In his active career as a saxophonist, Greg Osby has been accused of watering down jazz with hip-hop rhythms and, by doing so, "spreading bacteria on bread." He's praised as one of the great alto soloists of the day, even as he's accused of using beats to only appeal to a larger audience outside the jazz community. His constant experimentation -- and outspoken frankness -- has alienated him some and endeared him to musicians of all tastes. He's helped found a collective with the highfalutin tag Macro -- Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations (a.k.a. M-Base). He's produced hip-hop artists under the tag Geo. He's toured the world, performed with some of the greats -- Andrew Hill, Jack DeJohnette, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman. His criticism of the "new traditionalism" school espoused by Wynton Marsalis has alienated Osby from the mainstream jazz community, and he's a vocal opponent of the "young lions" movement in the past decade of jazz. In general, Osby's not afraid to call your bluff, and in his passion for jazz he searches constantly for the righteous and the wrong within the community.
If there's a heart inside jazz, Greg Osby is helping it beat as you read this: His most recent record, the transcendent Banned in New York (Blue Note), was named one of the best records of the year by both Ben Ratliff and Peter Watrous of the New York Times, and it followed an acclaimed record released earlier in the year, Zero. His recent work as an artistic consultant for Blue Note has helped the label expand its palette by signing young, adventuresome players. And, most important for his music, he has created a fantastic circle of kindred talent, most of them artists he helped get signed and with whom he sounds wonderfully comfortable.
It's these players -- Mark Shim (tenor sax), Jason Moran (piano) and Stefon Harris (vibraphone) -- with whom Osby will perform in St. Louis, something he's only done, he says, "once or twice" as leader since he left the city for good in 1978. ("For the life of me I can't understand why, but I can't even buy a gig in St. Louis," he says.) They'll be at the Delmar Lounge on Wednesday, March 24, as part of the Blue Note 60th-anniversary celebration. It promises to be one of the performances of the year.
Osby grew up in St. Louis, went to Soldan High. "When I was growing up," he says, "basically every corner bar or lounge had jazz on the jukebox. Jazz was popular music back then in the mid- to late '60s, and a lot of (clubs) had organs, too, so they'd have trios and combos. In a lot of places you'd go by, you'd hear live music coming out of them. So there was a wealth that influenced me, even if I wasn't really aware of it. Also, at the same time, my mother used to work at this record-distribution company down on Olive called Robert's Records. So literally every day she'd bring home cutouts and promo copies. We had the record collection to die for. We had one of those record players where you could stack six records on at a time, but we'd always stack like 10 or 12 at a time, and we would just listen indiscriminately to whatever she brought home. On any day, a typical listening session would run from Bob Dylan to Wilson Pickett to the Cowsills to the Isley Brothers to Jackson Five, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, any classical music she'd bring. It was that broad, and it really opened my ears to quality music and quality production. That was the best schooling I could have gotten. That, plus the live bands -- when I was in high school I played in a lot of local Top 40 bands. On the weekends, I guess from Friday evening to early Monday morning, my mother wouldn't even see me because I'd be on the road with these groups in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas. We'd travel all over, and I was 15."
You can hear these experiences in his tone, the dusty, guttural moan he ekes out of his alto horn in nearly every note. It's as though he's got dirt inside his lungs that he mixes with air and forces out his mouth. Combine the dirt, though, with both a profound musical fluency in his solos and an intellectual desire to deconstruct the form, and you've got the triangle that makes Osby special. To hear him rip through a solo on Duke Ellington's "I Don't Know About You" is akin to appreciating the beauty of, say, the French language, even though you don't speak it: You're not sure exactly what Osby's saying, but he's saying something profound, and it sure sounds beautiful. "Me and Mark Shim went to hear him play with Andrew Hill at the Vanguard six years ago," says pianist Moran. "That was the first time I heard him play, and I was flabbergasted, because what he was doing, what the band was doing, period; they were just deconstructing standards, and I'd never thought that was possible. I actually thought that if you were playing standards, you were relegated to only playing bebop licks. But they definitely weren't playing bebop licks."
Osby left St. Louis in '78 to study music, first at Howard University and then at the Berklee School of Music, and gained recognition in the jazz community as one of the founders, with saxophonist Steve Coleman, of the M-Base collective. The collective in 1999 contains dozens of musicians -- mainly jazz artists like David Murray, Ravi Coltrane, Robin Eubanks, Geri Allen and Cassandra Wilson but also funk and hip-hop artists, including Malik and Black Thought of the Roots and bassist/singer MeShell NdegeOcello. The collective -- they're quick to stress that there is no M-Base sound -- stresses the freedom of musical growth through creativity and encourages the idea of an adventure blind to genre and outsider-imposed musical restrictions. Genre is a myth, they seem to submit, and Osby has lived his creative life with this philosophy.
