Tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons’ 1962 “Ca’Purange (Jungle Soul)” is a greasy soul groove; his big sound is thick and earthy, but still light enough to shimmy over the swinging, Latin-tinged backing band. The track is just about perfect.
But Ellery Eskelin’s 1996 cover version is even better. Guitarist Marc Ribot adds a post-rock vamp, drummer Kenny Wolleson fractures the beat, and Eskelin’s sax shifts between post-bop free-jazzish honk and skronk and the smoothest possible tenor melody. The original’s wonderful because of its sensual grit, and yet Eskelin’s trio manages to be more luxurious and broken. It’s like listening to Sadé front the Talking Heads—New Wave smooth jazz miraculously held together by sheer funky soul.
Like many of the arty oddballs associated with the 1990s Knitting Factory scene, Eskelin was interested in exploring alternate jazz canons. Wynton Marsalis can go on indefinitely about Duke Ellington, Mingus, Davis and the Ken Burns canon. John Zorn sniffed and released an Ennio Morricone tribute, while Marc Ribot covered compositions by classic Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez.
Eskelin’s attempt to recuperate Ammons’ virile mix of R&B and bop on the album The Sun Died was less well-known than either of those. But it’s still the pinnacle of the mini-retro-genre of obscure deconstructed jazz tribute. Eskelin is faithful to Ammons’ accessibly sensuous style while simultaneously sounding completely different.
The sweaty, swaggering organ boogie of “Twistin’ The Jug,” for example, is transformed in Eskelin’s hands into a no-wave herky-jerk bump and hop and grind, with Ribot’s feedback and Wolleson’s clatter skittering and thumping around Eskelin’s free jazz Illinois Jacquet impersonation. Ammons’ lovely ballad, “Canadian Sunset” springs holes in the middle, through which the trio falls one after the other. Eskelin reimagines the cheerfully uptempo “Out of It” through the simple expedient of playing as fast as possible while Ribot and Wolleson try to keep up, like they’re all performing soul jazz hardcore. And “Precious Memories” turns Ammons’ contemplative gospel ballad version of the standard into an ominous blues rock grind. Wolleson and Ribot take those past memories and hammer them into a knife edge.
Allmusic was frustrated with Eskelin’s choice not to include a bassist on the set the reviewer laments the lack of a “low end.” But the sparse, un-bottomed feel of The Sun Died is a big part of the record’s uniquely off-kilter sound. Ammons’ music was always full, thick and grounded; the pleasure of his recordings is in digging in and rooting around. On Ammons’ version of the triumphantly swinging showpiece “Jivin Around,” for example, the rhythm section locks into a sturdy stroll that gives Ammons and trumpeter Howard McGhee a bedrock upon which to punch, jump, and wail.
Eskelin, in contrast, wants to see what happens when you dig in and fall through. His “Twistin the Jug” pulls the neck off the drinking gourd; it’s all jumping and no landing as he, Ribot, and Wolleson go charging around each other in an explosion of cartoon motion lines. With the players left to their own pulseless devices, the line between bop and Boredoms-esque noise rock topples this way and that. Instead of a swagger, you get a squall.
The Sun Died didn’t have an obvious audience when it came out. It hasn’t found one since. People who never heard of Ammons may shrug at the exercise in hipster obscurity. For their part, Ammons’ hardcore fans may miss his tough cool. But there’s an undeniably rugged bad-assedness to throwing yourself off a cliff without a net, knowing that even if no one’s listening, you’re going to play that saxophone all the way down.