By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Only those symphonic strings, brass constructions, intergalactic synth lines, and cavernous drum-circle breakdowns were wholly fabricated on tape. In the economically depressed late '70s of New York City, disco big bands didn't play out much. "Kid Creole had these incredible live shows, as did Chic, but most of the stuff we were initially looking to as inspiration were strictly studio creations," Cho says. "The folks making those types of disco records are really just nerdy studio-session guys. There actually wasn't much of a live-band tradition outside of Philly soul stuff." Escort might not have been able to assemble more than three times a year, but that didn't stop the band from releasing a streak of crisp and supple nu-disco singles in 2006 and 2007. These tracks foregrounded a powerful singer from London named Zena Kitt, whose voice evoked those of divas like Gwen Guthrie and Donna Summer. Around the time that Escort decided to put their energy into recording a full album, though, she struck out on her own.
"Escort was what I had been looking for for awhile. At the time, I was in a live instrumentation hip-hop soul group, but I wanted to have a bit more . . . diva." Adeline Michèle extends her thin arms wide to strike a graceful pose before she settles back onto the couch in her Prospect Heights apartment. A Parisian by birth, Michèle relocated to New York City five years ago. A mutual friend introduced her to Balis and Cho, and "right away, I imagined myself onstage with that band."
Dusk quickly darkens the room, yet Michèle's halo of tight curls catches all of the room's light and seems to glow. She has just returned from a weekend performance in the Cayman Islands, where she sang Motown, '70s funk, and top 40 for a private function. But fronting Escort is where Michèle shines. She came late to the group in the recording process, but she's still the star of the show. "Adeline can go out there and belt, but she's more subtle than that," Cho says. "What she evokes varies from track to track." Much like the song subject "Caméleon Chameleon," Michèle's voice shape-shifts from plaintive to fierce, a seductive coo for "A Bright New Life" and a gritty turn on "Makeover."
Rather than simply be indebted to the swooping strings, percussion outbursts, and chanteuse-cooed vocal imperatives of disco, Escort is mindful to not just go for "kitsch" in their sound. The whip-smart pop of Chic, August Darnell, and Prince wiggles in all of their grooves, which also possess the sleek and pliant qualities crafted by the likes of nu-disco producers like Metro Area and Daniel Wang. Sure, "Caméleon Chameleon" has a telltale Tom Tom Club bounce, and closer "Karawane" is tribal disco in all its hedonistic, polyrhythmic release, but Escort digs deeper than just dance music for its inspirations. There's a breezy and upbeat take on "A Sailboat in the Moonlight," a jazz standard made famous by Billie Holiday. "Cocaine Blues" elevates the early-'70s Dillinger reggae hit "Cocaine in My Brain" into a tingly good time, while "Love in Indigo" has a touch of Duke Ellington in its elegant piano.
Lording over the band, though, is one particular pop monster. "Just in terms of engineering, Thriller remains a touchstone for us," Balis admits, detailing how they spent an entire day just mic'ing the drums so as to best emulate Michael Jackson's sound. "There's one-off curiosities you love as a DJ, but honestly, there aren't that many great disco or dance albums. Thriller was our unobtainable aspiration."
Although they aim for perfection in the studio, for the live show, Escort aims for spectacle—their ranks have swelled to 17 members. Michèle feels that Escort is at the height of its powers onstage: "Honestly, it's just an incredible feeling, being carried by their energy. It's 16 people behind me, and I'm the receiver of all that energy, and I get to send it out into the crowd."
Escort plays Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday.