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Greg Osby: Out of the Woods

Greg Osby
Greg Osby
Greg Osby
Greg Osby

See this? It was a young tree the deer killed by eating all the bark. I came home and part of it had fallen near the front door. So I got out the chainsaw and cut the rest down….”

Greg Osby is surveying his domain, a modest parcel of wooded, hilly land a musket-ball’s toss from the Valley Forge National Historic Park west of Philadelphia. On this rustic setting sits the barn-red, two-story house that he is refurbishing. “It’s an upside-down California, meaning the sleeping rooms are on the bottom level and the entertainment and dining areas are on top,” Osby says. It’s all wood and glass and horizontal planes built around a stone chimney; it’s very ’70s.

“I’ve been here for two and a half years now,” he proudly offers, after a 10-year stint in “cul-de-sac suburbia in south New Jersey.” Yes it’s isolated and getting to any gig requires travel, but Osby is down with that.

“My productivity has increased almost tenfold. There are no disturbances here, anytime. It’s the quietest quiet, the darkest dark. I have deer that use my stream that runs along the side of the house as a watering hole. It’s all inspirational, but still if I need the charge, it’s a two-hour drive to Manhattan.”

Osby takes his guest on a walk through his home, pointing out his accomplishments (plastering downstairs, ripping up shag carpeting upstairs), future plans (breaking down a wall to create one large music room) and mentions his past experience with home construction. “In high school, I was a lackey for my mother’s uncle, Uncle Ed. I would ride around with him in his loud orange truck that badly needed a muffler and do various jobs: sheet rocking, demolition, some remodeling.”


Home improvement jobs may tug Osby away from his music and his main ax, but in the context of his new home the alto saxophonist is happy handling any instrument. “When I pull out the hammer or the drill or the hacksaw, or I’m out blowing snow or leaves, it’s therapy for me.”

He opens the door to a wooden deck overlooking the creek, where exactly two houses are within earshot-neighbors who have proven quite welcoming. “I’ll be practicing my alto on the porch, and when I’m done the phone rings: ‘Hey, why’d you stop?'”

Whether in Pennsylvania woods or more familiar venues, Osby has proven reach. Nearing 30 years of professional experience with 13 albums to his credit, he now boasts a dedicated-and growing-listener base. “There’s been a building process from record to record,” remarks Bruce Lundvall, head of Blue Note, Osby’s label since 1990. “He’s someone that sells to a serious jazz audience.”


Serious is as serious does. Osby is known for a strict onstage manner, celebrated for the confident clarity and clipped angularity in his playing and revered for being an iconoclast and stylistic alchemist: transmuting free, funk and bebop influences; sampling new jazz hybrids that use hip-hop, classical and rock; then shifting to new paths of exploration.

If Osby’s consistent at all it’s in his penchant for change. He’s ready to tour a new quintet, with trumpeter Nicholas Payton,

pianist Harold O’Neal, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Rodney Green. His current to-do list includes: a trio project with Charlie Hunter and B_obby Previte; a group effort with Steve Khan, Jimmy Haslip and Terri Lyne Carrington called New Music Collective; continuing collaborations with Jason Moran in the Greg Osby Four; and new work with Switzerland’s Arbenz brothers, pianist Michael and drummer Florian, in the Arbenz Connexion.


Osby remains as prolific as he is intrepid. “He would like to see Blue Note do things the way they did in the old days with maybe four or five albums a year,” Lundvall laughs. The past few years alone, Osby’s albums have stretched from the lo-fi, live intensity of 1998’s Banned in New York to the pensive, all-star meeting of 2000’s The Invisible Hand (with Andrew Hill and Jim Hall) to the lush sax-and-strings of 2001’s Symbols of Light (A Solution) to the passionate small-group explosions of Inner Circle (recorded in 1999 but shelved until last year).

