, before moving into the double shot of “Judgement” and “Acceptance”; the former being the shortest on the album, and also the most mournful in tone, and the latter turning into a boisterous ride through Escoffery’s wailing saxophone and Ralph Peterson Jr’s thunderous work behind the drum kit, as the song itself takes surprising turns in its structure.

As the album progresses, pieces like “February” and “Tears for Carolyn” take Vortex into slightly smoother sounding, or at least less explosive territory, while “The Devil’s Den,” in sharp contrast, places the listener into the cacophony of Escoffery’s passionate expressions on the soprano saxophone, and Peterson finds himself banging out a nearly Latin-tinged rhythm.

Vortex, as a whole, is enjoyable from start to finish. There’s no bad piece on it, per se, but there are songs that are more successfully executed, or at least slightly more accessible, than others. One of the album’s best moments arrives near the end in the form of “In His Eyes,” wherein the whole homage to the classic style of playing is the most apparent, since it is the song that is the most Coltrane-esque of the bunch, both in its main melody or musical idea, the way it goes down incredibly smooth on the ears, and in Escoffery’s soloing. This brings the album to its blistering and invigorating closing piece, “Baku.”

Given the climate of contemporary popular music, jazz, for better of for worse, is always going to be a fringe and acquired genre, and while an artist like Kamasi Washington’s work is fascinating to listen to, it is also comforting to know that performers such as Escoffery are working just as hard to keep the name of the genre alive, but are doing so in a way that pays slightly more of an homage to the past.