Greg Osby & Gary Thomas: Trading Choruses
Two of the more uncompromising and original saxophone voices of the 30-something generation belong to altoist Greg Osby and tenorist Gary Thomas. Osby, born in St. Louis, originally enrolled in Howard University then switched to Berklee College of Music. His first prominent affiliation was with trumpeter Jon Faddis’ band, though he is probably most noted as part of the erstwhile M-Base crew that came together in Brooklyn under a banner of cooperative creativity in the 1980s. A restless spirit whose discography criss-crosses the elusive road to originality, Osby has engaged a number of different musical configurations to express his artistry, from traditional quartets to his original take on hip hop. His current recording, Banned In New York, marks the latest in a series for Blue Note and is cleverly packaged in the manner of a bootleg, captured live with bare minimum recording equipment.
Thomas, a Baltimore native, plays a bristling, no nonsense tenor saxophone and occasional flute. His resume boasts alliances with Wallace Roney, Pat Metheny, Cassandra Wilson, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, and in his most prominent sideman stint, tours with Miles Davis towards the end of the master’s career. His two major intersections with Osby are their mutual and ongoing collaborations with fellow saxman Steve Coleman, and they joined forces to form a potent saxophone front in drummer Jack DeJohnette’s early 90s Special Edition band. Their partnership has deepened in the ensuing years and Osby interacts with Thomas once again on the latter’s current recording, Pariah’s Pariah for the Winter & Winter label, which proved a convenient starting point for our conversation.
JazzTimes: Gary, your two-saxophone quartet on Pariah’s Pariah is a bit different from your other records.
Gary Thomas: Yeah, but I’ve done a lot of different types of recordings, so this is par for the course. I’ve been playing with Greg for years; I met John Arnold the drummer about two years ago and I played on one of his recordings. I’ve known Mike Formanek for a few years and have played on a couple of his things.
JazzTimes: With two saxophones in the front line and no chording instrument in the band, how do you work out the various balances and the harmonies?
Greg Osby: My approach is to try to be harmonically dictatorial, in an overt sense, so the absence of the piano isn’t really a factor; it means you have to be a lot more detailed in your outlining of the harmonic properties, as opposed to just being a rhythmic player or adhering to one of the other things that doesn’t really detail a forward progression harmonically.
GT: Yeah, that was also one of the purposes, just to give you the freedom, because sometimes you get a guitar player or a piano player just sort of leading you around chordally. I just wanted to have that freedom this time around.
JazzTimes: Does not having a chording instrument in the band heighten your collective responsibility?
GO: In that exposed context, it’s a sink or swim situation. There’s really no holds barred, nothing to hide behind, no crutches or anything. So either you’re gonna prevail or all of your shortcomings will be revealed.
JazzTimes: Gary, did you write these tunes for this particular instrumentation?
GT: I sort of wrote them with this configuration in mind, but I left the option open to be able to use guitar or piano, or a different type of instrumentation.
JazzTimes: Have you both determined to record largely your own compositions?
GO: For me, the composition is part of the improvisational process; it’s pretty much a snapshot of where you are in your development. You have to be honest and try to access all the developments that are important to you and incorporate those into some kind of snapshot situation. A lot of those [standard] tunes that we learn are used as building-block materials; the standards really don't have that much relevance to us in a contemporary sense. They are learning devices, but when we play them they leave little to refer to because those elements don't have the same kind of value. And also, we don't get paid to record other people's music [laughs], and that's a large part of our income.
GT: I just think that writing your own music always presents the best vehicle for things that you're working on. Harmonically and melodically those compositions are offshoots of what I work on in terms of improvisation.
JazzTimes: Does either of you think the pop music that's being written today has credibility for improvisers to explore, the way the pop music of earlier times continues to sustain a lot of jazz musicians?
GO: I would have to say absolutely not— resoundingly! [Current pop music] leaves no kind of formatting for exploratory improvisation because a lot of the music is highly repetitious and harmonically static. Although it’s fun to dance to, it’s so disposable that I don't want to keep referring to it as a tool for learning or for taking things forward. You have previous generations playing on popular music that was current and that was being played on radio, and that people danced to and recognized readily, and they improvised on it because it was a lot more intricate, a lot more interesting, and just a lot more cultivated. Now the subject matter that they embrace and even the structures that they use in the music just leave so much to be desired there's just nothing for us to hold onto.
GT: Yeah, most of it is about a formula.
JazzTimes: Does that pose problems for your generation of jazz musicians, or is it simply symptomatic of current pop music?
GT: What type of problem?
JazzTimes: Obviously it would probably lead to more of your generation being forced to write their own music, rather than improvising on the pop melodies of the day like some of your mentors were able to...
GT: There are no pop melodies in these [current] things.
