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Greg Osby: Inner Circle

Greg Osby’s music evolves so rapidly that it’s hard to define his various stages or anticipate his next ones. Even though he’s been in primarily acoustic, modern bop settings since 1996’s Art Forum, the music he has produced has taken on wildly diverse characteristics, from the dense modernism of Zero and the pastel impressionism of The Invisible Hand to last year’s wonderful Symbols of Light (A Solution), which featured Osby interacting with a jazz-and-strings ensemble.

Osby’s latest CD, Inner Circle, was recorded in 1999, right after he teamed with pianist Jason Moran, vibist Stefon Harris, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits for New Directions, an uncharacteristic yet sublime investigation of Blue Note’s ’60s catalog. Inner Circle was slated to be released the following year, but Osby held up its release because, he says, “I made a hard left compositionally when I recorded this album. There are some wild ideas and approaches here that I felt might have thrown everyone for a loop.” Three years on the shelf is a long time in Osby’s briskly evolving universe, and its 2002 release makes Inner Circle sound somewhat dated in the Osby canon, though it’s still light years ahead of most CDs.

Inner Circle features basically the same lineup as New Directions, with Eric Harland replacing Waits and Shim bowing out. The playing is superb throughout, with Osby’s sinewy, vibratoless alto zigzagging through labyrinths of tricky turnarounds and triple-deck harmonies. On the playful stop-start groove “Entruption” and the jaunty “Stride Logic,” Osby shares his affinity for Monk as he leaps through wide intervals and breaks up the melodic lines without sacrificing the sense of swing. The CD gets headier on compositions like “Equalatogram” and “Fragmatic Decoding.” Sounding true to their cerebral titles, the tunes are the musical equivalents of mathematical word problems: complicated and enjoyed by a highly select group.

Recently, Osby has been proving himself to be as noteworthy a composer as he is a player, but the most persuasive moments on Inner Circle are the two nonoriginals. Osby sidesteps the lofty mathematics and digs deep into the decidedly emotional realm on his beautiful reading of Bjork’s elegiac “All Neon Like.” As Harland and Mateen propel the ballad with a strident marching swing, Osby softens the edges of his phrases and soars like an angel above Moran’s chordal clouds. While not nearly as stunning, Osby’s take on Charles Mingus’ “Self Portrait in Three Colors” beautifully reveals the gentler side of the bassist’s-and the altoist’s-musical persona.

Osby’s confidante Jason Moran also exhibits a restless, wanton spirit that is sometimes difficult to pinpoint. Since his 1999 debut, Soundtrack to Human Motion, the pianist has rapidly evolved as one of his generation’s most iconic, unpredictable voices. His soloing is as varied as his output. Moran’s slinky, bipolar solos can sound as dark and rumbling as Andrew Hill’s one moment and as snappy and grooving as Ramsey Lewis’ in the next.

Moran’s new CD, Modernistic, finds the blithely eccentric pianist and composer playing solo, left to his own idiosyncratic rhythmic devices, harmonic colors and melodic ingenuity. It’s a daring experiment, but Moran has the boundless imagination and technical facility to pull it off, and he draws from a deep well of dynamic resources. Sure, Moran may be a jazz artist of the highest order, but he is very much a part of hip-hop generation: his points of reference are as disparate as Bootsy Collins and Boots Randolph, and he seems to be undaunted by any sacred cows deemed either unworthy or too divine for jazz interpretations. On this delightful excursion, he boogies through James P. Johnson’s ragtime “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” with the same verve, respect and inventiveness as he does Schumann’s “Auf Einer Burg.” And just when you thought you’ve heard enough versions of “Body and Soul” for a lifetime, Moran delves into the chestnut, supplying the immortal melody with opulent chords and a subtle R&B bounce.

Modernistic’s hip-hop sensibilities shine more explicitly when he switches to prepared piano for his evocative original “Gangsterism on a Lunchtable,” a subdued, impressionistic composition with a gentle right-hand melody that he underpins with an infectious left-hand backbeat rhythm. It sounds like Wu-Tang Clan mixing it up with Keith Jarrett. Moran takes a curious misstep, however, when he tackles an actual hip-hop song. He uses the prepared piano again on Afrika Bambaataa’s hotbox classic “Planet Rock,” but the results are clunky and forced. The Kraftwerk-ish rhythm and melody of the original simply don’t give Moran enough to work with, and despite his whimsical phrasing, he’s held captive by the song’s limitations.

Moran sounds more like a piano-playing hip-hop renegade when he just does his own thing.

Originally Published