Yet some still think of him in a static way. “People still may or may not get me,” Osby sighs. “They may have written me off because they heard me at the Knitting Factory playing with some guys that were shouting and screaming and hitting on hubcaps 15 or 20 years ago and forevermore I’ll be an avant-garde downtown guy. Or they may have heard me with the World Saxophone Quartet subbing for Oliver Lake or Julius Hemphill. Or they saw me with Muhal Richard Abrams or with Jack DeJohnette or with the M-Base Collective, and they just can’t let it go.”

But late last year, the self-avowed eclectic acceded to a recording project that could well mark 2003 the year Osby reaches a wider range of ears than ever before. His label is set to release St. Louis Shoes, a thematic album featuring well-known jazz staples like “Summertime,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Shaw Nuff,” the Monk classic “Light Blue” and a dose of Ellingtonia: “The Single Petal of a Rose” and “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” The idea of a more mainstream embrace is something Osby is conscious of and amused by. “Hopefully this will frame me in a-I won’t say a more positive scenario, but it’s something that people can get their hooks into.”


Hmmm. Might we be speaking of accessibility?

“Yeah. Accessibility, but by being drawn in unconsciously. The framing is compositions that everyone knows. Then they say, ‘Wow this is really great, but there’s something different about it!’ That’s the whole point. I want to draw people in but they don’t know why. Like lemmings going over the cliff, or something like that….”

Osby’s humor can be disarming, is often self-deprecating and takes some getting used to. It effectively contrasts the stern self-awareness that is his normal carriage, a stance some mistake for being too cold or self-involved. But it also suggests that there’s more going on than mere ego. With an acute ability to articulate his thoughts, Osby speaks as one who spends a lot of time in his own head: questioning and reviewing, developing the tenacity that has guided his career, the strength of his convictions amplifying his words.

Greg Osby grew up awash in music.


“I was very fortunate that my mother worked at a record distribution company when I was young,” the 42-year-old says. “All the labels would send promotional copies and cutouts, so literally on a daily basis she would bring home box loads of everything from Coltrane to Duke Ellington to Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to Cream to the Doors to Mahalia Jackson to Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to Pharoah Sanders to Count Basie. We just had stacks.

“I was in high school when I really realized what we had. But in the beginning she would bring home these Coltrane records, and I’d say, ‘Look, I don’t want to hear any of that, bring me some Jackson 5!'”

Osby’s musical inclinations blossomed in junior high, despite underfunded ghetto conditions at his school, Soldan, which is “in the heart of St. Louis blackness. We had terrible instruments from the late ’40s and ’50s. They were held together with rubber bands and things.”


He could not be dissuaded, however, motivated by the school’s band instructor, Vernon E. Nashville Jr. “I hung on to every phrase that he said: ‘If you practice hard and you focus, then you can probably get a scholarship and go to school for free!’ I said, ‘Wow, I never really thought about that! I’m playing for fun now and people are dancing, but I could make this a lifestyle! I wouldn’t have to punch a clock! I wouldn’t have to be a pen pusher!'”

With limited instruction but a natural talent, he was soon playing professionally. “After one year of clarinet in seventh grade, I was good enough to play in local funk and blues bands in St. Louis,” Osby says. He then switched to saxophone and found himself “traveling around making money, earning more than many of my teachers in the course of a weekend.”

Osby discovered a local player whose professiona
lism proved a model for the maturing musician.


“[Tenor saxophonist] Willie Akins was the first guy on a professional level that I marveled at. I actually could sit in the front row and just bask in his technique. He was very proficient, very articulate. There was no fat to be trimmed-straightahead jazz. No nonsense and a great guy. He never gave me any lessons, but my lesson was to see this art performed at a very high level at a young age.”

The demand for live entertainment was pervasive and constant then in St. Louis, and Osby always had a job.

