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Jazz Trio's 'Pearls' Puts New-As-Can-Be Improvisations On Golden Oldies

American saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, Swiss bassist Christian Weber and German drummer Michael Griener reach back in time on their new album, improvising their way from Scott Joplin to Sweets Edison.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Every year or so, New York tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin gets together with a couple of Swiss and German colleagues to tour and sometimes to record music that's either pretty old or very new. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLERY ESKELIN & CHRISTIAN WEBER & MICHAEL GRIENER'S "LA FEE VERTE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: When American saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and Swiss bassist Christian Weber and German drummer Michael Griener started playing together, the music was fully improvised. But they all dug early jazz, too, so on their debut recorded in 2016, they alternated between old, old tunes and free improvisations. That worked so well they follow the same plan on their follow-up, "The Pearls." There, the oldies reach back to Scott Joplin's 1914 "Magnetic Rag."

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLERY ESKELIN & CHRISTIAN WEBER & MICHAEL GRIENER'S "MAGNETIC RAG")

WHITEHEAD: Ellery Eskelin, Christian Weber and Michael Griener play the classics with respect, but they came to play them, to take up their teasing sense of time on its own terms. These selections marked a music in transition. Joplin's late-period "Magnetic Rag" stretched ragtime, harmony and form. "Eccentric Rag" by original Dixieland jazz band pianist J. Russel Robinson helped grease the shift from ragtime syncopation to more colloquial jazz rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLERY ESKELIN & CHRISTIAN WEBER & MICHAEL GRIENER'S "ECCENTRIC RAG")

WHITEHEAD: In his notes, Ellery Eskelin makes no explicit connection between the trio's golden oldies and their new-as-can-be improvisations. But we can speculate about how antique multisection forms might influence episodic improvised jams or how ragtime's off-center beats might inspire more jagged forms of broken time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLERY ESKELIN & CHRISTIAN WEBER & MICHAEL GRIENER'S "LA FEE VERTE")

WHITEHEAD: And sometimes the trio's instant composing falls into more songlike cadences, as if they're improvising on a tune even as they're making it up, building a structure in thin air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLERY ESKELIN & CHRISTIAN WEBER & MICHAEL GRIENER'S "IL GATTO")

WHITEHEAD: The trio clears a space where old and new ideas peaceably coexist. Ellery Eskelin's saxophone conception is informed by the swaggering or whispering old-timers. Christian Weber plays bass unamplified, working to make the instrument sound as all bass players used to do. There's also an echo here of the freewheeling 1970s trio Air, which played some Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. Morton's composition "The Pearls," this new album's title track, mixed marchy interludes and an oom-pah (ph) parade beat with a swinging new sense of melody, the new overlapping the old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SOUNDBITE OF ELLERY ESKELIN & CHRISTIAN WEBER & MICHAEL GRIENER'S "THE PEARLS")")

WHITEHEAD: The newest composition here is "Sweets" Edison's 1939 swing tune "Jive At Five." There, Michael Griener plays a drum case softly with brushes. That's something drummers used to do when musicians crossed paths on the road and jammed in hotel rooms after hours, feeling that need to play. That imperative would be familiar to Michael Griener, Ellery Eskelin and Christian Weber, who live in three countries on two continents. They make the most of their timely meetups.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(SOUNDBITE OF ELLERY ESKELIN & CHRISTIAN WEBER & MICHAEL GRIENER'S "JIVE AT FIVE")")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed the new album "The Pearls" by tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and two collaborators.

On tomorrow's show, the duo Rachael & Vilray are in the studio for a performance and interview. They have a new album of original songs inspired by old jazz standards. Both have long loved songs from the '30s and '40s, and their music is a departure from the singing Rachael Price does as the lead singer of the rock band Lake Street Dive. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAUNDROMAT SWING")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Drop your lucky nickel down the money slot, then toss your dirty drawers where it's piping hot. If you want to take your baby to the dancing spot, you've got to do the laundromat swing.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAUNDROMAT SWING")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) ...Just listen. But every woman wants a man who smells amazing. You must get clean to show your queen just who her king is. Iron out your shirt if you want to flirt. Every fellow kissing ain't missing the starch around his collar. Take your frizzy mama to the barbershop, then buy the flower boy out of his whole crop. Everybody knows a lover boy is bound to flop... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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