December 11, 2013
“The musician's conundrum - do you want to play the music you like, or people to like your music?”
“I like to do music that other people can play”
Greg Osby was our special guest for a Master class in saxophones at the Hochschule Luzern Musik - Jazz Abteilung in the second week of December 2013.
A player and composer who has straddled many of the arbitrary categories of post 70's musical innovation, his journey has been fortunate with many stations of rich development and collaborations of colorful synergy. On the occasion of Jim Hall's passing, which happened the day before our interview - we opened Music Talk listening to one of their first meetings on record called “Panorama”, which sparked a very personal remembrance of Greg Osby's mentorship and collaboration with one of the most significant contributors to the musical development of the guitar.
Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion
Threading his way into the diaspora of New York's lively musical community in the late 1970's, Greg Osby bumped up against many icons of jazz including Jim Hall, who at first dismissed Greg's approach as perhaps too far away from his own traditions. However Hall eventually came across a recording of a ballad that Greg had recorded, "Don't Explain." from his 1996 CD " Art Forum " that reminded him of one his own contemporaries but different in a way he liked very much and when he found out it was Greg he sought him out immediately for playing together. This began a twenty-year collaboration, with Greg participating in many of Jim Hall's projects starting around 1993. Uncle Jim, as many including Greg fondly called him, found an “adequate foil” in Greg's sometimes provocative points of view which Hall honored with his curiosity and discussion.
Greg did not lament Hall's passing only a few days before this talk as he felt his impact on him and others rendered him as ever present. Greg felt Jim Hall had given so much to his own development and understanding of dynamics, color, depth, dimension, participation, being a team player and much more. “He embodies the spirit of what music is supposed to be about,” Greg remarked. “Completely liberal, completely giving, and unselfish. I learned a lot about how to relate to/with people; about the physical dynamic of being an artist.”
We then discussed a major project of Greg's on Blue Note from the year 2000 called “ The Invisible Hand” which was one the rare instances where Jim Hall functioned as a “sideman” or really a co-collaborator to Greg's project. Not only did Jim Hall participate but also the pianist Andrew Hill, whom Greg had also been working with in Hill's band for many years. Additionally interesting was how this project created the catalyst for Jim Hall to meet and interact musically and socially for the first time with Andrew Hill.
Greg noted that these two legends had very different points of musical view. As he put it “Jim was the father of the modern guitar language, but also a master of dimension. Andrew Hill was our cerebral professorial champion of extracurricular musical choices. Great decisions, and very, very inordinate and very challenging content, super provocative. His music has built-in 'cattle prods' - that push you into directions you would never make ordinarily.” Greg reflected that the experience of working with Andrew Hill changed his perspective on both the function of music as well the way in which Greg navigated his roll within his part of the music. The project's title reflects the sometimes mystical way these two musicians influenced Greg's creative efforts, as if an invisible hand guided his own in the creation of this special milestone in his life, and the honor to be the first musician since Sonny Rollins (in Jim Hall's case) and Roland Kirk (in Andrew Hill's case) where these two musical leaders worked under someone else's leadership and direction.
Speaking of his years growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Greg, who was born in 1957, noted that what first attracted him to music was that he could do something he liked and get paid for it. This meant life as a teenager was filled with working on the weekends in St. Louis (Missouri), in social clubs, fraternities, even playing for motorcycle gangs, anywhere there was paid work. When work was done he would then cross the Mississippi river to the more “sullied” and exciting culture East St. Louis, Kansas for the after hours world of pimps and hustlers to play music more steeped in rhythm and blues and soul music. “It was a great apprenticeship to learn how to embrace the groove, address the audience and captivate people with subtlety, small little integers as opposed to hitting one upside the head with a bag of eighth notes.” In this world understanding the rules and maintaining the groove was central, otherwise you faced menacing stares and even threats. In other words, keep the people dancing.
Because of the central location of St. Louis, musicians traveling from one coast to another or coming up from the South often passed through this central port in their travels. For Greg this resulted in an appreciation of the regional uniqueness of musical expressive methodologies. He could differentiate one player from another's approach, identifying their geographical origins and as well began to know what defined the style of his own region. He defined musicians from the St. Louis area as the 'technocrats' who excelled in their 'precision of articulation'. He cited players such as Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, and Willy Aikens all of whom were very detailed and refined players who also retained this soulful side. This was the musical environment that eventually inspired Greg towards a life in music, eventually earning him a full scholarship to the prestigious Howard University. Prior to university study Greg had taught himself how to play, leaning mostly by ear from recordings, without formal training.
Like his well-rounded training Greg's interests in music were generally diverse. He grew up in an environment of open access to all kinds of music mostly on account of his mother's job with record distributer in St. Louis, which afforded the family with an endless array of “cut-out” promotional recordings. Back in these days one often played records on what was called a record changer which you normally could stack up about 6 lps on top of each other and play them one after another. In Greg's case it might be up to ten at a time! This meant a constant variety of music from Cream to Wilson Pickett to Janis Joplin to the Isley Brothers, all this and much more was constantly in rotation in his house. Looking back on this experience Greg concluded “I had a completely liberal idea of what music was, I wasn't dealing with genres.”