“It was from 1975 to 1978 or so, all the guys in the groups were in their 30s or so and I was a kid! And there would be illegal gambling, people playing numbers, all kinds of women. On, say, Saturday afternoon, there would be a matinee from maybe one to five. On some of those afternoons I would play in organ trios. Then there would be some dance or party from maybe eight o’clock to one at night. Then everything would close up. So after hours, from two to seven in the morning, we would cross the bridge to East St. Louis where all the swank houses were, the underground places where they may not have had liquor licenses or sold liquor on Sunday when they weren’t supposed to.


“We were doing blues and soul hits-R&B repertoire. We would open up with a little instrumental jazz-or jazz as we knew it: Grover Washington Jr.’s ‘Mr. Magic’ or Sonny Stitt’s ‘Mr. Bojangles’ or Horace Silver’s ‘Song for My Father.’ Then as the people started drinking and they wanted to dance more, we would have to deal with what was popular at that time: the Commodores’ ‘Brick House’ or ‘Skin Tight’ by the Ohio Players. Or some Earth Wind & Fire pieces ’cause we had horn sections and stuff. Blues too, because a lot of those players would tour with Albert King, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Milton.

“Aww man, it was heavy! It was all intuitive-I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I had a tremendous ear. It was a great ride.”

But don’t expect Osby to revisit his R&B years anytime soon.


“It seems when one is requested to do that kind of stuff [now], it’s like taking two steps forward and then 10 backward. You learn a lot of music and to read scores and all this stuff about very advanced techniques and approaches so you can play a song that only has two chords? It’s like a 10-star chef making pigs-in-a-blanket!”

After high school, Osby departed St. Louis and its numerous gigs for Howard University in Washington, D.C. After graduating he went on to study music at Berklee in Boston before setting out on his own course in the Big Apple. Osby arrived in New York City in 1982 to day jobs and nightly jams, and later cofounded the now legendary, Brooklyn-based M-Base collective with Steve Coleman and others. He was also gigging regularly with Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Jon Faddis and most notably Jack DeJohnette while apprenticing with Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams. Osby recorded his debut as a leader in 1987 for JMT; he then signed with Blue Note in 1990.

But more than any of the experiences and locales of that long timeline, it’s to St. Louis that Osby’s thoughts still return. The title of his new album is no mere clever wordplay; St. Louis Shoes implies a retracing of his earliest steps that “chronicles my journey from this young curious guy, ambitious guy in St. Louis through whatever I had to do to get to now. I want it to take people on that journey, which is why the CD is bookended with two St. Louis pieces-starting with ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’ and ending with ‘St. Louis Blues.'”


To Osby, the album stands as an overdue tribute to a city of lasting personal-and historical-significance.

“There’s been a lot of talk about Chicago or New York or of course New Orleans, but St. Louis is parallel with all of those cities. There are certain implementations that are exclusive to St. Louis-a style, a vibe, a mood-and they’re still inherent in just about everything that I do. The thing that spawned doing this album right now was a reflection on St. Louis and what it represents in the whole development of this music.”

Still, St. Louis Shoes was not originally Osby’s idea, as he freely admits; it was Lundvall’s. “I’ve always been resistant to doing a standards kind of thing. I don’t like tribute records or songbook records or ‘the music of so and so,’ because they’re not really reflective of who the artist is. I even had my differences with New Directions,” the 1999 Blue Note-sponsored tour and album featuring Osby, Stefon Harris, Jason Moran and Mark Shim that celebrated the label’s 60th anniversary by reworking, often radically, such classics as “The Sidewinder” and “No Room for Squares.”

“We’ve been talking about doing it for a long time,” Lundvall admits. “I’d say, ‘Maybe it’s time to do an album of all standards.'”


To appreciate Osby’s willingness to ignore his own reservations and entertain Blue Note’s wishes is to grasp how well a working relationship between artist and music label can run-that’s usually the exception not the rule, and personal chemistry has a lot to do with it. Osby and Lundvall seem well-matched, equally dedicated and informed. Their own words-spoken separately-reveal how in tune they can be on subjects like:

Creative freedom

Lundvall: “We don’t restrict him, and we’re not pushing him into doing some stupid crossover record or into using a certain producer.”


