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Listening With Greg Osby

Saxophonist talks Hank Crawford, Steve Coleman and many more

Osby (right) and writer Ashley Kahn at New York University in March

Since the late 1980s, when alto saxophonist Greg Osby stepped out of bands led by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Jack DeJohnette, Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill, he’s been his own man: fronting groups, developing projects and serving a primary role in the influential Brooklyn-based M-Base Collective, along with Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson and others. His distinctive attack and compositional approach distinguish his more than 20 albums released under his own name, the majority of them on Blue Note with the unrelenting support of the late Bruce Lundvall.

Osby now records for his own label, Inner Circle Music, where he’s also fostered leading young talent including saxophonist Melissa Aldana and vocalist Sara Serpa. And while his sense of commitment hasn’t diminished in the least, Osby, now 55, seems to be willing to take a breath career-wise, allowing elements of chance and whim to help guide the way. Most recently he’s been performing in projects as a featured soloist more than bandleader: next to Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman in Saxophone Summit, and in a quintet dedicated to the music of Lennie Tristano. He’s also the newly appointed curator of the Sopot Jazz Festival in Poland. This Before & After session took place at New York University’s jazz facility in early March.

1. Johnathan Blake

“Time to Kill” (The Eleventh Hour, Sunnyside). Blake, drums; Tom Harrell, trumpet; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Robert Glasper, piano; Ben Street, bass. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Very well executed, well produced. Sonically it was a great recording. They sound fairly young-at least 10 years younger than me. The level of players these days is leaps and bounds above my generation. They have more intellectual access; they can learn and absorb faster and retain the information better as well.

The alto player seems to be influenced by Kenny Garrett to some degree-Kenny’s been lionized by alto players all over the world, everywhere I go. I really can’t say who it is. It sounds like an institutionalized player, not somebody who apprenticed under somebody. Perhaps it’s someone who earned their bones in school. They sound really accomplished. It could be Antonio Hart or Miguel Zenón.

AFTER: I know Jaleel very well, and that didn’t sound like the Jaleel I know. That sounded like it was EQ’d to make it very smooth and more compressed, because Jaleel is a fiery player. His sound is a little bit more strident and raw. It has more bite than that. That’s why I didn’t recognize him, but I enjoyed it. It was very good contemporary jazz.

2. Hank Crawford

“Good Morning Heartache” (Wildflower, Kudu). Crawford, alto saxophone; Bernie Glow, Alan Rubin, Marvin Stamm, trumpets; Wayne Andre, Paul Faulise, trombones; Tony Studd, bass trombone; Joe Beck, guitar; Richard Tee, organ; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Idris Muhammad, drums; Bob James, arranger, conductor. Recorded in 1973.

BEFORE: This takes me back. I played this kind of music in high school-jazz-based pop tunes without vocals. This sounds like early to mid-’70s, one of those Creed Taylor[-produced] recordings. That had to be Hank Crawford because of the way he attacks those notes, a stabbing of the notes. His sound has a lot of core, a lot of midrange. It’s not what you call a fat sound, but it’s very distinctive, very detailed and sounds like a person singing. He made really good use out of the pentatonic and the blues scales without a lot of harmonic alterations.

I used to listen to Hank a lot when I first got into playing the saxophone because he preceded Grover Washington Jr. Later David Sanborn emerged, as did Ronnie Laws. They were the first four pre-smooth-jazz but super-funky, bluesy players that I mimicked before I learned the higher properties-chord changes and progressions and things like that. I’m hoping that was Hank Crawford playing “Good Morning Heartache.”

AFTER: Yeah, that whole crew-Joe Beck, Bob James, Idris Muhammad, Cranshaw. Man, that was in the air in St. Louis. Practically every bar, joint and pool hall had a Hammond B3, and all the jukeboxes had these toe-tappers, as they called them: “The Sidewinder,” “Watermelon Man,” “Song for My Father.” Grits-and-gravy, chicken grease. Lou Donaldson, Groove Holmes, you name it. This was the west side of town.

But I hated it as a kid because everywhere you go you’d hear this funky chitlin’ stuff-scratchy guitar, some guy playing out of tune on a tenor saxophone that was held together with rubber bands and paper clips and gum and Band-Aids. So I didn’t like it. At first. But when I got serious about my instrument of course I gravitated to that and I became the go-to guy, the young bluesy cat. I was 15, 16 years old in these bands with guys in their 30s and 40s, playing the kind of music where we would vamp a tune, just one chord, “Mister Magic” or something like that. We’d play it for 35 to 40 minutes for dancing, in these big halls where there’d be motorcycle gangs, the Elks, Masons and other people.

3. Rudresh Mahanthappa

“Talin Is Thinking” (Bird Calls, ACT). Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Matt Mitchell, piano; François Moutin, bass; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: It does sound like a modern group. They’ve created an environment that’s not directly reflective of the swinging jazz tradition, but it’s another branch on that tree that’s kind of spidered out a bit. This sounds like Rudresh Mahanthappa. He has a very, very personal approach [and] a very, very personal group concept and logic. He’s very clear about his objectives within the parameters of that music; he stands behind it; he could explain the components that he uses to construct his environment.

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