By James Hale | Published December 2018
It’s easy to fall into the trap of equating electronic keyboards—particularly synthesizers—with riff-heavy fusion. To do so, though, is to forget the radical avant-funkisms of Miles Davis’ mid-’70s bands, to say nothing of Sun Ra.
UK-born keyboardist John Escreet has forgotten none of that, and with a formidable double-drum backline, a rock-solid bassist and two all-star soloists, he’s out to connect all the dots.
His band moves lithely between retro-synth romps featuring tones—blips, beeps and squawks—out of fashion since Keith Emerson’s heyday to slick electronics that map to the drum snap of Eric Harland and Justin Brown. When he steps away from the all of that, though, Escreet displays the brawn and harmonic scope he became known for as a member of Antonio Sanchez’s band.
That muscularity is essential when the bandleader goes toe-to-toe with Harland and Brown on “Global Citizen,” a surging juggernaut that eventually downshifts for a final minute of playful dialogue between Nicholas Payton and Greg Osby. “Smokescreen,” which follows, reverses the pattern, shifting from a long trumpet introduction to a raucous free segment, featuring both Payton and Escreet. The medium-tempo “A World Without Guns” extends the acoustic approach, providing Osby with the stage for a particularly compelling solo, and “Test Run” provides Escreet with his best opportunity to display formidable piano chops.
Once Escreet plugs in, he’s only too willing to indulge his curiosity for decades-old sounds, churning up “Opening,” which calls to mind the original Mahavishnu Orchestra with its arpeggiated synth runs and Billy Cobham-esque drumming, and the title piece, which is filled with old-school synth tones that will sound novel to some listeners and merely annoying to others. The brief, closing “Humanity Please” also is something of a throwback, reminiscent of Alice Coltrane as channeled through Welcome-era Santana—shimmering synth and electric piano with a skein of saxophone floating above.
An album highlight, the strutting “Lady T’s Vibe” sits somewhere in the middle, with a fat, popping bass line from Matt Brewer, subtle electronics, an attractive electric piano part and gorgeous trumpet work.
In lesser hands, this kind of high-contrast combination of contemporary acoustic improvisations and electronic explorations might come off as a binary loss, pleasing no one. But Escreet’s genuine interest in both ends of the sonic spectrum is obvious, and his ability to bring such high-impact players along for the ride makes it work.
Learn To Live: Opening; Broken Justice (Kalief); Lady T’s Vibe; Test Run; Learn To Live; A World Without Guns; Smokescreen; Global Citizen; Contradictions; Humanity Please. (67:28)
Personnel: John Escreet, piano, keyboards; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Greg Osby, alto saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Eric Harland, Justin Brown, drums; Teresa Lee, vocals.