Osby: “If they consider the artist having things in control, they’re hands-off, and that’s a great policy for me.”

Commercial considerations

Lundvall: “He’s realistic, and not only that, he’s fair. If we’re losing money on something, he will temper his budgets in such a way as to make it work financially. He’s very smart and knows what it means to be on a label where you’re not necessarily paying the bills, you’re not Norah Jones.”

Osby: “Most artists are under the misconception that you’re going to make a lot of money with

advances. My whole motto is, ‘I’ll do music and you sell it,’ as opposed to me doing music that can sell.”



Lundvall: “This guy’s making a difference with every record, that’s why we stay with him. Even in the beginning when he did those hip-hop records, we supported that. 3-D Lifestyles didn’t quite work, commercially speaking, but he knew that we were going to stay with him.

Osby: “Memorable projects for modest budgets-I guess that contributes to me having been on Blue Note for 13 years now.

Mutual respect


Lundvall: “Everything that he does, he always looks very sharp, and he’s got a very adventurous sense of where the music should go. I couldn’t be prouder.”

Osby: “Bruce is more than just the company president. He is a true fan of the music, very knowledgeable, very well listened. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”

Lest the logrolling appear too rosy, it should be noted the relationship was not love at first sight. Though Lundvall was impressed when he first heard Osby performing with Jon Faddis in 1989-“He was playing much more conventionally then but with an edge-every solo he took I said, ‘This guy’s really a player. He’s got a sound'”-Lundvall was less taken by the saxophonist’s serious demeanor. “At first I thought he was going to be big trouble as a personality-nothing but headaches with attitude. You know, the record-company-versus-artist kind of thing.”

Lundvall reports that Osby has consistently defied expectation.


“That’s sort of the way he is. I think he’s extremely well-grounded and has a terrific dry sense of humor. And he’s always there to surprise people with his playing-he will do things like work with the Grateful Dead, or turn up at a Joni Mitchell tribute concert, as he did a week
ago [New York’s Symphony Space, March 24]. You never know what the hell he’s going to come up with!”

Lundvall certainly did not know what to expect once Osby agreed to record a standards album. The choice of tunes was left to the saxophonist, with a slight nudge from his label chief. “I said, ‘Don’t pick the most obvious ones. Pick the ones you feel an affinity for that haven’t been overdone.’

Osby eventually narrowed down a long list of songs, with an eye to balancing old and new, familiar and lesser-known. His final list of nine tunes maintains the historical and emotional range that guided his selection process.


“I wanted to address all facets of jazz performance: ballads, jam tunes, Thelonious Monk repertoire. The colorization, the modes, the rhythm, the jungle, the forcefulness, the pastoral. The album had to be equal parts all of those things. Some are jam-session staples- ‘Bernie’s Tune,’ ‘Summertime,’ ‘Shaw Nuff’-and some are more repertory, like the Ellington pieces.”

Osby-per norm-produced the album himself: securing the sidemen, arranging the studio time, overseeing the final mix. Lundvall was in the dark until he heard the masters. His reaction?

“I immediately called him and said, ‘You are too smart, man!’ Picking jazz standards that are not standards in the way we think about the American songbook. I love what he did with ‘Shaw Nuff,’ and ‘Bernie’s Tune’-something quite different than what we know from the Chet Baker [version]. I think this is an album that does have a chance of selling more records and there’s no compromise to it.”


Normally self-assured, Osby approached St. Louis Shoes with trepidation: “It was the most difficult project that I’ve ever endeavored.” He was concerned with both the influence of others’ compositions on his own playing-“I didn’t want the music to play me; I wanted to play the music”-and his potential effect on the tunes. “I didn’t want to disrespect them or malign them with a lot of Osby-isms, or to obscure them to the point of absurdity.”

