Courtesy of Wayne Escoffery

Grammy-Award-winning tenor saxophonist and Yale faculty member Wayne Escoffery will release his album “The Humble Warrior” on April 10.

The album features Escoffery’s quartet, which includes pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Ralph Peterson. The album also includes performances by trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist David Gilmore.

According to a press release for the album, Escoffery is a Grammy Award and DownBeat Critics Poll winner. He has been a member of the Mingus Dynasty, Big Band and Orchestra since 2000 and has toured and recorded with Tom Harrell for over a decade. In addition to his quartet, Escoffery co-leads the Black Art Jazz Collective — a sextet established in the 2010s, during an important period of Black identity in the arts.

Escoffery said that people know his music and his band as “strong,” “hard-hitting” and “energetic.”

“That is still represented in this album,” Escoffery said. “But there are also more beautiful, subtle and intricate moments that are unique in comparison to my previous recordings.”

“The Humble Warrior” is Escoffery’s first album for Smoke Sessions Records. Escoffery met the record company’s co-founder, Paul Stache, when he was a college student. Some of Escoffery’s first performances as a band leader were at Stache’s Harlem jazz club Smoke.

Damon Smith from Smoke Sessions Records said Escoffery has been one of the label’s favorite artists for a long time. The team at Smoke Sessions has wanted to record Escoffery since the label was established in 2013, so it was “gratifying” to see it finally happen.

“Wayne is, without question, one of the most inspiring players in jazz,” Smith said. “There is great meaning in his notes and in his music, and you can’t help but feel it when listening to him.”

In “The Humble Warrior,” Escoffery engages with his personal musical history. He grew up in New Haven, where his first formal introduction to music education was with the Trinity Boys Choir. In the album, he returns to his choir days by reworking one of his favorite pieces from childhood: Benjamin Britten’s “Missa Brevis.” Britten, a central figure in 20th-century classical music, hailed from Britain, just like Escoffery.

Escoffery noted that this album has a “unique quality” because he does not often allude to his musical beginnings. Not many people know he started in choral settings, even though those experiences still contribute to his musical creativity

Escoffery also drew inspiration from his current time at Yale. Escoffery has been involved in the Yale School of Music’s Jazz Initiative since 2016, as a Lecturer in Jazz and an ensemble coach. He teaches his “Jazz Improvisation” course in the very same classroom he had his first saxophone lesson, at the age of 11. Escoffery said he wrote most of the album’s music in his office at Yale.

“I think it felt good to me that I was actually in New Haven, in the place where I began my music,” Escoffery said. “Being in New Haven the last four years and working at Yale has definitely been an inspiration. I am in an environment that fosters creativity.”

The album opens with an original titled “Chain Gang,” which was inspired by Escoffery’s return to Yale. He conducted research at the Yale School of Music, in pursuit of music that contrasted with modern-day jazz. In this research, he came across musicologist Alan Lomax’s catalogue of work songs. Escoffery wrote “Chain Gang” as a modern imagining of a work song called “I Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down.”

Escoffery said the album’s title, “The Humble Warrior,” references great late jazz musicians including Roy Hargrove, Harold Mabern, Larry Willis and Jimmy Heath. He said all of these musicians can be described as humble warriors, as their musical careers exemplified humility and integrity. Escoffery said he admired that despite their musical accomplishments, they “allowed the music to keep them humble.”

Smith said that Escoffery is not the kind of person to “chase fads or fame” within the jazz community. He added that Escoffery is continuing the work of his role models — the humble warriors — who were dedicated to the great jazz tradition.

“[Escoffery’s] music is evolving and maturing, but it is harder to detect because it happens subtly,” Smith said. “He might disagree, but in some ways, he’s not returning to the music from Trinity — it’s always been there.”

Escoffery said that, having dedicated his life to music, he is grateful that Yale has given him the opportunity to share his knowledge with both the Yale and New Haven communities. Since he is both an artist and a teacher, it is important for him to maintain a balance between music’s past and present.

“Despite all that we’re dealing with, the one positive is that people are able to expose themselves to a lot more music and art,” Escoffery said. “I hope that my album coming out in this difficult time will give people an outlet to listen to music without the busy stress of life that we all usually have to deal with.”

 

Freya Savla | freya.savla@yale.edu