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Eskelin is home for an unscripted jazz gig


The jazz life has always been a footloose, on-the-road, one-night-stand existence.

Ellery Eskelin, the gifted tenor sax player who grew up in Baltimore, remembers his apprenticeship with the Buddy Morrow big band when he played 48 weeks a year, almost every night in a different place.

These days the road is much longer and often international, stretching from Vancouver, Canada, to Paris, to Krakow, Poland, really around the world.

Eskelin will stop in Charm City Saturday night for a concert at An Die Musik with Sylvie Courvoisier, a classically trained Swiss pianist whose jazz roots go back to her father, also a jazz piano player. Courvoisier and Eskelin are both based in New York where they're deeply integrated into the downtown jazz scene, which means they often play freely improvised music.

Eskelin plays a big, brawny horn with echoes of Gene Ammons, the Chicago tenor player from the bebop era whose sax "battles" with Sonny Stitt are legendary. Courvoisier plays somewhere in the atmosphere between Thelonious Monk and John Cage.

They're coming from a West Coast tour that took them to four jazz festivals in May.

"It was really nice," Courvoisier, 32, says, during a phone conversation enlivened by her Swiss French accent. "His sound is really amazing, very powerful, his own sound. I like that a lot. He has his own vocabulary, his own words, and I like the way that sounds."

After the West Coast tour, she went immediately to Europe for 10 days then back again to the Bay area two weeks ago for a festival at the University of California, Berkeley. Eskelin will tour Europe in the fall with her and Vincent Courtois, a French cellist.

New jazz musicians pretty much have to work in Europe these days to make a living. So on the road means Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Vienna as much as Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

Courvoisier says the gig at An Die Musik will be totally improvised music: "We don't have any charts. For me, I love it. It's easy to do it. It's fun, something that's natural."

This will be something of a homecoming for Eskelin. He lived here when he was about 18 months old until he left for New York in 1981. He was more or less born on the road in Wichita, Kansas, in 1959.

His mother, Roberta, and his father, Rodney Keith Eskelin, were both musicians. As the "Rodd and Bobbie" piano and organ duo, they had paused in Wichita to do a live television show called Just a Song at Twilight. They soon pushed on to Los Angeles where his mother gave up on Rodd and returned home to Baltimore.

She became well-known as "Bobbie Lee," playing the Hammond B3 organ in places like the Westview Lounge and Howard Johnson's in Catonsville. She played standards from the American songbook.

His father, writing as "Rodd Keith" and "Rod Rogers," became "the undisputed star of the song-poem composers," in the words of Jon Pareles, The New York Times pop music critic. The song-poem composer, or "song shark," made music - for a price - of the poems and lyrics sent in by folks who answer the ads on the back pages of supermarket tabloids.

Rodney Eskelin plunged to his death in 1974 from an overpass into traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. Ellery has written a moving essay about his search for the legacy of the father he barely knew.

Ellery Eskelin already knew he wanted to play jazz when he was 10 years old and picked up the saxophone.

"I went to Towson State and studied with Hank Levy," he says. "He was an amazing inspiration."

Levy, who organized the jazz studies program at Towson, had played baritone sax with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and later became an arranger for the band.

"He was talented enough to do whatever he wanted, yet he chose to stay in Baltimore," Eskelin says, "[maybe] because he could write exactly the kind of music that he wanted to write."

Levy's experimental music, the "progressive jazz" of the era, is a precursor in a way of the music of Eskelin and Courvoisier.

In his duets with Courvoisier, Eskelin resists the "codification" of the piano and saxophone roles in the jazz tradition.

"Sylvie's able to bypass a lot of that language," he says. "So the music becomes about this dance . . .You decide when you're going to come together, when you're going to go apart, whether you're going to match the other person, whether you're going to contrast with what they're doing.

"And that becomes the fabric of the music," he says.


Who: Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone, Sylvie Courvoisier, piano

What: Totally improvised jazz

Where: An Die Musik, 409 N. Charles St.

When: Saturday, 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Admission: $15; seniors and students $13.

Call: 410-385-2638

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