Saxophonist Wayne Escoffery is best known for his robust, muscular tenor tone through his decade-long work with Tom Harrell and his long run in the Mingus Dynasty Big Band as well as over a dozen albums as a leader on various labels since 2001. Humble Warrior is his debut for Smoke Session Records. He previously recorded on the label as a sideman for trombonist Steve Davis. Humble Warrior features the return of Escoffery’s stellar quarter featuring pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Ralph Peterson. For the unexpected arrangement of Benjamin Britten’s “Missa Brevis in D,” (represented by “Sanctus,”” Benedictus” and “Sanctus (Recapitulation)”) he supplements the unit with trumpet great Randy Brecker and guitarist David Gilmore.
Kikoski’s shimmering piano solo in “Benedictus” is elegantly gorgeous. The piece brings Escoffery’s own story full circle. As influential as the “Humble Warriors” to whom the album is dedicated have been on the saxophonist’s musical life, he looks back at his early experience as a member of the Trinity Boys Choir in New Haven, Connecticut as foundational to that existence. A native of London, England, Escoffery and his mother had moved often, eventually immigrating to the United States and settling in New Haven where she took a job at Yale University.
In 2016 Escoffery began as Lecturer of Jazz Improvisation and ensemble coach at Yale, teaching in the same room where he took his first saxophone lesson. But his love of music originated by from singing with the city’s renowned choir. It also introduced him to an aural tradition of musical education that carried through into his studies with the legendary Jackie McLean. The Britten piece was one of his favorites, and now represents a time when he was discovering himself as a person and as a musician.“The Missa Brevis was one of the most beautiful pieces that we performed,” he recalls. “Those beautiful but intricate melodies always stuck with me.” While Brecker and Gilmore are aboard to parallel the three-part harmony, Escoffery’s 11-year old son Vaughn provides angelic vocals for the “Benedictus” – significantly, Escoffery was the same age when he joined the Trinity Boys Choir. There are terrific spots from each soloist, and, as per usual, Peterson’s drumming is attention-getting and always on the mark.
Two pieces precede the Britten suite, the opening “Chain Gang,” one of two Escoffery originals (the other the title track), is the saxophonist’s imagining of a modern-day work song. The song was inspired by his return to Yale, where he has since interacted with his students, tracing the roots of jazz and the blues back to their origins, by playing samples of work songs and field hollers sung by enslaved people and incarcerated field workers. “Chain Gang” was inspired by musicologist Alan Lomax’s recording of the work song “I Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down,” sung by Ed Lewis and a group of prisoners at the infamous Parchman Farm. The beautiful ballad, “Kyrie” follows showcasing Escoffery’s exceptionally emotive soprano sax.
The title track pays homage to many notable personal mentors such as Mulgrew Miller, James Williams and Jackie McLean, but also those peers and forebears who have passed on – many far too soon – in recent years. “We lost a lot of really great musicians in 2018 and 2019,” he says. “People like Roy Hargrove, Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, Richard Wyands, Lawrence Leathers, and, most recently, Jimmy Heath. (keep in mind this is “BC”, before coronavirus) I would describe all of those musicians as Humble Warriors. I have a lot of admiration and respect for them; they were all great warriors of the music but always allowed the music to keep them humble. They all exemplified the utmost humility and integrity despite their superior abilities. I hope to maintain those same traits in my musical endeavors.” It showcases the tight knit chemistry of the quartet that came together in 2016, when Escoffery decided that his 40th birthday would be the occasion to form his ideal band, having shared relationship with each member for at least two decades.
The band runs the full gamut from explosive to tender throughout the album, with the little-known ballad from pianist Gildo Mahones, “Quarter Moon,” representing some of the most elegant moments. It was originally recorded by saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Familiar from his indelible association with Thelonious Monk, Rouse remains an under-sung pioneer but one that Escoffery cites as a primary influence. Another hero, George Cables, is responsible for the laid-back “AKA Reggie,” which Escoffery and Okegwo performed with the pianist as a trio. Explosive fare is found is Okegwo’s airy, meandering “Undefined,” and throughout in Kikoski’s blistering finale, “Back to Square One.”
The Humble Warrior finds Wayne Escoffery coming full circle, returning to where his musical life began. His Smoke Sessions label debut also marks a new beginning of sorts with a quartet as solid and improvisational as any.