Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


John Escreet

Seismic Shift

by Ian Mann

December 05, 2022


Escreet is an astonishing pianist with a virtuoso technique and a keen compositional and improvisational ear.

John Escreet

“Seismic Shift”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4793)

John Escreet – piano, Eric Revis – double bass, Damion Reid – drums

Doncaster born pianist and composer is one of the few British jazz musicians to have really established himself on the US jazz scene.  A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music Escreet studied for a Masters at the Manhattan School of Music, immersed himself in the New York jazz culture, and ended up staying.

Escreet lived in New York City from 2006 to early 2020 when he relocated to Los Angeles, just before the start of the pandemic. During his time in the US he has played with many of the leading figures of contemporary jazz and released eight previous albums as a leader. He has also worked extensively as a sideman with artists such as drummers Antonio Sanchez and Tyshawn Sorey, saxophonists David Binney and Zhenya Strigalev , trumpeter Alex Spiagin, bassist Michael Janisch and flautist Jamie Baum.

Escreet’s own albums have featured the talents of Binney and Sorey plus trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Nicholas Payton, guitarist Wayne Krantz, saxophonists Chris Potter, Greg Osby and Evan Parker, bassists Matt Brewer, Eivind Opsvik and John Hebert and drummers Nasheet Waits, Jim Black, Justin Brown, Eric Harland and Marcus Gilmore. Heavyweight company indeed, and indicative of how fully integrated Escreet has become on the American jazz and improvised music scene. His full discography can be found at his website

“Seismic Shift” represents Escreet’s second album for Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings imprint. The first, 2013’s “Sabotage And Celebration” is favourably reviewed here;

I’ve been lucky enough to see Escreet performing live on a couple of occasions at the EFG London Jazz Festival. The first of these was a brilliant but highly intense performance by the trio of Escreet, Hebert and Sorey at Kings Place in 2014.

Escreet was then to return as a sideman in 2018, playing both acoustic piano and electric keyboards as part of drummer /composer Antonio Sanchez’s Migration group at The Jazz Café in Camden.

Incredibly “Seismic Shift” is the first album that has Escreet has recorded entirely in the conventional ‘piano trio’ format, his earlier recordings with Hebert and Sorey having included contributions from saxophonist Evan Parker.  It also represents a return to a purely acoustic sound following his previous experiments with electric keyboards and places a greater focus on composition following his forays into fully improvised music with Hebert, Sorey and Parker.

The pandemic allowed Escreet time to write and to practice and as restrictions began to ease he was also able to play with other musicians, first linking up with drummer Damion Reid and then with bassist Eric Revis, two other musicians formerly based in New York but now resident in Los Angeles. In June 2021 the trio played their first concert together and in 2022 recorded their début album at Big City Studios, Granada Hills, California. “The whole process evolved very naturally”, observes Escreet.

Escreet credits the hours of practice during lockdown with making him a better piano player. “It’s the reason I decided to record with the trio exclusively” he explains, “I finally felt strong enough to step out front and ‘lead’ this group”.

The title “Seismic Shift” may reflect the geographical location in which it was recorded, but the music itself also represents “tumult, rupture, earthquake”. Escreet says of the recording;
“Any music I present needs to be varied. There needs to be beauty alongside the wild moments, moments of tonality against moments of abstraction.  Most of all, any idea put forward, whether composed or improvised, needs to have clarity and purpose”.

The Programme features six compositions by Escreet, one by Stanley Cowell and two pieces credited to Escreet / Davis/ Reid, these presumably spontaneously improvised. Many of the performances exhibit a similar intensity to that aforementioned London show, with the ferocity of Escreet’s percussive keyboard attack attracting comparisons with the playing of Cecil Taylor.

The album commences with “Study No. 1”, which positively bristles with energy and which amply demonstrates Escreet’s phenomenal technique. The power of his performance is matched by that of Reid - “he can match me energy wise at any given moment” observes Escreet , “and he hears all the details and nuances of what I’m doing”. The pair ‘woodshedded’ ideas as a duo during the pandemic and the closeness and dynamism of their musical relationship is essential to the success of this recording. Here Reid responds to Escreet’s thundering two fisted piano runs with skill and aplomb. It’s a hugely exciting way to start the album and very much sets the trio’s stall out, demanding the attention of the listener from the very beginning.

