Roll Magazine

Busy Hands
John Esposito

by Peter Aaron, photos by Leah Moskowitz
12/2008

You’d be hard pressed to find an artist more locally active than Catskill jazz pianist and composer John Esposito. In addition to playing in innumerable musical settings on any given weekend (chronicled below), Esposito somehow also finds the time to teach music at Bard College several times each week. And on top of that, the Brooklyn-born, Marlboro-raised keyboardist has recently kicked his Sunjump Records label into overdrive, self-releasing no less than five titles over the last two years—with a few more set to follow in the coming months. A player whose style evokes the spidery constructs of Thelonious Monk and the shimmering atmospherics of McCoy Tyner, Esposito’s playing is a pleasure no matter where you encounter it, be it on disc, as a side man, or at the helm of one of his own units. And with so many readily available chances to catch his genius right at their fingertips, Hudson Valley music lovers are a lucky lot, indeed.

You’re certainly a busy musician. How many different bands/projects are you involved in at the moment?

I freelance and work with musicians who play very specific styles and I’ve learned the ability to adjust to their things. Locally, I’m working with Carlos Valdez and Mambo Kikongo, playing Latin and R&B dance music with some jazz in there, too. I play with flutist Sarah Elia and bassists Steve Rust and Lew Scott in a little chamber music band; stuff like the Bach and Handel flute sonatas, a Beethoven trio, a Mendelssohn trio, and a bunch of Baroque bass or flute sonatas. I work with a number of different American Popular Songbook singers like Mark Raisch and Patricia Dalton, doing Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, etc. I play a lot with saxophonist Hugh Brodie, doing bebop and blues. I work from time to time in trumpeter Greg Glassman’s band in New York. I play swing-era music with violinist Craig Thaler in the Albany area. I work with drummer Marvin “Bugalu” Smith’s band at the Terrace in Newburgh once a month. I play drums with a rehearsal band once a week, working on my own music with guitarist Steve Raleigh and bassist Charles Frommer. I play twice a month at Oasis in New Paltz with Raleigh’s electric jazz group.

I have a trio with bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Peter O’Brien playing my music. We have one CD out [2006’s Down Blue Marlin Road on Sunjump Records; reviewed in the July 2007 premier issue of Roll] and are recording another in February. We just finished saxophonist Mitch Kessler’s CD at NRS Studios in Catskill. I’m releasing it on Sunjump. I’ve almost finished a CD with saxophonist Jeff Marx and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel. Kind of a free music thing. We are talking about releasing it on Sunjump. I try to work with my quintet with Eric Person, Greg Glassman, Kenny Davis, and Pete O’Brien, when I can find a paying gig. Currently, I’m doing electronic keyboard music with video mixer Laura Steele. Other than that, I put groups together on an ad hoc basis or just see what the phone brings in. In my spare time, I’m getting the Internet business happening and redoing my website.

In addition to playing and teaching, you’ve also been very active of late with several recent releases on Sunjump Records. Is there something in particular that brought on this sudden (and very welcome) burst of inspiration to document your work?

Yes. Time is flying. A lot of the people I was lucky enough to play and record with over the years are gone or can no longer play but have a bunch of unreleased work. I feel I owe it to the music and them to get that work out, so recently I released music from the ’80s by Second Sight [1986’s Flying with the Comet], and a studio session from the ’90s, EarthShip by Sangeeta Michael Berardi [which includes his paintings and poems] and a Knitting Factory concert date by my octet, A Book of Five Rings. I’m about to release a CD from 1980 by guitarist Steve Geraci, with Arthur Rhames, John Stubblefield, Kit Potter, Charley Knicely, Rashied Ali, Jeff Siegel, and Fred Berryhill. In the spring, I plan more releases by all of the above. If I don’t do it soon it won’t happen.

Second Sight was one of the most talked-about New York jazz bands of the 1980s, but had a difficult time breaking out of the Downtown scene. Seems like it was a case of your being too “out” for the mainstream “Young Lions” fans and too “trad” for the free/avant-garde crowd. Do you agree?

I agree, partly. Getting management that was willing to let us do what we were doing was a problem. Our first record, Flying with the Comet, was pushing the envelope for a lot of the young jazz conservatives who were around at the time, but a lot of people came to hear that band because there was some real improvising and a lot of energy and range in the music. Our manager gave up when he heard our second recording, which seemed to him to have classical and free music elements. He said he wouldn’t know how to sell it. I think I gave up on him when I heard that. The real problem is that [the concept of] marketing music in very specific boxes developed in a very big way in the ’80s. We were more interested in figuring out how to play the music than figuring out how to sell it, and we were playing a lot in New York and moving the music forward. I don’t think there was a lot of money even then in jazz, even at the height of the “Young Lions” thing, which I wasn’t interested in being a part of, anyhow. I always played free music from the beginning and never felt the need to have an ideological allegiance to chords and stated time, or no chords and implied time.

Are you still in touch with Dave Douglas, who made his debut as a member of Second Sight? His recent music is certainly a lot different from the music he made with you, but do you hear anything in his music that he picked up from his years in Second Sight?

Yes, Dave and I talk from time to time and occasionally end up on projects with other players. We’ve recorded together with Franklin Kiermyer and also with Eric Person. Dave can play anything he wants to and can bring all of his previous experience to bear.

You still play occasionally with Second Sight bassist Allen Murphy and Jeff “Siege” Siegel, who both also live in the Hudson Valley, and Jeff Marx, when he’s visiting from Chicago. Any plans to record with any of them again? Would a Second Sight reunion be appealing to you?

I did one CD for Jeff Marx with my trio called Treading Air, Breathing Fire (2003, Soluna Records), which I think is good music. I wrote a piece for his first CD, Great Unknown (2002, Naugual Music), and four pieces for Marx and Siegel’s duet CD, Dreamstuff [2007, Ayler Records; reviewed in the October/November 2007 issue of Roll]. We will finish our trio CD in January. I haven’t thought about a Second Sight reunion. Probably not. Music happens when it happens. I’m sure we could play something listenable together, but I ‘m sure we are all in other places creatively. I don’t like to travel in reverse.

During your time in New York you also worked with the late, legendarily influential but under-recorded saxophonist, guitarist, pianist, and composer, Arthur Rhames. Since few people outside the ’70s/’80s New York jazz scene got the chance to hear Rhames before he died, how would you describe the man and his music? What made him unique and important?

After Arthur’s funeral, John Stubblefield told me that he and Reggie Workman and a number of other musicians who had been around for Trane’s music said they all thought that the short history of jazz was going to be: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Arthur Rhames. He was a brilliant musical thinker, visionary, and incredibly gifted virtuoso. The right person for the wrong time. There are a few YouTube clips up. I am working on getting an Arthur Rhames website up with his story, photos, and recordings.

How long have you been teaching music? What is it that you find most rewarding about being a music teacher?

I’ve been teaching one way or another for 30 years. I’ve been on faculty at Bard for seven years. I like helping young people to learn how to think and invent themselves as people and artists.

What do you think makes the Hudson Valley jazz scene unique compared to that of other areas?

It’s close enough to New York. Access to more great players and other creative artists than I’ve found in other places.

And finally: Who, exactly, is Manny Hornblower? (A mysterious figure seen in the photo of Esposito inside the booklet of Down Blue Marlin Road.)

There is a papier mache mannequin at Scott Petito’s studio, NRS. It looks like a worried little man playing a French horn. I believe Leslie Ritter’s sister made it. [The mannequin] is Manny Hornblower. There is a stuffed blue marlin above him.

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