Escaper – Skeleton Key – Ropeadope, 33:46 [5/12/17] ***1/2:

Jam/jazz interplay from a Brooklyn quintet.

(Will Hanza – guitar; Jay Giacomazzo – bass; Andrew Nesbitt – drums; Adam Ahuja – keyboards; Johnny Butler – saxophones)

[MP3 only at time of review]

Brooklyn-based quintet Escaper fits into the nebulous area where jam band music, jazz and fusion-fueled rock commingle. While the five-some (who formed in 2016) are not at the level of contemporaries such as Medeski, Martin & Wood, Charlie Hunter or the Bad Plus, fans of those musicians would probably like what Escaper is doing.  It’s not a surprise Escaper is on the Ropeadope Records roster, which has issued albums by Hunter, MMW, Critters Buggin and likeminded artists. On Escaper’s debut, the 33-minute, seven-track Skeleton Key, the ensemble deftly mixes rock, funk, RnB, indie rock and other influences into their modern jazz tunes.

Some jazz listeners get bothered when the expression ‘jam band’ comes up. Escaper guitarist Will Hanza explains, “The term ‘jam’ can be a loaded one, but the idea of having some concrete ideas, while still allowing the music to be open to take advantage of the moment is really important to us.” That aesthetic is at the forefront with the 2:50 intro piece, “Skeleton Key (part 1),” which commences with a calm passage featuring Hanza, saxophonist Johnny Butler, Adam Ahuja’s soulful electric piano, and a low-key rhythm bed from drummer Andrew Nesbitt and bassist Jay Giacomazzo. The groove kicks higher and a spacy demeanor rises on the second cut, the slightly choppy “Mutiny,” where Hanza displays rock roots, Ahuja switches to woozy keyboards reminiscent of either prog rock or jam band inclinations, and Butler slips in and out of the arrangement with comping sax lines. A 1970s groove and Herbie Hancock-tinted funk style percolates through the strutting “Lighthouse.” This tune has more of Hanza’s amped-up guitar, but the quintet always gets back to a bedrock beat. And when Butler takes his solo spotlight, the arrangement ascends. There’s also some intriguing interaction between Hanza and Butler, where they prod each other to some spirited chords.

Most cuts fall between four and six minutes. The lengthiest, the 6:30 “Narwhal” (named after the whale that possesses a large “tusk” which is actually a long tooth) provides room for Escaper to show the member’s chops. There’s a catchy main theme which flits in and out. Butler presents some John Klemmer-esque sax phrasing. Hanza supplies more of his rock-hued riffing. And the rhythm section layers in a rock/jazz landscape which harkens back to early ‘70s fusion similar to Return to Forever, Larry Coryell or Billy Cobham. While Escaper doesn’t replicate what those artists did, the essence is comparable. The title track is reprised near the CD’s conclusion with a longer version called “Skeleton Key (part 2),” basically a continuation of where the first “Skeleton Key” track leaves off. “Skeleton Key (part 2)” is the quintessential jazz/rock tune on Skeleton Key. Butler puts echo on his sax (which again brings to mind Klemmer). Ahuja adds tiered digital keyboard sounds. Hanza places plenty of reverb on his stinging guitar. And Nesbitt and Giacomazzo sustain a solid beat which plays around with time signatures. Escaper concludes with the pop- and RnB-inclined “Castles.” This is the album’s most dance-oriented cut with an upbeat and invigorated approach. There are moments when the music expands, and then ebbs to a laid-back segment where Butler is highlighted with a Coltrane-ish solo. The designation “up and coming” is thrown out a lot, but that’s where Escaper is right now. It will be interesting to see how Escaper progresses from here.

Skeleton Key (part 1)
Night Crawler
Skeleton Key (part 2)

—Doug Simpson