However, as Escreet has stated, there needs to be variation and the trio take a more thoughtful approach during their interpretation of Stanley Cowell’s beautiful composition “Equipoise”. Escreet met Cowell through Nasheet Waits and the older man became something of a mentor for Escreet.
“We had some great email exchanges” recalls Escreet, “where he elaborated at length about many things – musical conceptions, career advice and more”. Cowell died in December 2020 and it was this that prompted Escreet to add “Equipoise” to his own repertoire. The trio’s version of an exceptional composition represents an excellent tribute to Cowell in a performance that combines energy and beauty, and which includes an exceptional double bass solo from Revis.

“Outward and Upward” was the kind of advice that Escreet received from Cowell and the phrase forms the title of the first of the freely improvised pieces. This is more loosely structured and more obviously a ‘free jazz’ performance and one that includes the use of extended techniques. Nevertheless one can appreciate the communal energy and tightly knit rapport that this trio has established during its relatively short existence. Revis is featured both with and without the bow and in its latter stages the piece takes on more of an accessible ‘written’ feel.

“RD”, standing for Revis / Damion, was written for the trio’s first gig and finds them improvising around loosely written melodic material. Revis’ bass acts as the anchor as Escreet and Reid continue to bounce ideas off each other across a series of riff based harmonic progressions. Escreet delivers dense clusters of notes, the Taylor-ish percussiveness of his playing eliciting suitably spirited responses from his colleagues.

It has been suggested that the Escreet original “Perpetual Love” could represent a sister piece to Cowell’s “Equipoise”. There’s certainly that same blend of beauty and rigour as Escreet stretches out at the keyboard before handing over to Revis for an extended unaccompanied bass feature, in time responded to vigorously by piano and drums in a roiling free jazz episode.

An extended solo bass passage introduces “Digital Tulips” with Escreet and Reid responding to Revis’ vigour in kind as the music surges and tumbles. The leader’s percussive and energetic piano playing is matched by Reid’s dynamic drumming in a series of dizzying exchanges. The kinetic, percussive vibrancy of Escreet’s playing evokes those Cecil Taylor comparisons again before the music finally subsides.

The title track emerges out of an atmospheric intro featuring glacial piano, eerily bowed bass and icy cymbal shimmers, these followed by ominous mallet rumbles and increasingly threatening arco bass. A sense of suppressed power remains even as Escreet becomes more active and the energy levels increase, with Reid beginning to roam more freely around the kit. Finally Escreet explodes into full on Taylor-ish action, the dynamism of his playing mirrored by Reid’s response as the trio finally go ‘off the Richter scale’.

“Quick Reset” is the second improvised piece. Introduced by Revis at the bass it has an impressive rhythmic impetus, this providing the basis for Escreet’s percussive piano pyrotechnics. It’s a short but surprisingly accessible slice of free jazz, and one which teases with its brevity.

The album concludes with “The Water Is Tasting Worse”, which builds from an atmospheric intro to embrace numerous twists and turns as the trio improvise around its harmonic components. The aquatic imagery of the title is reflected in the music as the swirls and eddies of the torrential musical white water rapids that form the majority of the tune contrast with the more reflective moments at the beginning.

“Seismic Shift” has enjoyed rave reviews from jazz critics on both sides of the Atlantic and it’s easy to see why. Escreet is an astonishing pianist with a virtuoso technique and a keen compositional and improvisational ear. His interplay with the equally brilliant Reid is little short of dazzling and these two receive excellent support from the vastly experienced Revis.

That said it’s not an album that will appeal to all ears. The music is highly intense, almost frighteningly so and some listeners may find it all a bit too challenging, despite its undoubted excellence. I certainly enjoyed it and would relish the opportunity of seeing the trio live should Escreet ever bring the band to the UK. On this evidence I’m sure that any live performance from these three would match the power and intensity of the Hebert / Sorey trio from 2014.

Glancing at Escreet’s website I note that Matt Brewer or John Hebert has filled the bass role at recent Seismic Shift gigs, with the line up also sometimes supplemented by saxophonist Mark Turner.  Another intriguing prospect.

blog comments powered by Disqus