Despite initial doubt, Osby became comfortable with the idea that within the definition of “jazz standard” there rests an implied invitation to leave one’s personal stamp. “That’s what music is here for. It’s not cast in stone. Man, everything is malleable. It’s like Play-Doh. It’s not an act of blasphemy to take a well-known work and to modify it to fit your own intentions.” What and how Osby chose to modify is a decision he based on his own “framework of reference [but] not to try and give a projection of something I don’t know anything about. I don’t know anything about 1926.”

Osby is referring to the opening track-Ellington’s ’20s classic “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”-and adds: “I wasn’t going to try to get in there and be sweet, silky and smooth, bending notes, Hodges-like. It just had to be me. So that automatically changes the dynamic of the song.” Osby singles out the tune as the album-in-miniature: a stylistic, historical joyride that opens true to the tune’s original tempo and mysterioso feel-one that is familiar to early jazz and ’70s rock fans alike: “You’re the fifth or sixth person who has mentioned the Steely Dan version, so I’ll have to check that out.” The tune eventually arrives, Osby says, “at the shout chorus. It’s the high point of the song, but it’s very angular and based upon some numerical and structural applications that aren’t often addressed even in contemporary improvisation: It’s a transcription of my solo, and I wrote it out for both for me and Nicholas [Payton]. So he’s actually playing a Greg Osby solo. It was in very extreme ranges for the trumpet. Like very low, and he has just a great sound. We had to work on that a lot, just so we were breathing in the right places and phrasing and articulating to sound almost as one.”


Payton is perhaps the most unexpected credit on St. Louis Shoes. Normally a headliner in his own right, Payton appears as a full-fledged member of Osby’s group-not just a guest soloist. The trumpeter is known for his signature brawn and New Orleans bluster, so who would have thought of pairing the two, or that Payton would say yes? The saxophonist chuckles: “I definitely adhere to the Miles Davis ideology of bandleading-those very odd assemblages of people [that] shouldn’t have worked!”

Osby recounts their decision to work together.

“We’d never played together at all-it was only a year ago at a benefit for the New York firemen and policemen at Town Hall that I talked to him about it in passing. He said he’d love to and, ‘It’s not often that people get a chance to play on a Greg Osby recording.’ That’s all I needed to hear.


“He’s a perfect foil. We play in tune together. Our phrasing is together. It’s almost as if we have tremendous history, but we don’t. I had Nicholas and one other prominent trumpeter in mind. They knew how to use mutes and how to capture the sensibility of these period pieces. Nicholas, of course, brought that New Orleans sensibility, but he also brought a sense of adventure. I needed an interpreter, somebody who could breathe life into these charts.”

Covering “Shaw Nuff” was intended to showcase Payton. “I had to do something that was the embodiment of the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker relationship. The trumpet-saxophone frontline is a staple; we had to go at it on a tune like that.”

Osby describes the reasoning and retooling behind other selections.


“‘Bernie’s Tune’ I just remember from a lot of those Jazz at the Philharmonic battles. It was the last piece of the session, which I usually reserve for an improvisation or something looser. With ‘St. Louis Blues,’ the only thing that’s intact now is the melody. I totally reharmonized it and gave it a different feeling, tempo, bass line, progressions, structure. For a while it just felt like I was kissing up to my hometown but now it’s a composition that has these zones that we can really do something with-a lot of meat, a lot of handles to grab onto.”

Osby chose Cassandra Wilson’s “Whirlwind Soldier” and DeJohnette’s “Milton on Ebony” for a distinct quality they shared.

“They’re very intricate and very dense, but they don’t sound that way. That’s a very difficult thing to pull off. Some people write things that are complex and they sound that way. They sound like a beehive, just abundant with activity. But the complexity [of these two songs] is shrouded in something that feels really good. The Cassandra Wilson piece is a very, very intricate and complex piece. Hearing her sing it on her ’89 release Jumpworld you wouldn’t think that it’s as difficult as it is. She has bars of 5, bars of 3, bars of 2, but it just floats. I always loved the piece, but it never fit any of my projects.

