Saxophonist/Composer Wayne Escoffery Celebrates the Chemistry Shared by His Closest Musical Collaborators on Like Minds
Due Out April 14, 2023, on Smoke Sessions Records, the Album Features Gregory Porter, Tom Harrell and Mike Moreno Joining Escoffery’s Quartet with David Kikoski, Ugonna Okegwo and Mark Whitfield, Jr.
It’s often said that great minds think alike, but great bands achieve something even more alchemical. On Like Minds, his second release with Smoke Sessions Records, saxophonist/composer Wayne Escoffery celebrates the finely tuned instincts he shares with some of his most longstanding musical partners. Due out April 14, 2023, Like Minds features pianist and keyboardist David Kikoski and bassist Ugonna Okegwo, his quartet-mates since 2016 and collaborators for much longer.
Drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr., ably steps into the monumental shoes left by the late, legendary drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr., who passed away in March 2021 after a long and valiant battle with cancer. “The addition of Mark Whitfield, Jr. on drums is a real passing of the torch,” Escoffery says. “Mark is Ralph’s prize pupil. Ralph always said that Mark could play everything that he could and then play it backwards. He embodies the spirit of Ralph while adding a variety of influences creating an approach that is unique and individualistic.”
These four musicians may approach music with a similar mindset, but all arrived from very different places. Escoffery grew up in London, England, moving often throughout his adolescence before settling in Connecticut, where he studied with the legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean. He teaches there now at Yale University, where his mother worked in an administrative position, as well as at NJPAC in New Jersey. A Grammy Award and DownBeat Critics’ Poll winner, he is one of the musical directors of The Mingus Big Band and has performed with a who’s who of jazz including Herbie Hancock, Tom Harrell, Ron Carter, Ben Riley, Al Foster, Monty Alexander, Eddie Henderson, Wallace Roney, and others”
On Like Minds, the quartet is joined by three very special guests who all share their own unique histories with Escoffery: trumpeter Tom Harrell, in whose band Escoffery and Okegwo played together for more than a decade; guitarist Mike Moreno, who the saxophonist met on the Boston scene while he was a student at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at New England Conservatory; and Gregory Porter, who Escoffery met when the now-revered vocalist was honing his skills at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem.
“I wanted to explore the deep connections that we all share,” Escoffery explains. “All of these musicians are important parts of my musical development, and everyone on the album was chosen specifically for their sound and for what I knew they would add. I don’t think anyone else could play this music quite like they do.”
That’s particularly true of the title track, which charges out of the gate with an ebullient, singable melody spotlighting the guitar-sax frontline with Moreno (who features on four tracks on the album) and driven by an intricate, propulsive rhythm. “I like having a floating melody on top with a lot of contrapuntal action happening underneath,” Escoffery says. “That comes out of Ugonna’s bass voice and Dave’s strong left hand. Mark is a very agile player who has a great way of playing in between phrases, so I knew that he would add those elements to the piece. I hoped that the bass figures that I added would instigate Mark to do what he does best – which he absolutely did.
Whitfield then lays down an infectious hip-hop groove for Escoffery’s funky arrangement of the Charles Mingus classic “Nostalgia in Times Square,” featuring Kikoski’s Rhodes sparring with Harrell’s dodge-and-weave trumpet solo. An iconic piece in the jazz canon, it’s especially familiar to Escoffery and Kikoski, who have played it countless times together over the course of the saxophonist’s 23-year tenure in the Mingus Big Band. Its inclusion here is a buoyant reinvention as well as a tribute to the 2022 Mingus centennial and the loss in that year of both Sue Mingus, the bass legend’s widow, and his longtime arranger Sy Johnson.
“Sincerely Yours” is “a contrafact of a contrafact,” according to Escoffery. It’s the saxophonist’s new melodic twist on Freddie Hubbard’s “Dear John,” itself penned over the changes of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” It’s followed by “My Truth,” a profound statement of purpose featuring Porter’s resonant baritone and eloquent solos by both the leader and Harrell. The lyrics describe, “how I navigate the world, and America in particular, as a man of color,” Escoffery says. “Beyond that, it outlines the dualities we all face in our existence: love, pain, murder, justice, sacrifice, obsession, et cetera.”
Porter returns for the reggae classic “By the Rivers of Babylon,” which Escoffery, whose family heritage is Jamaican, considers the Rastafari equivalent of African American spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” using Biblical imagery to protest the oppression of enslaved peoples. He has long wanted to find the right vehicle to reunite with Porter for years, since they’d met shortly after the singer’s arrival in New York, when both frequented St. Nick’s Pub. “I’ve always wanted to make a strong musical statement with Gregory,” he says. “It was important for me to have the power of his voice singing those lyrics.”
The quartet pays tribute to its late drummer with Peterson’s gorgeous “Song of Serenity,” which the composer originally recorded with his Fo’tet on its 1995 album The Reclamation Project. It’s a mainstay of the quartet’s book and was originally planned for inclusion on Escoffery’s Smoke Sessions debut, The Humble Warrior, which turned out to be Peterson’s final recording with the group. Album closer “Shuffle” isn’t exactly a shuffle, but that’s the off-hand term that Escoffery used to describe to Peterson the groove he was looking for when he introduced the tune; Whitfield places his own stamp on Peterson’s dynamic response.
Much of the music on Like Minds was, naturally, written during the pandemic. Escoffery was fortunate to have a magnanimous fan, the Fulbright scholar and children’s author Michael Sampson, who gave Escoffery the run of his Gulf Coast home during the second wave of lockdown. “Treasure Lane” is named for that Florida address, while Duke Pearson’s classic “Idle Moments” reflects on the suspended sense of time we’ve all experienced over the last few years. It also was part of the setlist for Escoffery’s inaugural livestream concert from the label’s namesake Smoke Jazz Club.
This set of music has been worked out on bandstands across the globe since the world reawakened, but more importantly it reflects the chemistry and empathy shared by gifted musicians who share deep roots and Like Minds.
“Like Minds” was produced by Paul Stache and Damon Smith,
and recorded live in New York at Sear Sound’s Studio C on a
Sear-Avalon custom console at 96KHz/24bit and mixed to 1/2″ analog tape.
Available in audiophile HD format.
Wayne Escoffery · Like Minds
Smoke Sessions Records · Release Date: April 14, 2023
Catalog Number: SSR-2303
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