Born in Doncaster, pianist John Escreet has become one of the leading British jazz musicians to have made the journey to New York. Since studying at Manhattan Conservatoire, he has played with some of the most technically adept and boundary pushing musicians in that particular scene, including drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey and saxophonist David Binney.
Escreet remains unconventional, provocative and divisive as a musician, which perhaps explains why this fertile but uncompromising scene has become his natural habitat. His solo piano set as support for Henry Threadgill at the 2011 London Jazz Festival encompassed a wide range of mood and feeling from wry and playful to intense and dark. Its knowing, referential humour and density of ideas proved overwhelming or irritating for some – but for others, Escreet demonstrated an intuitive mastery of both form and content on that night.
True to form for Escreet, Sabotage And Celebration (his first release for Michael Janisch’s consistently brilliant Whirlwind label) is a dexterous and turbulent set, and one that does not always make for easy or accessible listening. The core ensemble is something of a dream team, with Binney on alto saxophone and Chris Potter on tenor, along with the authoritative rhythm section of bassist Matt Brewer and the versatile drummer Jim Black. Binney and Potter are both powerful and authoritative musicians, but with strikingly different approaches, and the marked contrast in their improvising really helps bring this music to vivid life. Indeed, Escreet’s carefully arranged charts serve as a fascinating springboard for improvisation throughout.
Having now established himself as an artist refusing to compromise, Escreet has been gradually exploring a wider range of colours in his recorded work. Sabotage And Celebration feels like a culmination of years of work (this is his fifth album under his own name), retaining the sound and feel of his smaller ensemble work but also adding nuanced, effective string arrangements. The impact of this approach is best experienced at the outset, with the lush, gradually expanding harmony of the string piece Axis Of Hope giving way to the breathtakingly exciting He Who Dares (rarely has there been a more apt title for a jazz composition).
This second piece has a strange groove – almost a conventional backbeat in 6/4 time, but with some strange elastic in its execution. It merges an angular, intervalic approach to melody (not the easiest sound for listeners new to contemporary jazz) with a thrilling, more linear and harmony-led second section. Although full of rapid-fire invention and with plenty of notes, it still doesn’t feel any more complicated than it needs to be. In spite of some of Escreet’s core ideas demanding some attention and familiarisation from an audience, there is also an urgency and visceral thrill here that is open-hearted.
The title track offers another microcosmic window into Escreet’s compositional mindset, as the words sabotage and celebration seem to apply to the two wildly contrasting sections of the piece. The opening free improvisation is intense and unrestrained, almost an attempt to derail and undercut the order and form of the album’s opening two pieces. Eventually, the ensemble seems to be grasping for some structure, and the piece explodes into a burst of dexterous, highly physical joy, with Escreet’s agility at the piano particularly awe-inspiring at this point.
Throughout Sabotage And Celebration, Escreet uses a range of different ensembles (for example, the mischievous, unpredictable The Decapitator is a trio piece and Adam Rogers guests on guitar for Laura Angela). This can sometimes result in a confused jumble of styles and approaches, but Escreet makes it all feel a part of one continuous and coherent vision, not least because surprise and turbulence are a core part of his musical language. Some may find Escreet’s maelstrom too far removed from a perceived jazz lineage or heritage, particularly given the wide array of other musical styles that he assimilates here. For those prepared to take the plunge, however, Sabotage And Celebration is one of the year’s most dazzling recordings, something of a composition masterclass and a satisfying balance of science and spirit.