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Among the many influences on saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, singing in the church choir from age 11 ranks high among them. It was during his time with the Trinity Boys Choir in New Haven, Connecticut, that he was exposed to the music of 20th-century Anglican Church composer Benjamin Britten, specifically his Missa Brevis in D., op. 63, which stayed with him long after. In fact, Escoffery arranged four pieces from that work on his latest release, TheHumble Warrior (Smoke Sessions), for his quartet and guests. Of course, the album also reflects the influences of his mentor, saxophonist Jackie McLean, with whom he studied at the Hartt School, and trumpeter Tom Harrell, with whom he’s frequently recorded. Escoffery fits hand in glove with his working band of the past six years — pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. — and seamlessly integrates trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist David Gilmore into the ensemble.
A strong post-bop orientation powers tunes such as Escoffery’s “Chain Gang” and Kikoski’s “Back to Square One,” the opening and closing numbers, respectively. The former takes inspiration from Alan Lomax’s 1959 prison field recordings, while the latter nods to Joe Henderson. As for the album’s title track, Escoffery says he was acknowledging recently departed jazz giants such as Roy Hargrove, Harold Mabern, Larry Willis and Richard Wyands, artists who strove for excellence for its own sake, rather than for critical or commercial reward. Bringing the project full circle, Escoffery’s 11-year-old son (with vocalist Carolyn Leonhart), Vaughn, lends angelic vocals to the Britten piece “Benedictus.”