After an early foray into melding jazz and funk into an amorphous blend, Osby made a name for himself as an adventurer on two albums on which he deliberately played around with melding hip-hop and jazz -- he was one of the first. These records, 3-D Lifestyles and Black Book, got lukewarm notices from critics; they're more interesting philosophically than musically. "It was an experiment to me," he says of those records. "It was nothing that I wanted to base a career off of -- to make a habit of juxtaposing alien resources and seeing what kind of baby they birth. But that's what all my heroes did. John Coltrane studied the music of India, Dizzy Gillespie studied Afro-Cuban rhythms and Sonny Rollins studied Eastern scales and modes. That's what people do; they step into another region. That's all I was doing, and it ran its course. I extracted as much as I could from it." After this extraction, Osby returned to acoustic jazz and has released four such albums in three years, the latest of which is Banned in New York, a roughly recorded live document of a gig at Sweet Basil, a Manhattan club.
"My drummer was doing the band and he was taping it on minidisc, and he says, 'I think you need to listen to this.' I normally don't like to listen to the previous night's performance of any live situation, because you begin to nitpick, you become too critical, and I like the music to progress naturally and let everybody bring whatever they're going to bring to the music rather than me being dictatorial -- 'You should do this, and don't do what you did last night.' So, in order to prevent that, I don't listen. But I was amazed at the vitality of the recording -- even though it wasn't the best-proximity recording, because the drums were too close to the recorder and the piano was too distant. But it was still a vivid snapshot.
"It was unannounced, and most of the guys didn't know it was being recorded; it was business as usual. Usually when the 'record' light goes on when you're in the studio, the cats get a little uptight. No one wants to be the one that made the mistake that made us have to retake, so everyone's trying to be as accurate as possible, so it's not flowing smoothly. But that's the way that it was that night, with all the environmental noise, people ignoring us and talking. It was the way it really is, as opposed to 'Now we're going to make a record' and everybody applauds when they're supposed to and when the 'record' light goes off they're ignoring you again."
The result has earned Osby the most critical praise he's ever received -- including features on NPR's All Things Considered and in the Sunday New York Times -- though it seems that he couldn't care less about critical praise; even when he gets it, he's got an explanation for it: "That's because I did songs on that recording that people are familiar with, and I didn't alter my own approach or navigational technique. I just played a familiar (repertoire). It was an experiment on my behalf; I was revisiting a lot of those songs and dissecting them, trying to find out, well, why did the people that wrote those songs, and the people that played those songs, why is their music so valid? What were the components and the makeup of what they did, what made it so deep? -- Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, people like that. And it just happened to be captured."
'Captured' is the right word. The disc roars; the playing is greased-down and furious. The players -- Jason Moran on piano, Atsushi Osada on bass and Rodney Green on drums -- mold standards and Osby originals into a form that's both contained and wonderfully elastic. They build a structure that they proceed to examine with a magnifying glass.
Wednesday night, Osby, Harris, Shim and Moran will perform in St. Louis as they've done countless times in New York City, Europe, Asia and on this current tour. Each member has (or will have in the case of pianist Moran) at least one record out on Blue Note in the past year, and they operate as a flexible unit: They perform on each others' records, tour together, jam together. Says Osby: "I've tried to establish a label inner circle where the cats are interchangeable on each others' projects, like the old days. Me and Stefon and Jason have been working a lot together: I've recorded with them, I've produced their CDs; Jason works with Stefon as well. So that's what we're trying to be. That's what's necessary. I think that things were so scattered throughout the '80s and '90s; it was so polarizing. Everybody was into this rampant 'me-ism' -- my band, my music, my songs; it was very rare for a cat to jump onto another cat's bandstand and know all of their music. Charlie Parker could jump on Bud Powell's bandstand and Dizzy Gillespie's bandstand or Thelonious Monk's bandstand and know their whole catalog. They fraternized with each other, exchanged information, worked on concepts. They stayed up all night jamming; and so in lieu of a scene I've had to twist arms and get cats together to work this stuff out. So now, everyone's become familiar with each other's output; I think it's the best thing for the music.
And despite the fact that Osby, at the age of 38, is perceived as the hub of the clique (the others are all in their 20s), Moran says that Osby never plays the role: "Being in Greg's band, I never feel like I'm being in Greg's band, because he gives me so much liberty. It's almost like it's a joint venture, but it's under Greg's title. When I joined his band he opened me up rather than keep me in handcuffs. There were never any handcuffs. He opened me up musically, conversationally, compositionally, rhythmically, everything. It opened my eyes to a lot of stuff. I was able to take in more experiences and develop a freer way of thinking while I was playing."
Greg Osby, Mark Shim, Stefon Harris and Jason Moran perform at the Delmar Lounge on Wednesday, March 24.