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Osby’s way
The composer and alto sax man looks ahead

Fans of the 43-year-old alto-saxophonist Greg Osby probably won’t be surprised to find that the singer he chose to record the standard "Lover Man" on his new Blue Note release Public is blues-rocker Joan Osborne. One of the hoariest of standards (most famously recorded by Billie Holiday), it’s a kind of jazz sacred text. Osby is one of the brainiest and most uncompromising jazz composers and bandleaders on the scene, and a unique, commanding master of the alto saxophone. But he’s also a musician of broad tastes and interests, whose first album for Blue Note back in 1990, Man Talk for Moderns, Vol. X dove deep into hip-hop. So here he is on an otherwise traditional jazz date — acoustic instruments, live recording — turning to a pop star.

Osby met Osborne while sitting in with the Grateful Dead, a band he’s worked with on and off with over the past few years. "We just clicked, and I saw how expansive she was as an artist," Osby tells me over the phone. "I also marveled at her phrasing, her pitch. She’s not a jazz singer per se. She’s a singer. A lot of singers are just divas, believing everything that’s said or written about them instead of trying to expand their perception of singing. She brought a complete naïveté and innocence that is also missing in music — people over-playing, over-singing, over-dramatizing. She brought a purity of spirit. Her participation, I call it my monkey wrench theory," says Osby with a laugh. "Throwing a monkey wrench in the works"

Of course, it would be easy to see the inclusion of Osborne as calculated to draw a crossover audience in this, the age of Norah Jones and the new Mrs. Elvis Costello, Diana Krall. But "Lover Man" is a ruminative eight-and-a-half minute track on a largely ruminative, typically exploratory album from Osby. An outgrowth of his last Blue Note CD, 2003’s St. Louis Shoes, it features trumpeter Nicholas Payton on four of its seven tracks. Osby says he saw the collaboration with Payton (the sessions were recorded live at New York’s Jazz Standard in January) as a way to reinvestigate the classic bebop quintet format, and there’s plenty of bebop fire here, especially in Dizzy Gillespie’s uptempo flagwaver "Shaw Nuff." But a 10-minute "Summertime" is brooding and abstract, as is "Visitation," Osby’s reharmonization of Toots Thielemans’s "Bluesette," an epic narrative at nearly 14 minutes.

Because of Osby’s skill as composer and arranger, these pieces never come across like jam session workouts for soloists, but rather group collaborations. The contrapuntal twining of Osby and Payton’s lines on the riffing standard "Bernie’s Tune" (associated with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, but inspired here by a Jazz at the Philharmonic date with Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, and Cannonball Adderley) also contributes to the collective improv feel of the date.

"That kind of dialoguing is missing in a lot of contemporary ensembles these days. It’s about group improvisation, not just some support system and some guy out front with his name really big on the marquee."

Contributing the unique group texture of Public is the 30-year-old pianist Megumi Yonezawa, a former New England Conservatory student, whose pulse-like irregular phrasing and broad harmonic pallet recall Paul Bley and Osby’s mentor, Andrew Hill, as well as the pan-tonal rumblings of Cecil Taylor. On "Visitation," it’s Yonezawa who establishes the mood and harmonic framework with her wide-ranging unaccompanied opening statement.

Yonezawa takes over from Jason Moran, who for several years formed one of the most dynamic collaborations in jazz with Osby. They appeared on each other’s albums, played each other’s compositions, and established a new direction for post-Wynton jazz — a way to make use of the past while forging ahead, looking for different sounds. At this point, Osby says he sees a tendency for younger players to move in the opposition direction, eschewing the past entirely.

"Everyone wants to write their own new music and be responsible for the development of something that’s completely devoid of any kind of historical references. . . . You hear players, they’re proficient, they have great technique, great facility, great sounds, but they lack the depth of someone who has — I hate to use the term ‘paid their dues’ but they really haven’t. They’ve paid academic dues, but they haven’t paid homage dues, they haven’t paid road dues, they haven’t paid acknowledgment dues. Acknowledgement of great players. And by great players I don’t mean the top 10 great players — the Coltranes, the Parkers, the Monks, the Rollinses, the Wayne Shorters. I’m talking about the periphery cats — the cats that these people admired and in many respects were just as deep: the Eddie Lockjaw Davises, the Eddie Harrises, the Sonny Stitts, the Booker Littles, the Herbie Nicholses. These people were incredible theoreticians and conceptualists and they just didn’t get the break. This is every one’s obligation who participates in this music — they’re obligated to study to the Nth degree every facet of what went into the development of this great music."

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Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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