From the Abyss to Minimalism

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“I listened to players like Ben Webster and Wayne Shorter, two opposites, who spoke to me profoundly about saying a whole lot with less,” Osby says.

(Photo: Eddy Westveer)

At the beginning of November 2023, Greg Osby flew to Italy for a week of duo concerts with pianist Michele Franzini, his partner on Choices, a lyric recital on Osby’s Inner Circle imprint. Between concerts, the 63-year-old alto saxophonist boarded at Franzini’s bed-and-breakfast in rural Tuscany, enjoying the restorative silence, communing with the “olive trees, grape vines and big sky.” He also spent quality time rehearsing in Casa Franzini’s large performance space-kitchen where his host prepared an “amazing fish with capers, potatoes and olives” accompanied by a locavore vino bianco for Osby’s final evening meal.

After dinner, Osby spoke with DownBeat via Zoom about Minimalism, released on Inner Circle. The new album comes out 15 years after his last leader date, Nine Levels — quite a stretch between recordings.

“It was an involuntary hiatus,” Osby said, citing “financial, entrepreneurial, conceptual, academic and pedagogical hurdles” toward documenting “ideas I’d been plotting for years in terms of concept and band theory.”

He traced the particulars. In 2006, Blue Note dropped Osby, after issuing 16 leader or co-led dates since 1990. In short order, he started Inner Circle and, “burned out” from 25 years of touring, accepted “a good offer with a lot of perks” at Berklee College of Music. After a while, the quotidian demands of teaching and overseeing his rapidly growing label (Minimalism is album No. 97 in the Inner Circle catalog) were moving Osby “off track.”

“I wrote nothing during my four years at Berklee,” he said. “I didn’t want to endanger my reputation by putting out something solely reflective of music I had previously released. Afterwards, I studied and wrote again, but the music was like the proverbial tree falling in the forest that no one hears. My idea of how I should sound radically changed. Rather than flurries of content or technical wizardry, I was trying to be more detailed and basically self-edit. I got more into how musical sonics affect people. I listened to players like Ben Webster and Wayne Shorter, two opposites, who spoke to me profoundly about saying a whole lot with less.”

Materially, Osby was doing all right, cobbling together a career mosaic in which he primarily fulfilled the roles of collaborator, “hired gun” and sideman, led residencies and master classes, and served as artistic director of Poland’s Sopot Jazz Festival. But as his old friend Steve Coleman put it, “Greg was treading water, just playing, going off his talent, but not really pushing his own music.”

“Sinking” replaced “treading water” as the more operative metaphor after November 2017, when the Boston Globe included Osby in a piece about three teachers who had left Berklee quietly after female students accused them of sexual indiscretions. Immediately, he lost tours, gigs and endorsements. Friends kept their distance; so did artists he’d recorded for Inner Circle. Osby’s income from music dropped precipitously, rock-bottoming at zero in the COVID year of 2020.

Osby had “saved every phone call, email, text message, video and photograph” from his accuser, whose identity he has not revealed. He filed a defamation lawsuit and was exonerated at an April 2021 hearing where the presiding judge, a woman, ordered the defendant — a no-show — to recant her statements and to pay Osby $146,000, plus interest, for lost earnings and attorney fees.

Osby made Minimalism in February 2018, at the beginning of this fallow period. “It contains the things I discuss with my students, what I study and read,” Osby said. “Most music I like firmly details and outlines the era it was created in, through the juxtaposition of instruments, the arrangements, how people play, the way they embrace and address the material at hand. Other than some of the more hip-hop-laced, groove-based new jazz players, I don’t know if I’ve heard much else — especially from people of my generation — that really details what today sounds like.”

