The Not So The Invisible Hand of Greg Osby
By Brian Knight
Saxophonist Greg Osby may be one of the most diverse musicians in jazz today. During the 1980s he attended Berklee College of Music and then moved to New York City where he was a key player in the creation of the music collective, M-Base. Along with pianist Geri Allen, vocalist Cassandra Wilson; trumpeter Graham Haynes; alto-saxophonist Steve Coleman; trombonist Robin Eubanks, guitarist Vernon Reid, M-BASE was an organization that had a mission of both musical creation and education. Over the years, Osby has played with drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist Jim Hall, saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Andrew Hill and also recorded twelve solo albums in the last 12 years – a very impressive rate of production. Just recently, Osby gained a whole wealth of new fans as he sat in with Phil Lesh and Friends at a performance in Philadelphia. In addition to reaching a whole new audience, Osby was also enlightened by the inherent jazz styling of the Grateful Dead’s music. Osby’s latest effort is the album The Invisible Hand, which teams Osby with two of his mentors, Jim Hall and Andrew Hill. Besides standing out as one of the few instances in which these two venerable players served as sideman, The Invisible Hand sticks out for its thought provoking and intelligent compositions. The presence of Hill and Hall is simply a statement to the brilliance of Osby’s composition and playing. Their decision to sit on the album was not out of reverence to a former sideman but rather an acknowledgment of a musical genius. The Vermont Review spoke to Osby in New York City, a city he has called home for eighteen years.
Vermont Review: New York City has deep roots in jazz. Do you feel it?
Greg Osby: No. New York, to me, is primarily a place of commerce. As an active participant on the music scene………. I feel it's necessary for people to come here and establish some kind of networking and make business contacts. Musicians have to project what they want to do; what their aspirations are so that people will know what their purpose is. Once you do that, it doesn’t really matter where you live. There's really no active scene here that I can think of as far as a group of musicians who are trying to do something different and progressive. I do know of some individuals that continue to work on things. There's also no real meeting place or a hang out spot where people can go to jam and exchange information. It is very competitive and people are just trying to do their thing and find their way.
VR: Do you think there are any of those scenes that you described but somewhere else?
GO: No. This is the best place to see and hear the best. As far as music moving forward…everybody is really just trying to make more money. …….The clubs are just band leaders from letting young people sit in. There is no "changing of the guard" that takes place. A lot of young talent comes off the bus every day. I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t know where to tell them to go. When I came to town in ‘82……..’83, there was a tremendous amount of jam sessions and spots where you could go and hear cats killin, and you knew immediately how well you could play or how well you couldn’t….what you needed to work on. And then you could come back, get embarrassed and jump start your practice routine. The scene has changed. There are a lot of musicians now who are the result of institutionalized learning. The colleges are churning out a higher caliber of musician with regard to dexterity and instrumental facility. But, with regard to performance skills and social skills and things like that, there is a lot to be learned. Some things can't be taught.
VR: So just like sports and politics, jazz music has turned into something defined by money?
GO: Absolutely. You have a lot of basketball players who forgo college and go right to the NBA for the money - they have many underdeveloped skills. It is the same thing with a lot of young jazz musicians – they sometimes get into a recording contract right out of high school or college. They have not gone on the road anywhere or even performed for an audience very much, so they haven't worked out the kinks in their presentation. It takes time to develop. Being a musician requires much more than developing a lot of chops and memorizing some patterns.
VR: How was Berklee good for you?
GO: Berklee was good in the sense that there were many good musicians there to practice and study with. Everyone was hungry, broke, poor and eager to learn. There were no egos. There was no pretense. It was just ‘I’ll show you this, you show me that and let's get together and jam all night long or as much as we possible can! That attitude is necessary during that stage of one's development. You need to go for it. It was critical. As a school, no school can make you a better player. If you don’t have the intent and drive to excel, it’s not going to happen. I don’t care what you do. There were a whole lot of people there, when I was there, many of which are among today's finest players.
VR: Do you see any of your Berklee classmates?
GO: I hardly see anyone very much. I see people at airports or backstage at certain concerts all throughout Europe, the United States and Japan. It's difficult for working musicians to get together casually. Every off day represents a day without income.
VR: Has there been a person outside of Berklee that has been an important teacher or mentor for you?
GO: There have been many people. People like Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams, Stanley Crouch, Jim Hall, Jack DeJohnette, and many others. I worked with Jack for six years. Jim for about four years now. Andrew, I have known for maybe twelve years. They have all been very generous with information and not selfish. It has been instrumental in my development to get that handed down, first generation information from those types of people.
