Ellery Eskelin was born in Wichita Kansas on August 16th, 1959 and was raised in Baltimore, Maryland since the age of two. In 1969 at age ten he began playing the tenor saxophone. His interest in music was sparked by his mother "Bobbie Lee" who played Hammond B3 organ professionally in Baltimore with her own groups in the early sixties. Throughout high school and college he began playing professionally around Baltimore in a variety of musical situations while concentrating heavily on jazz, sitting in at local venues and forming groups of his own.
In 1973 (at age 13) Eskelin attended the first of many annual summer weeklong residencies hosted by the Stan Kenton Orchestra at Towson State University. In 1977 he enrolled at that institution studying classical saxophone literature with Joseph Briscuso as well as woodwind literature for flute and clarinet with various players from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His primary focus was jazz, playing in the Towson State Jazz Ensemble led by Hank Levy. This group performed Levy's original compositions exclusively. Levy is known for his use of odd time signatures in big band music having contributed to the books of Don Ellis and Stan Kenton. Upon graduation in 1981 (with a Bachelor of Science in Music Performance), Eskelin went on the road with trombonist Buddy Morrow, traveling the US in a series of one nighters that lasted for a year and and a half from 1981 until 1983, culminating in a tour of South America.
In 1983 he moved to New York City to devote himself to the pursuit of jazz and improvised music. Towards that end studies began with saxophonists George Coleman and David Liebman. The first few years in New York were spent apprenticing with a wide variety of musicians (see below) including a notable stint with organist Jack McDuff, in an attempt to widen his scope as a player and solidify the necessary skills required to eventually integrate traditional jazz elements with musical ideas from a variety of other sources. In this process Eskelin experienced a musical epiphany of sorts in which he began investigating various concepts of phrasing and timbre manipulation that continue to be a major focus in his work. His recorded output begins at this time with the first of three recordings by the cooperative group Joint Venture (with trumpeter Paul Smoker, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Phil Haynes) for Enja records in 1987. He was also a member of Phil Haynes' "4 Horns & What?" ensemble which toured Europe and recorded in the late 80s.
After some time spent with these bands Eskelin began the first of many projects as a leader beginning with a trio comprised of Gress and Haynes, releasing Setting The Standard (Cadence Jazz) in 1988 and Forms (Open Minds) in 1990. This group endeavored to combine it's roots in the tradition of jazz with various concepts of independence and role changing in an attempt to play freely but with strict attention to harmony, time and form.
The years following were tentative work-wise but a grass-roots do it yourself work ethic slowly began to bear fruit in the community of musicians and also with record companies and music promoters in Europe. In 1992, an important and ongoing musical relationship with drummer Joey Baron began. The group "Baron Down" was formed opening Eskelin's ears to further possibilities concerning musical roles, independence and context. Joey Baron's "Baron Down" toured yearly in Europe and made three recordings between 1991 and 1995.
During this time Eskelin continued to form projects of his own, generally incorporating new and unusual instrumentations in an attempt to place the saxophone in unique contexts for improvising. More serious explorations and approaches to form and structure took place with a short lived group featuring Joe Daley on tuba and Arto Tuncboyaciyan on bakdav drums and percussion. This group recorded "Figure of Speech" for Soul Note records in 1993.
In 1994 he formed his current working band including sampler and accordion player Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black . His conceptual efforts have been focused greatly with this ensemble resulting in a music that while containing some jazz elements may not be jazz in any strict sense. An amalgamated approach to playing and composing is employed drawing inspiration from many sources. This band appears regularly in the US, Canada and Europe . "Jazz Trash" (Songlines) was the group's 1995 recording debut. "One Great Day..." was recorded during a fall '96 tour of Europe and was followed by "Kulak 29 & 30" (1997), "Five Other Pieces (+2)" (1998), "The Secret Museum" (2000) and "12 (+1) Imaginary Views" (2001) , all for the Swiss hatOLOGY label.
Eskelin has also performed in duo with Andrea Parkins (on sampler) having released "Green Bermudas" (Eremite), a recording that utilizes various found sounds and prerecorded materials including recordings by his late father Rodd Keith. In a related project he has also curated an anthology of Rodd Keith's music for John Zorn's Tzadik label entitled "I Died Today-The Music of Rodd Keith". Keith has become a cult figure among record collectors for his work in the song-poem (send us your lyrics) industry in the late 60s and early 70s.
Eskelin occasionally performs with a side-project based on music written by and associated with the great tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, featuring guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Kenny Wollesen. This group released "The Sun Died" (Soul Note) in 1996 and in 1997 performed at a number of major festivals in Europe including Saalfelden (Austria), Willisau (Switzerland), La Batie (Geneva, Switzerland) and Vilshofen (Germany).
Other recent side projects include touring and recording with Dutch drummer Han Bennink (see "Dissonant Characters" on hatOLOGY), a quintet project including Parkins and Black along with Erik Friedlander on cello and Joseph Daley on tuba which recorded "Ramifications" (hatOLOGY) in 1999 and a new ensemble consisting of strings, vibraphone and saxophone performing completely improvised music documented on "Vanishing Point" (hatOLOGY 577). Beyond these projects, he performs solo saxophone concerts having done so in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, France, Austria and Spain. He is currently a member of several other important bands, including groups led by bassist Mark Helias, a quartet led by drummer Gerry Hemingway and most recently as a guest with drummer Daniel Humair's band.
Eskelin's recordings as a leader (there are currently fifteen) have been named in Best of the Year critics' polls ranging from the New York Times, The Village Voice, and major jazz magazines in the US and abroad. He also appears on nearly thirty recordings as a side person (see discography). DownBeat Magazine has included Eskelin in the "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition" category of their 46th Annual Critics Poll (August, '98), the 49th Annual critics Poll (August 2001) and again in the 50th Annual Critics Poll (August 2002). Eskelin was also a nominee for the prestigious 2003 Jazzpar award.
Mr. Eskelin performs solely on tenor saxophone, his first love.