Agree or disagree with Osby’s assessment, the statement summarizes the consistently iconoclastic modus operandi he’s documented since 1987, when he recorded Sound Theatre (JMT) with a band including pianist Michelle Rosewoman, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who was then 22. Mindgames, from 1988, featured Geri Allen (“a heavy influence”) and Edward Simon on keyboards. In 1989, Simon paired off with Renee Rosnes on Season Of Renewal (featuring Cassandra Wilson and Amina Claudine Myers on vocals), as he did with Michael Cain on Man-Talk For Moderns, Osby’s Blue Note debut.

“Greg encouraged me to move to New York and was the first to record me,” Simon said to this reporter back in 2002. Then an 18-year-old conservatory student in Philadelphia, he caught Osby’s attention on a guest soloist gig with bassist Charles Fambrough, with whom Simon was working regularly. “He always chooses the most unusual option, not to be opposite everyone else, but to challenge your traditional ideas and keep you from getting complacent.”

Carrington, who developed a “like-family” relationship with Osby when both attended Berklee in the early ’80s, observed: “Greg always sounded like himself; one note and you know it’s him. You could hear he’d checked out Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker, and understood the alto saxophone tradition, but whatever he did would be original. He was searching for something new, as jazz musicians are supposed to.”

“During those years, I investigated a lot of pianists,” Osby said. “I tried to deepen my ability to play non-saxophonistic content and, at the same time, have an organized system exclusive to my playing and my music. Pianists play with two hands; there’s 10 fingers and it’s polyphonic — like two octopi. How do I compress that information into a monophonic instrument if I can only play one note at a time?”

Over the decades, Osby brought his idiosyncratic tonal personality to sideman recordings with left-of-mainstream iconoclasts like Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Mark Helias, Mike Formanek, Bobby Previte and Masabumi Kikuchi. He also landed undocumented but consequential runs with Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Jon Faddis, Muhal Richard Abrams, the World Saxophone Quartet, Saxophone Summit, Will Calhoun and the Grateful Dead as well as recording duos with Andrew Cyrille, John Abercrombie and Marc Copeland. On top of that, Osby co-led encounters with saxophonists Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Tikeme Postma, Gary Thomas and Steve Coleman. The latter two were Osby’s colleagues in M-Base, the influential 1980s Brooklyn musicians’ collective from which Allen, Wilson and Carrington also emerged.

“I want to project that M-Base was a deliberate collective,” Osby said. “Everybody brought in ideas and compositions.” He contends that his relationship with Coleman, strong again after a period of estrangement, has been misunderstood. “I actively sought him out, but it’s been implied that I did that to find myself, as though I was his understudy. We had a lot of common interests, threads that we could connect on, and we got together practically every day. He was at the top of the food chain in terms of enthusiasm and curiosity and determination to see things through, and that personality and energy is infectious. It gave me an emotional and aesthetic charge I didn’t get from many people other than Gary Thomas. But that didn’t make him our leader. I’m my own person. I have my own style, my own attitude, my own opinions about things. I’m not a follower.”

He continued: “I dare say the way some younger players play, how they think about and approach music, and the settings they place themselves in wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done the M-Base experiments and recordings.” Asked for specifics, he cited a litany of heady concepts.

“We dealt with loops before hip-hop and jazz were a thing. We set specific parameters by which to embrace and address a particular song — you play these intervals and these rhythms, within this range and within this register. We wrote drum chants that set a groove exclusive to that song. We wrote bass lines. We replaced traditional chord symbols and notation with what we term ‘vertical structures,’ which progress and resolve and follow a developed voice-leading series. We arrived at a system of tension-and-release-and-resolution, emphasizing weaker parts of the beat to impart a different bounce, implying other meters. People said, ‘M-Base basically plays all odd meters,’ even when it wasn’t. We also dispensed with the term ‘odd meters,’ since ‘odd’ implies there’s something wrong.”

He’s propagated these ideas within his various bands, showcasing an array of gifted post-Boomers — among them pianist Jason Moran, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Matt Brewer, drummers Eric Harland, Rodney Green and Damion Reid and vocalist Sara Serpa — on an international stage.