Greg remarked that this autodidactic path of learning prior to Howard University, operating often out of 'innocence and ignorance', meaning that what he had achieved without guidance had been mostly done in an unorthodox and often more challenging way. For example Greg cited the vagaries of the record turntable's speed he used to figure out tunes from meant he often learned these tunes in the wrong key. Among other things this often meant he mastered unconventional tonal centers for standard music, and in the end this provided him with more fluidity in his musical options after University training showed him more standardized technique. The missing link in his training by ear was his capacity to read music, but this came quickly as soon as he understood the relationships between what he knew by ear and the parallel patterns inherent in musical notation.
At Howard, which is located on the East coast of America, far away from the middle of the country where St. Louis is situated, Greg's community of musicians expanded with new associations of his generation who happened to be there at the same time he was, including Wallace Roney, Geri Allen and Gary Thomas. In his second year at spring break, Gary visited a friend who was going to the Berklee College of Music, and after sitting in on a few sessions, soon after found himself invited to Berklee College on George Garzone's recommendation with a full scholarship. Berklee College has historically had a number periods in it's enrollment when a lot of interesting players were there at the same time, and in 1980 when this transition happened, this included among others, Terri Lyne Carrington, Tali Campbell, Kevin Eubanks, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, and Victor Bailey among others. It was also a time that just predated the advent and domination of midi-technology, so all players did at that time was play constantly, often in marathon sessions of 6 hours or more. In general everyone was unselfish and so a regular exchange of information occurred amongst classmates.
A sense of collective exchange continued in Greg's transition to NYC around the beginning of 1983. Part of his musical apprenticeship at that time was as part of Dizzy Gillespie's band, which brought some visibility to his playing in the NY scene. Word spread about his playing and reached the door of Steve Coleman who came down to hear him at the Village Vanguard. He and Steve struck up an immediate friendship finding they shared many musical interests and before long their shared curiosities, inspirations and goals became organized into larger musical community of like-minded musical thinkers (including Geri Allen and Robin Eubanks a.o.) who got together to work on different music investigations and eventually established themselves as the collective organization, M-Base (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporization); a term that would eventually evolve into a way of describing their music as a style unto itself.
As an example of what was investigated collectively, Greg sited the understanding of how West African master drumming functioned in traditional societies as providing signal communication and function that everyone inherently understood. This led eventually to them considering just how, in their own musical inventions, they could increase the delineation of what the drummer or bassist would do specifically in a piece of music, rather then leaving these musical choices to chance or the whim of the player to simply react to what they heard. This meant that were seeking to inject these crucial aspects of a musical construction with a clearer or more defined identity then was typical up to that point. And as well they adopted the structure of the traditional model, where the drummer could play something that the rest of the ensemble would understand as a cue or signal for a musical change.
This collective also served as a shared learning center for all manner of business related to being a musician. Members would bring in and share their individual experiences about publishing, contractual agreements, sound and engineering, and so on to the benefit of each other and in this environment, larger goals could be achieved individually and collectively. However eventually, as is somewhat inevitable in a group of such diverse and hungry talent, some of the individuals became too busy with their own work to maintain the cooperative responsibilities that kept this form of camaraderie active. Though the formal interaction subsided, the essence of the group's collaborations and sound continued evolving.
Greg himself also found his interest in the more cerebral rhythmic and metric “pockets of information” that were central to the MBase compositional structure and methodologies interested him less as time went on. He remarked that the “humanity had been stripped out of a lot of [the music]” He felt a need to bring other musical palettes into his own work; more color, more range and dimension, something that developed, moved forward and blossomed.
At this point in the talk we began listening to something from the early period (1989 - JMT records) of Greg's recorded output. Tune into the podcast at around 29:30 and hear some of Greg's surprising comments about his own work from that time.
Based on his awareness of historical traditions Greg also understood from early on that for him it was important to apprentice with the “elders”. At an early point in his career (1984), when Blue Note records was building a new catalog, his respect for the past achievements of that label, led him to put off their invitation to join the Blue Note roster until he had accumulated more time apprenticing and gathering life experience. He believed he needed to understand much more about music, about the content of his expression as well as the business of music before he could make a lasting contribution to this hallowed hall of jazz history.
An interesting position Greg developed in regards to the way he navigated the artistic conundrum “do you want to play the music you like or people to like your music”, spoke to how he managed to slowly build a fan base of people who expected innovation, something new and different each time he moved forward with a new project. He spoke about his relation to what he termed “a folk music”, Hip-Hop. His interest was what would happen if musicians who were from different backgrounds and skill sets could meet in the middle and benefit from a synergy rather than a collision of approaches. Check out the podcast around 43:40 to hear an example from the 1995 “Black Box” CD.
Towards the end of our discussion we talked about how Greg now approaches making recordings of some of his music available via his website. In particular live concerts and out takes from recording sessions. This paradigm shift in his previous business practice was primarily the result of his touring experience with the Grateful Dead. Phil Lesh explained that they allowed the music from any concert to be taped by their fans as they saw that this actually supported sales of their music rather than taking away from interest in their commercial productions. Sure enough after trying this on his own, sales from his Blue Note recordings did increase.
There seems no limit to the generosity of Greg Osby's contribution to the continuation and innovation of musical traditions and possibilities.
Gerry Hemingway (April 2015)