VR: Considering two names that you just mentioned – Andrew Hill and Jim Hall - your new album must be very special to you.
GO: Absolutely. First of all, just to be able to play in that group and be party to a "one on one, sage, soothsayer, disciple" kind of situation is great. I have been on the road with them, stayed up all night long……sometimes we would just sit and talk and I would ask a question and they would take a hour to answer that one question. With full details and examples. That is much better than I can get from any biography or embellished account from someone who heard things conjecturally. Since they are still active participants on the scene, they've seen the scene change many times and they actually know the people who've made great contributions to this art.
VR: You were mentioning before that you have younger playing with you. This album must be a departure with Hill and Hall backing you up?
GO: It is not necessarily a departure because it is out of necessity. It’s two-fold. I get a lot of younger players because they are bountiful. They are plentiful. There are a lot of young people without gigs who are proficient enough to play my music. Secondly, they are eager to be there. They will work on the material. They won’t rely on their reputation or rest on their laurels. There a lot of my peers and people who are older who may not be able to handle it, and you are buying into their reputation as opposed to their actual skill level. A lot of musicians are too incorrigible. They show up late and are very undisciplined. They are not respectful of interpreting the music to my taste. It is frustrating so I get young cats. After all, all of the cats that are great now, were young cats and unknown at one time too.
VR: Another component of your Invisible Hand band is people from your M-BASE days. How often do you get together?
GO: It's is difficult to get together because everyone is so concerned with their own accounts. Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, Geri Allen. They are all doing their own thing. Terri Lynn moved to LA. Gary Thomas lives in Baltimore. Kevin Eubanks and Smitty (Marvin "Smitty" Smith) are in L.A. It is much more difficult for us to get together than when we were all broke and poor, living in Brooklyn around the corner from one another. We sometimes met twice a week and talked about content and principles. We exchanged information and lived vicariously through each other. We did that out of necessity.
VR: Jumping up to pretty recently. How did you meet up with Phil Lesh?
GO: Through my publicist, Brad Reisau. He is a Deadhead - a guy who follows them (Grateful Dead groups) as a following fan. He’s been telling me about them for a long time. I was always aware of the music, but I have never been driven to analyze it and study it further. It took repeated suggestions by somebody who was emphatic about it. I just went because he was passionate about it. I respected his opinion and I went. Phil said bring your horn so if you are inspired to play. I sat in on the sound check to see what was happening. I was blown away. I dug it. I dug the liberal nature of the improvisation, how they slowed down and segued from one song to the other. He didn’t talk at all. There was not a whole lot of public announcement. There wasn’t a lot of banter. It was really about music, about creation and living for the moment. Without knowing any of the songs, I just went on and sat in and used my musicianship to get me through it. It was great,
VR: That is interesting. When I saw you perform as part of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Fest, one of the things that stuck out was your silent segues from one song to another.
GO: Right. I have been doing that for a while so checking out Phil doing the same reaffirmed that I was on the right path. It is really effective and musicians talking too much between songs has been something that has irked me for a long time. Musicians sometimes don’t have enough music worked out or prepared so they stop and waste time telling jokes, dropping anecdotes and telling about origins of the songs. Stuff that is nonessential, boring and distracting. Play the music!
VR: Any thoughts of heading into the studio with Phil?
GO: I was thinking about it it. We are talking in terms of trying to develop a concept, and throwing a few names around. We will just see if our schedules permit and the desire is there to work creatively. It’s too soon to say but I am really looking forward to something like that happening. I would like to involve myself in something that is non-traditional - people who perform like bona fide jazz musicians and use that environment as a platform for creation.
VR: You now join a rank of jazz saxophonists – Ornette Coleman, Branford Marsalis and David Murray – who have shared the stage with members of the Grateful Dead. Do you see a common bond amongst the four of you, besides your instrument and the idiom that you perform in?
GO: They share an affinity towards liking a broad a range of music and not limiting themselves to a narrow delineation. Think about the title of jazz. Jazz, as broad as it is, is definitely reflective of something that historically has a precedent and a lot of practitioners don’t choose to step outside of their established parameters. I think that is too limiting.
VR: I am going to name some names of the people. I would love to hear what you have to say about them.
GO: Like a verbal Rorsasch test.
VR: Kind of. Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago?
