Wayne Escoffery, Like Minds Review
by Nolan DeBuke
Saxophonist and composer Wayne Escoffery brings together a group of long-time musical partners in his latest album, Like Minds. The core ensemble consists of pianist and keyboardist David Kikoski and bassist Ugonna Okegwo, who have been part of Escoffery’s quartet since 2016. Although these four musicians come from diverse backgrounds, they share a unified mindset in their musical pursuits. In my previous review of Escoffery’s The Humble Warrior, I praised the album for its well-crafted compositions and seamless material flow.
On Like Minds, the quartet is elevated by adding three distinguished guests who have shared meaningful connections with Escoffery throughout his career. Trumpeter Tom Harrell, a bandmate to both Escoffery and Okegwo for over a decade; guitarist Mike Moreno, who Escoffery befriended during his time at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at New England Conservatory; and the now-celebrated vocalist Gregory Porter, whom Escoffery first encountered at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem.
Escoffery elaborates on his vision for the album: “I wanted to explore the deep connections that we all share. 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.”
“Sincerely Yours,” a contrafact based on Freddie Hubbard’s “Dear John,” which in turn is a contrafact of John Coltrane’s iconic “Giant Steps.” Escoffery’s homage to jazz history is evident in his inclusion of the introduction included in his contrafact, something typically omitted by other performers when playing “Dear John.”
The ensemble navigates the well-known chord progressions with purpose, giving the listeners the opportunity to appreciate each musician’s mastery of the shifting key centers. Escoffery’s melodic threads effortlessly weave throughout his solo and showcase the growth in his playing. A well-crafted written interlude seamlessly transitions to Moreno’s guitar solo, which emerges as a highlight of the piece. Moreno’s playing is outstanding, with intricate phrasing and emotive ideas demonstrating a profound understanding of the jazz idiom. In addition, the rhythm section, comprised of Okegwo on bass and Kikoski on piano, maintains a steady, swinging feel that provides a solid foundation for the soloists.
“Rivers of Babylon” is a Rastafarian song that showcases the guest appearance of vocalist Gregory Porter. Porter’s and Escoffery’s strong chemistry is palpable, as they both share a common affinity for this well-known melody. The ensemble establishes a deep groove, setting the foundation for the captivating interplay between the two musicians during the presentation of the theme. Escoffery’s solo is both melodic and well-structured, demonstrating a firm grasp of the modern jazz language. His playing reflects his growth as an artist and his ability to adapt to various musical styles with ease and finesse.
Porter’s vocals shine brightly, delivering an expressive performance marked by his rich vocal tone and rhythmic clarity. The emotive quality of his voice complements Escoffery’s saxophone, further enhancing the overall listening experience. “Rivers of Babylon” exemplifies Escoffery’s ability to seamlessly blend diverse influences and genres, bringing together a gifted ensemble of musicians.
In conclusion, Like Minds highlights Escoffery’s continued growth as a musician, composer, and bandleader, blending modern jazz language with his Jamaican heritage and other genres. Building on the foundation established in The Humble Warrior, Escoffery assembles a remarkable ensemble to present a group of songs with refined style and improvisational prowess. Like Minds showcases the deep connections and empathy shared among these musicians to bring to life a diverse array of arrangements and originals spanning various styles that will resonate with modern jazz listeners and solidify the loyalty of his ever-growing fan base.
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