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Interview ‘What’s happening in daily life drives my music, my emotions and passions’

WAYNE ESCOFFERY tells Chris Searle what it’s like to be back from US in his native Walthamstow and the challenges on both sides of the pond

WAYNE ESCOFFERY, one of jazz’s most luminous saxophonists, was born in Walthamstow, north-east London, in 1975, but emigrated to Connecticut with his mother when he was eight.

He tells me: “Having left at such a young age, I didn’t feel very connected to London — I felt more connected to the British/Jamaican cultural traditions, introduced to me by my mother, grandparents and close family.”

In the US, his mentor became the great alto saxophonist, Jackie McLean.

“I didn’t grow up with my father,” he says. “I consider Jmac my musical father. He taught me to become a man, how to respect my elders and to silently demand respect from others.

“He also taught me to embrace the history and tradition of the music while simultaneously embracing freedom and change and always push the envelope!”

As a young hornman he toured with Herbie Hancock and was for many years a featured saxophonist in trumpeter Tom Harrell’s band.

“What I learned most from Tom is how to listen,” he emphasises.

He tells me that the musicians who inspire him the most “were activists and champions for civil rights: Max Roach, Mingus, Coltrane, Miles, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke.

“Black American music has always and will always speak out against injustice and celebrate black heritage and culture. If an artist is sincere and has honour, the message will be heard and become a tool in the fight against evils like white nationalism and privilege.”

These words become scorching notes in his latest album, Vortex. In his sleeve notes he writes of “the vortex of hate and bigotry,” with his nation’s present leaders “exemplifying the worst of men and scaring youth rather than inspiring them.”

He explains: “What’s happening in daily life drives my music, my emotions and passions. I’m not angry though, I’m focused and serious, and that isn’t anger. It requires a high level of concentration.”

In the title number he roars out of the blocks with volcanic drummer Ralph Peterson Jnr, plunging bassist Ugonna Okegwo and pianist David Kikoski hurtling up and down his keys.

In Judgement Escoffery’s sound is sinuous and exploratory and in Harrell’s melodic February, his timbre suffuses tenderness.

To the Ends of the Earth is full of characteristic steep ascents, plunging cadences and lyricism, and In His Eyes is an empathetic colloquy with guest trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, sealing an album of contrast, surprise and lingering beauty.

“Jazz is always evolving,” he comments, “and with each generation its vocabulary always changes. But it has to maintain its integrity and stay true to itself.”

I ask him what jazz could do to lead British inner-city youth towards positive life development.

“My love of music and saxophonists like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons distracted me from getting me into trouble when I was young,” he confides.

“Music gives a young person identity, clear vision and helps them stay positive despite the negativity that might surround them.”

And as for his birth-city, he says it is a pleasure to be back.

“I’m more connected to the energy of London now I’m older. The audiences are great. They feed my performances.”

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