“I played with DeJohnette for six years and just loved his work. A lot of drummers write things that are just a couple of rhythms or little repeated phrases. Jack writes compositions. They defined the band and who he is. This is actually a synthesis of two of his tunes: ‘Milton’ and ‘Ebony.’ He’s going to be blown away, because who records DeJohnette’s music?”

Recording “Summertime,” it turns out, was a conscious nod to mid-’60s Coltrane. “That’s one of those pieces that maybe Coltrane would have played for 15 or 20 minutes. We kept it in at five, just to get in and get out and reference that whole feeling-the buildup until we exist inside this whole vortex and then settle down and resolve it. The melody I’m addressing is very loose. I have to actually signal when I want to change the bars so we could maintain that bluesy, gospel, field holler, cotton-picking, summertime thing. It was amazing, the level of contact between me and Nicholas when he comes in with the bridge and provides the release.

“As I was driving to the studio this bass line came into mind. This bass line is an alternative pedal. All of the structures on top of that are changing, but the pedal stays the same. That’s the platform-the bass line that I gave Bob [Hurst]-and I changed some of the structures on top of that and gave that to [pianist] Harold [O’Neal] so he could give us a zone to start.”

After a celebrated five-year run with pianist Jason Moran, who left to lead his own trio, Osby is happy with his new quintet, a mixture of old and new friends. O’Neal is a 21-year-old from Kansas City who was recommended by Andrew Hill. With Hurst, Osby says, “We’ve had some history back in the late ’80s with the M-Base Collective. He’s someone that I’ve admired a long time. He’s very musical, knowledgeable and can bring life to these black dots on manuscript paper. My other choice would have been Scott Colley or people of that caliber. [Drummer] Rodney Green got in my band when he was 18. I saw him in Philadelphia playing with Shirley Scott in 1988 or so. When I met him we had a marathon conversation, and I took him right on the road.

“[With] a lot of people, the first time we play together is on the bandstand. After that I refine it with some rehearsals, but I don’t like to overrehearse things because it kind of anesthetizes things. Things become too clinical and too calculated. I’d rather hear them in the raw element with the wide-eyed curiosity and fear of messing up, and then I’ll refine things.”

Osby’s intention of touring the St. Louis Shoes band is reflected in the arrangements he purposefully created “for a small group that could be replicated live-I wanted to make the band sound as big as possible because there’s only five of us. Hopefully this recording is indicative of that surging of intent”

Touring provides Osby the chance to lead his on-the-road jazz academies-once a common practice, now mostly gone because of economic reasons. In his view, a conscious effort to stay hip about who’s who among the up-and-coming seems as much duty as good scouting practice.

“I just feel obligated to do so because we don’t have Art Blakey anymore, we don’t have a lot of those people who served as pockets of apprenticeship-that earn-while-you-learn, on-the-job training. That’s why I use a lot of young players in my groups. I go out and recruit cats. I’m flooded with tapes and CDs on a daily basis from young people who want to play in my group because they know that they can express themselves.”

He names two young trumpeters who have impressed him of late, both who have performed with Steve Coleman. “There’s this player named Ambrose Akinmusire, a student at the Manhattan School of Music, and also Jonathan Finlayson.”

His sidemen aren’t just students, however; they’re professionals, and Osby says to play with him they have to have “a great deal of desire-almost a killer instinct. I don’t like passivity.”

With Moran’s success as the most high-profile example of Osby’s talent-scouting abilities, the saxophonist has been encouraged to find new players, especially by his label. “It was Greg who kept pushing me to [sign] Jason, and he was totally right,” Lundvall notes. “Then Osby ended up in the production role.”

Being a producer also allows Osby to increase his income (he also teaches and tours often), and it’s a position that Blue Note is happy to accommodate. “I would trust Greg to produce almost any of my serious artists,” Lundvall declares.