GO: They’re like trite little ditties. It’s easy for many young players to learn musical devices for an accelerated growth, as far as learning materials, so the problem doesn’t lie in their education. But in how do they connect up with their peer group when they’re dealing with music that is recognized as old music, moldy fig music—that’s the problem. How do we draw in the youngsters; what are the recognizable elements?
JazzTimes: You’re speaking of the notion of developing the jazz audience from the younger listeners out here now?
JazzTimes: So that’s a more difficult task than it was in the past?
GO: It is when [musicians] try to use the pop music of today as a foundation for reaching out, or trying to be the Pied Piper or whatever. Then you know what that music sounds like, jazz lite, what’s really instrumental pop music, that’s what it is; the sound of the music, the instrumentation, and everything.
JazzTimes: Let’s go back to the ‘70s, to Grover Washington Jr. playing Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. Was that the beginnings of what is now called smooth jazz, or was that a legitimate jazz expression of the pop music of its day?
GO: I think what he was doing was a lot more improvisational. I think the real springboard was George Benson’s Breezin’, because that opened up the floodgates for people who were marginal jazz players but had higher production values in their music, and there was a lot of showboating. It was more entertainment and it was more relaxation-after-a-hard-day’s-work music, as opposed to trying to sit down and extract intellectual access from the music.
JazzTimes: Is the last legitimate pop music that could be utilized by improvisers Motown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, etc.?
GT: I hear some pop music today that sounds like it has some potential, but without revision I don’t think it can be worked with.
JazzTimes: Greg, on your latest record there are a couple of fairly well-known jazz standards (“Pent Up House”, “Big Foot”, “52nd Street Theme”). What was the decision to use that particular music instead of your own?
GO: I was caught right in the middle of an intensive study period of the improvisational methodology of a lot of the composers of that music, like Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and why their music is so profound and what components they use that allow for such memorable performances. When you hear certain things that echo a lot of the logic that they use, it has become the lexicon for good improvisation, it has become the standard. And I also wanted to use my own personal navigational technique on those particular compositions to kind of relay a point. A lot of people accuse those of us who have a real personalized technique of being one-dimensional, that we sound good on our own music but when we get to another environment it’s just not as strong. Not that I had to prove anything to anybody, but you have to stay grounded, you can’t get so far out there into your own thing that when you step into somebody else’s arena you sink like you’ve got two bricks on your feet in water [laughs].
JazzTimes: I understand you guys have something in the works with Ravi Coltrane and Steve Coleman.
GO: We have a four-saxophone group called Renegade Way, with bass and drums, and it’s another situation where we didn’t want to be dictated to by piano or guitar, we want to have the horns provide the harmonic basis and progression. It’s just another kind of special group where we wanted the music to be specialized.
GT: We’ve been trying to get together for a few years now.
JazzTimes: How much of a challenge is it to write music for four different saxophone voices?
GT: I don’t know that the problem is the different voices; I think it’s actually a good thing, because the point is we’re all very open minded and we’re all looking to check out each other’s concepts and ideas about music.
GO: Rather than launch into a squeak-fest [laughs].
GT: Which is what happens most times when you get four saxophones in a band [laughs].
GO: Yeah, it’s like a whole tirade of squeak-a-phonics.
JazzTimes: When you have four instruments from the same family in a small band, the challenge is to come up with something that’s uniquely different from what the other three are laying down.
GT: But I don’t know that we want to lose sight of what might be musical also, just for the sake of trying to find something different. We’ll try to leave some time for the development of those ideas.
GO: Simultaneously allowing each individual voice to shine, emphasizing each one’s individual strengths and approaches. We want to use a combination of approaches and come up with a synthesized amalgam of styles, as opposed to just sounding like a sax section with a rhythm section.
JazzTimes: I take it this is not a Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray sax battle revisited?
GT: [Laughs] Something like that, but not quite.
GO: One guy will play and the other guys will play backgrounds and linking devices, transitional materials; it’ll be a support system.
JazzTimes: So you’re not constantly chasing each other....
GO: Absolutely not!
GT: Its gonna take some time to develop the whole thing, it doesn’t happen overnight.
JazzTimes: Will this band record sometime soon?
GO: Yeah, that’s the plan. We wanted to have a democratic meeting because some of us wanted to record before we tour, some of us wanted to play some gigs before we tour. It was decided that it was a better move to develop it and then record, because if we record it first, any live performance wouldn’t be reflective of the document.
GT: Have a few rehearsals, map out some things, maybe change some things after we find out what works and what doesn’t.
GO: It will allow us to develop naturally, as opposed to forcing it. A lot of promoters get bent out of shape if a group shows up with people that are not on the recording or if they don’t play any of the songs from the recording, so the recording was done prematurely.
JazzTimes: Since you are all bandleaders it will probably be difficult to carve out time for such a special band.
GT: That’s been the problem so far, but we’ll make something work.
Originally published in June 1999