Whether it's Sunday, or any other night of the week, Jason Eskridge has a special brand of soul
The 5 Spot isn’t exactly the first place a Nashville soul music fan might consider a haven for explosive funk or gritty R&B ballads, but that’s precisely what is happening at the club on this evening as dynamic vocalist Jason Eskridge and his band have taken over the stage. It’s the second Sunday night in October, and the atmosphere has just accelerated from pleasant and amiable to explosive and intense, shifting from a show to an outright party. Eskridge’s seven-piece backing ensemble demonstrates its versatility as they easily shift stylistic gears through two fiery sets. On the menu one minute is an original, the next an inspired cover of a Prince or Sly Stone piece.
“How is everyone feeling tonight,” Eskridge asks from the crowded stage. “We want you to take advantage of that dance floor,” he adds, pointing to an area initially deserted, but that soon gets more crowded as folks are pulled out of their seats and onto the floor, heeding the call of the concentrated, constantly changing grooves and beats.
The audience this Sunday night numbers roughly 100 people, with a blend of regulars and first-timers, neighborhood types and people from other parts of town — and from out of town — who’ve heard there’s frenetic soul and R&B music being played in Nashville at The 5 Spot on this evening and want to experience it for themselves. Eskridge makes the rounds between sets, asking whether the patrons are newcomers or regulars, Music City denizens or visitors from other areas. Eskridge obviously sees his mission as much more than just being his band’s vocal leader and principal composer (in addition to contributing a few licks of his own on various instruments).
As the host of this twice-monthly get-down known as Sunday Night Soul, which recently celebrated its third anniversary, Eskridge views this as a continuation of a campaign that was ignited upon permanently relocating to Nashville from Alabama. “When I had played Nashville before, I thought there was an underserved audience and a lot of fine musicians who weren’t being recognized,” he says. “I wanted to do something to get them more exposure and attention.”
Eskridge went to the owners of The 5 Spot a little over three years ago with a unique proposal: to stage a special night twice a month dedicated to local soul artists. It would be an alternative to having a DJ spinning classic Motown or Stax hits for clubgoers, as well as a live showcase for Nashville’s finest soul artists, something that was sorely lacking.
“They were the one place I approached that was willing to take a chance on something that many people don’t think is traditionally Nashville,” Eskridge explains.
But then taking chances is nothing new to Eskridge. Not everyone, even someone supremely confident in their abilities, would opt to leave a comfortable job as a mechanical engineer working for NASA in his hometown of Huntsville, Ala., for the life of a soul bandleader.
After he graduated from Tennessee Tech in 1997 with a degree in engineering, Eskridge landed what many would consider a dream position. “I had a good job, nice little apartment, a gig with a 401K, and a pretty set future with NASA if that’s what I wanted,” he recalls. “But the music was and is me. That’s what I wanted to do, and I just couldn’t be happy sitting in an office.”
“In fact, the funny thing was I would stay up all night writing and playing music, then have to come into the office and drink a ton of coffee trying to stay awake and concentrate on the work,” he continues. “It got to the point one day I just said, ‘What do you really want to do,’ and it wasn’t even that tough a decision. I knew right away I wanted to play and sing, and I know that’s what I want to do now.
“I do soul as an artist,” he adds, “and I’ve been in Nashville long enough to know that there were and are now a substantial number of outstanding soul artists who were kind of in a catch-22 situation.”
It was Eskridge’s desire to serve those undeserved artists that spawned Sunday Night Soul. “The artists couldn’t get their music played on radio stations, so in turn no one got the opportunity, except for a small group, to know who they were,” he says. “In turn, while it was wonderful that The 5 Spot already had a night devoted to playing classic soul with a DJ (Motown Mondays), I really saw this as a way to grow the soul audience and also give the performers a chance to really display their skills on a regular basis.”
Since the series’ beginnings on March 23, 2014, The 5 Spot, on the second and fourth Sundays of every month, has become the place of choice for the area’s most talented soul singers and instrumentalists. Sets can range in length from 40 minutes to an hour-plus, and there’s usually both an opening and headline act. Some of the top acts who’ve appeared there include Emoni Wilkins, Dustin Ransom, Classik Levine, Damien Horne, Kyshona Armstrong, Mike Hicks, and Dynamo. And, of course, Eskridge himself.
Soul and gospel share a musical kinship that differentiates them from R&B, blues, funk, and disco, even though all these certainly have similar roots in the black experience. But the cry for salvation is a special one, which emanates through the vocal cries and animated expressiveness of gospel and soul acts in a fashion that sets them apart, and in turn distinguishes all the greats of those idioms. Eskridge has that special quality in his vocals and onstage persona.
Listening to his clever uses of falsetto and the ease with which he adjusts to changes in rhythm and tempo within songs, you can hear the impact of the two men he considers prime influences: Bill Withers as a composer and Donny Hathaway on the artistic end. “He was terribly underrated his entire career,” Eskridge says of Hathaway. “He could truly do it all. Great player, incredible songwriter and arranger, charismatic performer. I certainly don’t put myself in his class, but he’s the person whom I really model a lot of what I try to do artistically and with the band.”