GO: Roscoe. Definitely a contributor to the contemporary language. Someone that a lot of people in my generation need to listen to a lot closely. They need to analyze him. He is not coming from your typical jazz tradition. Conceptually speaking, he definitely will always be one of my favorites.
VR: Joe Lovano?
GO: Joe. It is interesting…..Joe has been around for a while. He was one of the first people that I met when I came to New York. I first started visiting in 1980 and I would come down once or twice a month . Primarily, his main gig was the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He was really friendly back than and then all of sudden, a few years ago, everybody is praising him like the new guy on the scene, but he has been around for some time. It's like an overnight sensation that took twenty years. He is a great musician and really open. He is really into inspiring challenge. If you put him in a situation, he will rise to the occasion. I love Joe.
VR: Vernon Reid?
GO: Vernon is an old friend. Vernon is one of the original members of one of our M-BASE groups. I have known him for twenty years. He is an achiever and a forward thinking man. He won’t allow himself to get bogged down by any classifications either. He hears music in a very unique way and one day I intend to do a one on one with him in order to find out the particulars of his method.
VR: Pianist Jason Moran?
GO: Jason is my man. He is a blessing….to me. He is a gift from a higher power. He is somebody that so much of an old soul that embodies the knowledge and spirit of many great musicians. It is concentrated. He is a dynamo. However, there is much more that remains to be seen. His new release is going to be out in a week and it’s going to really rock the world of creative improvised music. It stands to redefine the whole institution of the jazz piano trio as we know it.
VR: Jason was part of the New Directions tour. How was that experience?
GO: It was in celebration of Blue Note’s 60th Anniversary. I was a bit apprehensive to do something like that. I am not really into concoctions like that. I normally cringe when I see when musicians come out with dedication recordings "The Music of Gershwin", "The Music of Duke Ellington". It is really patronizing to me. It’s not really creative. That’s why I didn’t want to do it. I knew they wanted us to play some stuff from the Blue Note catalog, so I selected the songs that I thought were better reflective of forward thinking attitudes. We radically rearranged a lot of the music. There were still shades of the original compositions but we took them to another level.
VR: With that in mind, did you play any music by Andrew Hill?
GO: No we didn’t, because I intentionally avoided compositions from the more cerebral composers –the Wayne Shorters, the Andrew Hills –people like that. I kept it more to the groove school. That early to mid 1960s soul tappin' kind of feel. I know that the musicians themselves would bring their own intellectualism to the music. If you take a Wayne Shorter song, and then you bring an advanced player to it, it is going to wind up being so abstract that nobody is going to be able to get with it all. You have to walk the line. The tour was very successful in that it presented these younger players to an audience in the US that probably would have never have seen them under normal circumstances. We played a lot of alternative venues that reflected the viability of taking this music into places other than jazz clubs. Cigar bars. Retirement homes. Grunge clubs. Places where you stage dive. It was great. A lot of the patrons that come into these places regularly came in not knowing that it was going to be a jazz club. We had people with spiked hair, skateboard rats, mallrats, college students, and flannel shirts. The whole nine. And they stayed. And they bought a lot of CDs. It was great. It proved that there is a whole other market that needs to be acknowledged. The music could be a lot more popular if people in the record companies simply put on their thinking caps.
VR: Do you go through any meditation or ritual before going on stage?
GO: No. I just go out and play. Each audience is different. No amount of preparation will prepare you for the response ………or lack of it. Sometimes you can do all kinds of preparation, go out and people just ignore you anyway. They talk right through the show, they have their backs turned, guys are hitting on women, people are drunk, cash registers are ringing, people are dropping glasses and silverware, people are sawing at steaks and pork chops. You never know. The best thing that you can do is do the best that you can do.
VR: What are you listening to today?
GO: Well, I will say that there is always a Bjork CD in my player. She is pretty much my favorite pop artist as far as creativity goes – the sampling, the noise, distortion, and the arranging.
VR: Were you a fan of the Sugarcubes as well?
GO: Oh yes. I'm also a Sting fan. I really dig Sting. He has a lot of alternative compositional melodies. He uses different meters and stuff like that. And a lot of people are surprised to find out that I am a big George Michael fan. I think he is a great artist -his arranging, his choice of material and he sings very well. I dig people who put a lot thought into the presentation of the music and are not so concerned with pandering to the needs of the executives from their respective companies who demand hits - and not art. I support people who have a concept that they've worked out. There isn't enough room here for me to talk about all of the Jazz artists that I am listening to. There are so many great artists and recordings.
Check out more of Greg Osby at http://www.gregosby.com/