Production, touring, teaching-as Osby notes, it’s about art and an ongoing financial regimen. “It’s always this planning thing-working from a budget. I just tried to be frugal and mindful of building something, especially given the choices that I had made as an artist-an eclectic path that wasn’t necessarily the most popular or familiar one. I knew I wouldn’t be the first-called cat so I’d have to have some financial plans.”

All planning begins with a vision, which in Osby’s case began in high school. “Without sounding ridiculous or arrogant, I had a girlfriend and I told her my master plan: By the time I’m 25 I’m going to have visited these places, I’m going to have played with these people and I’m going to have done these things. She always thought that either I was cocky, or so self-assured that I couldn’t fail. People would be like, ‘C’mon man! You might as well just pump gas, as is your destiny.’ I had already, in my mind, played with Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.”

In realizing his dreams, Osby today acknowledges the lessons in music and life he received from his elders, and which he passes on to younger players. “I’d just sit up and listen to them talking, Muhal Richard Abrams or Andrew Hill, people like that. Just asking them questions that sometimes don’t warrant an explicit answer. For instance Andrew, he’s very much into environment-how and where you’re living. He’s very much against that romanticized projection of a musician living in impoverished conditions, playing in smoky clubs and just accepting things. He’d say you should have as much as you think you’re worth, as much as you need to create primo art. He said, ‘Don’t settle. Ask for better. Always request better.'”

Late afternoon light filters through leafless trees in Valley Forge. Osby stretches on his couch, and the conversation drifts back to more domestic matters, like what’s on his home stereo these days. “I listen to a lot of chamber music, small-group contemporary works and classics-a lot of impressionist composition: Messiaen, Bartók, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy.”

It’s not surprising that Osby’s musical appreciation tends toward a fractured perspective, in light of the restructuring that went into his latest album. “There are fragments of works that I listen to a lot. A lot of times I don’t like the whole thing, only one-and-a-half minutes or so. As a matter of fact, I may tape a segment of a piece and loop it over and over to get the feeling when I’m on the road.”

Restructuring the classics. Reharmonizing venerable standards. Refurbishing an aged house “nobody wanted because it required so much work, but I saw the potential.” They all seem products of the same restless work ethic, all part of a pattern of uncompromising invention. It’s a parallel Osby finds appropriate.

“I consider refurbishment and do-it-yourself projects as therapeutic as writing or working a gem of a composition. It’s kind of a model that I took from DeJohnette living in Woodstock. I wondered how could he be as productive as he is living in that type of environment: trees, wildlife, no ‘hi neighbor’ waves every day.

“People have this misconception that, ‘Oh wow, your music is gonna be filtered with imagery of buttercups and daffodils.’ But I’m a child of the city, it’s not like it washes off. I can go anywhere-Siberia or Antarctica-I still write the same way and think the same way. It’s just that I want to be in an environment where I can do my best. I don’t want to have to blame a certain condition as the hindrance or the obstacle that kept me from reaching my potential.”

Osby suddenly jumps from the couch, moves to the porch and points to a family of deer drinking from the stream below, no more than 10 yards away. He smiles, pleased the local fauna saw fit to oblige his visitor from the city. “I have to wave my arms and yell at them to leave, they’re so used to humans.”

Such are the demands on Osby as he continues to shape his world-away-from-the-world.

With a shout, four white-tailed interlopers disappear into the woods.


Saxophones: Yanagisawa alto A-9930 (silver body, brass keys). Yanagisawa bronze alto A-992. “The bronze is darker and records better but I prefer the silver one for live performances as it cuts and projects more.”

Reeds: Alexander Superial DC #3.5M

Mouthpiece: Vandoren A75 Jumbo Java

Ligature, neckstrap: Fred Lebayle

Microphones: SD Systems wireless

Saxophone maintenance: Bill Singer of SingerLand Productions Inc Originally Published

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.