While a close examination of Eskridge’s vocal and compositional styles will reflect his two primary influences, it is also easy to hear traces of other influences, most notably Sly and the Family Stone from the standpoint of having a racially and sexually integrated lineup with a woman in a key role other than background vocalist, and Earth, Wind & Fire from the loose, shifting improvisational framework that anchors many of his tunes.
“I’m not really accomplished on any one thing,” Eskridge says, downplaying his instrumental skills. “I kind of get out there on guitar, sometimes I’ll get on the keyboards, maybe occasionally the drums. I wouldn’t say any of them is a signature or main instrument, but they add colors to the sound.”
Although it might be stretching things a bit to put Eskridge’s musical presentation in the jazz-rock or fusion camp, within many songs there are periods where he and the band members will extend solos or engage in extracurricular exchanges and fireworks that are more commonplace in the jazz or blues vernaculars, especially when compared to the slick, tightly produced material that’s favored by today’s urban contemporary stations.
It’s while listening to Eskridge’s vocals that the soul explosion comes forth. He carries on the traditions of classic soul singers through the cagey use of falsetto; singing in both the tenor and baritone; bringing expressiveness to the lyrics; projecting in an animated manner; and applying careful attention to mood and pacing. His forthcoming new album, tentatively set for an early 2018 release date, is going to be more focused on originals. “Sort of my coming out party,” he jokes.
Thematic and instrumental flexibility is a trademark of Eskridge’s musical approach, one reflected by the personnel in his band. Their exuberant first set features a stellar new member, flutist Kateri Farrell. “It’s funny man, she had heard about us and kind of just walked up to me and asked if she could play with us,” Eskridge recalls. “I listened to her for a couple of minutes and said, ‘Of course.’ She give us another sound, an extra voice, and it’s proving a fantastic addition.”
Eskridge has begun composing more open-ended material that gives Farrell plenty of solo space either in the middle or near the end of selections. He’s also employed another rather unusual instrumentalist for a soul band in violinist Forest Miller, who provides another musical twist. “The idea really was to have kind of a string section in addition to the standard type of soul group instrumentation,” the bandleader explains.
Miller and Farrell converge with keyboardist Demario Johnson, bassist Mike Majett, and drummer Elijah Holt, plus guitarist Richard Gallaher when he’s available. Eskridge also periodically has other Nashville musicians sit in with the band. But his core group of Johnson, Majett, Holt, Miller, and now Farrell provide the main backing for his impassioned, soaring vocals and blend of various instrumental colors.
“I kind of play around on keys, drums, and guitar,” Eskridge says. “Really depends on the things that I hear in my head, and what I think then works best for the songs. My philosophy and what I always tell the acts who appear here is play what they feel. My goal was to create a safe environment, one where they could feel empowered to do their own songs, or morph into doing whatever they felt inspired to keep the party going. Our music for the shows is usually 50-50 originals and covers, but that can also change, depending on the night and the crowd and the mood.”
Sunday Night Soul also doesn’t adhere to any rigid thematic or stylistic code in regards to what type of performers can appear there. Singers or bands are both welcome, and Eskridge’s idea of soul isn’t a restrictive one, something reflected by both his band and the act that opened for him on this misty October night. The Sextones, a group from Reno, Nev., are all white, something that shouldn’t matter, but often does when talking about who’s doing what type of music. Their set was enjoyable, funky, and propulsive, with mostly original material that had a distinctive ’70s-funk flavor, but which also retained ample soul bona fides in its rhythmic intensity and edge. “We got them kind of by surprise,” Eskridge explains. “They’re currently on a tour, and they had an off night and were in town and heard that there was a place where soul bands could play on Sundays. The lead singer called me, and we booked them.”
With his new record slated for release, and a trip to Japan that will be under his belt by the time you read this, plus the Sunday Night Soul rotations, Eskridge feels he’s doing what he was always meant to do.
He also is among the local artists whose music is currently featured in rotation by program director Shannon Sanders on the new local radio station, 102.1 THE VILLE. “I’ve known Shannon for 25 years,” Eskridge says. “He’s also been someone I’ve admired, someone whose integrity and devotion to music and local artists is high, and what he’s doing with 102.1 gives us something we haven’t had during my time in Nashville before, and that’s a place where we can actually get our music onto the commercial airwaves.
“I can’t tell you how many of the artists who appear on Sunday Night Soul have come up to me and told me how great it is to have that station around,” he continues, “both because they can get their music played on it, and also because it’s a chance to hear a lot of the great artists who were active before us, and who are our heroes. Nashville has long needed that kind of station, and I’m thrilled to be one of the artists that is on it.”
Eskridge also thinks that Nashville’s becoming a much friendlier and inviting town for soul acts. “I am very optimistic about the future,” he says. “We’ve got more people moving here all the time from all over the nation and their musical tastes and interests are very diverse, so it’s important that the city’s performing atmosphere be just as diverse. Plus, I see people at the shows all the time who’ve come from LA or New York, and they say it’s great to hear some music that they can dance or listen to like they have in other cities.
“If you love soul, if you love energy and want to have a good time, just come in and experience Sunday Night Soul. I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it.”