“I like to find young cats, sometimes misfits, and put them in a fresh new band,” Osby said. “I surround myself with young people who tell me who’s hot, who’s not, where to go. I regularly slither into clubs to catch some tunes. I want to know how people think, where they’re receiving inspiration — the mortar that holds their conceptual bricks together.”

He mirrored that career-long practice when assembling the international Gen-X cohort that plays on Minimalism. For the core session, recorded in Philadelphia, Osby convened a new quartet with Israeli pianist Tal Cohen, Philadelphia-born bassist Nimrod Speaks and Canadian drummer Adam Arruda. He sent the tracks to Portuguese accordionist João Barradas, who overdubbed on acoustic and MIDI iterations of the instrument. Barradas solos with saxophonistic clarity in Osby-influenced language on “Dedicato,” and creates guitaristic, Moog-textured, contrapuntal lines on Becca Stevens’ “I Forgive You.”

Milan-based singer Alessandra Diodati’s airy, delicately textured voice and spacious time feel illuminates both Stevens’ lyric and her own revised text to Kendrick Scott’s “Journey,” originally sung by Gretchen Parlato (one of Osby’s “top five”) on Scott’s The Source. Lithuanian singer Viktorija Pilatovic’s precise enunciation, diction, attack and intonation fulfill the voice-as-instrument function on the metrically shifting title track and the mysterious “Once Known,” for which overdubbed layers of her voice flow atop the chords.

“I always liked making a smaller ensemble sound larger,” Osby said. “I like the sound of the female voice doubled and tripled paired with my saxophone, and the natural chorusing that occurs when you combine things that aren’t perfectly in tune: chamber groups, string quartets, vocal quartets, chorales. I use the recording studio as a tool, not just a place to record. It’s about how I can arrive at what I’m conceiving without sounding overly processed.”

Barradas, a four-time leader on Inner Circle, has closely analyzed Osby’s music since taking a master class with the Nine Levels band in 2007, when he was 15. Minimalism, he said, “shows a shift in Greg’s composing — there’s an amazing balance between the written material and the complex soloing that characterizes his playing.” Along these lines, the players uphold Osby’s abiding aesthetic, in Moran’s words, “to put your foot in the fire and cause a bit of a ruckus in some songs to see what can happen.” They also mirror what Cohen — who first played with Osby in 2009, in Perth, Australia, when he was 20 — described as the leader’s “relaxed, cool” delivery of his gnarly constructions.

“Greg sent the music shortly before the recording,” Cohen said. “Everything was written out — big chords, some with unplayable intervals. I didn’t sleep, trying to make sense of it. But at the session, I played my own way, moved some notes and did what I needed to do. He gave me creative liberty.”

“That approach is 100% from observing Jack DeJohnette when I was in his band,” Osby said, recalling their 1985–1991 association. “He never unconditionally told cats to play something, or do more of this or that. If Jack liked something you did, he’d ask you to do it more frequently. Like Jack, I choose personnel for what they bring to the form, who can augment my aims as composer and bandleader and give life to these inanimate sequences and scribbles on the page. I bring fully written-out compositions, but once we’re past that content, I want their personalities to emerge and flourish. That’s why I write notation instead of chord symbols. What do you think that is? How do you interpret it? How do you get from this structure to that structure smoothly, effectively, as if you wrote it, not glued to the paper and afraid to make a mistake? Sometimes mistakes sound cool as hell.”

Osby anticipated applying those principles during an imminent two-week tour with Hammond B-3 organist Arno Krijger and drummer-percussionist Florian Arbenz behind the 2023 release Conversation #9 (Hammer). Before flying home, he’d spend a week in Poland, giving private lessons.

Throughout November, he’d booked meetings with various European agents “to get my band some momentum.” “We’ll see what materializes, but that’s my priority,” Osby said. “I have another record in the can, and I’m sitting on a pyramid of undocumented and unrecorded works. I have the bug to present myself in an array of my own contrivance again. We’ll see how that runs. If I burn out, I’ll make another hard left turn.” DB



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