It’s a little soon to be referring to Alejandro Escovedo’s early-January show at ACL Live as an established tradition. Still, Saturday’s third annual concert at downtown’s premier showcase venue by the illustrious Austin bandleader has become an appropriate way to kick off the new year with a spirit of big dreams and bold visions.
It began two years ago when Escovedo presented a massive three-set career retrospective with more than two dozen musicians under the direction of guitarist and producer Charlie Sexton. Last year, Escovedo upped the ante, assembling an ambitious “United Sounds of Austin” program that touched on decades of local music history across genres, with performers ranging from conjunto purveyors Los Texmaniacs to psychedelic legend Roky Erickson to singer-songwriter Butch Hancock to country-punk band the Hickoids.
A standout from that show was an early set by Elias Haslanger’s Church on Monday, a top-notch jazz ensemble that has played a popular weekly residency at the Continental Gallery for several years. Escovedo asked Haslanger to write a song for the occasion, and the result, “For Being There,” helped form a deeper bond that has led to an even greater collaboration for this year’s ACL Live show.
“I don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of composing, but he was pretty insistent about it,” Haslanger recalls. “So I did it, and thanks to him, we got a cool tune out of it.
“In many ways it was for the (Church on Monday) band. It’s kind of a tribute to them — for always being there every week and playing for the love of it. But it also was for Alejandro, for getting me to write this song, and for being a friend and believing in the band.”
For Escovedo, the song became a sort of theme to a new relationship that blossomed in 2014 and culminated in his September marriage to Nancy Rankin, one of Haslanger’s longtime friends. “That song was our first dance at our wedding,” he said, noting that the couple’s courtship had included many Monday nights spent at the Continental Gallery listening to Haslanger’s group.
Such personal ties helped make the Church on Monday band an obvious choice for a primary role in Escovedo’s third ACL Live show. But it was also about pushing the envelope.
“I was thinking about what could I do to take me totally out of my comfort zone, and set me in a direction where my music will move forward,” Escovedo said. “And I thought, what better group of musicians who can be supportive and sensitive to me, and yet take me somewhere that I haven’t been before.”
Though Haslanger has played saxophone with Escovedo on several occasions in the past few years, most recently at a Cactus Cafe show last August, he confesses that he wasn’t quite sure at first if a full-on collaboration with the Church on Monday band would work.
“It took a little convincing, because we’re a jazz band, we’re not a rock ’n’ roll band,” he says. “But it’s not going to be a jazz show; it’ll be our interpretation of his songs. I think it’ll be different for people who are pretty familiar with Al’s music.”
Billed in full as “The Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra in collaboration with Elias Haslanger and Church on Monday featuring Dr. James Polk,” the 12-piece ensemble performing two sets on Saturday also includes backup singers and a string section. Longtime Escovedo comrades Susan Voelz on violin and Brian Standefer on cello will team with vocalists Karla Manzur, Emily Hello, Betty Soo and Grace Park to flesh out the jazz foundation of saxophonist Haslanger, organist Polk, guitarist Jake Langley, bassist Daniel Durham and drummer Scott Laningham.
Billing his players as an “orchestra” is not new for Escovedo, who first started using the term a quarter-century ago when he was coalescing a loose but transcendent collective of local musicians around the songs that eventually blossomed into his early solo albums “Gravity” and “Thirteen Years.” On any given night in 1990, the lineup for an Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra show could range from three to 13 musicians.
Such fluidity in the supporting cast helped him to craft songs that could adapt to a variety of situations. They’ll revisit some of those numbers in Saturday’s first set, which Escovedo describes as an experiment in “reconstructing the sound” of many songs in his back catalogue.
But in contrast to the 2013 concert that stressed the high-water marks of his career, the selections this time will steer toward “more obscure tunes — songs that we don’t usually do, or that I’ve hardly ever done,” Escovedo says. “Maybe some songs I’ve never even recorded.”
Those explorations will set the stage for a second set that’s an even greater adventure, one based on a profound recent experience. Escovedo and his wife, Nancy, were caught for a week in the nexus of Hurricane Odile in Mexico at the tail end of their honeymoon in September. The harrowing ordeal inspired a suite of songs and narrative that’s still a work in progress but seems to be developing along the lines of “By the Hand of the Father,” a musical theater piece Escovedo helped bring to life in the early 2000s.
Stage design and visual elements will enhance the performance, “with the images dealing with the hurricane, and the romance, and that (Haslanger) song,” Escovedo says. “You could almost call that set ‘For Being There.’ There will be a thematic quality to all of it.”
He notes that the ability to present such projects at ACL Live has been a great motivator. Escovedo’s home base remains the Continental Club, where he often holds court on Tuesdays with his Sensitive Boys band and has presented major benefit shows on the final Sunday of South by Southwest since 2000. But the bigger stage allows him an outlet for more ambitious pursuits.
“I’ve always felt that I needed to get into an area where I could really flex my muscles as far as my ability to curate and produce — to gather information and to build stories and visuals to go with it,” he says. “I want to get to that place where I can really combine my film interests, my musical interests and my literary interests into this big storytelling exercise.”
Such lofty aspirations are part of what made Haslanger buy in to this year’s ACL Live concert. “What I love about Al is he always likes to take chances,” Haslanger said. “And that’s very much like a jazz musician. He doesn’t like doing the exact same thing all the time. That’s part of our DNA as well: Every night, even if you’re playing a classic standard, the idea is to reinvent it.”
The push toward something new goes both ways, Haslanger acknowledges. Escovedo may have sought out the Church on Monday band partly to explore the territory of jazz, but the band members appreciate how Escovedo’s breadth of knowledge and experience can broaden their scope.
“He’s kind of a musicologist; he loves all kinds of music,” Haslanger says. “He knows a lot more about a lot of different styles of music than I do. I think that’s reflected in his songwriting: It’s a really broad range of sounds that come in through all the different tunes.
“So as I’ve dived into this thing, I’ve become a big fan of the different influences and sounds that he brings into his music. I don’t think there’s another songwriter in the world doing what he’s doing today. You can hear all these influences, but when it comes out of his mouth, it’s very much his sound.”
Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra with Church on Monday
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: ACL Live, 310 Willie Nelson Blvd.