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Greg Osby: Symbols of Light (A Solution)

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Saxophonist-composer Greg Osby has always been serious about taking risks and has pursued that musical path with integrity, intelligence and intensity, whether it was as a member of Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition or in his first sessions as a leader for JMT Records.

His earlier experiments with M-Base and on such provocative projects as 1991’s Man-Talk for Moderns Vol. X and 1993’s hip-hop flavored 3-D Lifestyles have always been ambitious undertakings that yielded interesting, if insular, results. With 1996’s Art Forum, one sensed a maturing process had set in, both in his comportment and in his compositions (particularly the in depth “Mood for Thought” and substantial pieces like “Dialectical Interchange,” “Half Moon Step” and the evocative, suitelike “Perpetuity”).

Last year’s The Invisible Hand (with former Special Edition bandmate Gary Thomas and jazz masters Jim Hall and Andrew Hill) surprised naysayers who had wrongly written off Osby as a one-trick pony bent on angular, frenetic funk and odd meters. The CD’s spare sound and rare beauty shocked some critics; it also made many best of the year lists. With Symbols of Light (A Solution), Osby shows continued growth as a composer and arranger, further impressing with the ever-widening scope of his artistic vision.

Far from just niche music, this beautiful quartet date, augmented with strings, places the fully matured composer (now 41) in the ranks of such successful experimenters as Lee Konitz and Tom Harrell, who in their respective ways have tried to meld jazz and art music throughout their careers.

Just as pianist James Williams and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts provided some of the flourishes and rhythmic flexibility to Art Forum, so too here do pianist Jason Moran and sensational young drummer Marlon Browden. From the dark, waltz-time opener “3 for Civility” (for Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams and Von Freeman) to the Zenlike quietude of Masabumi Kikuchi’s “M” to Osby’s dense and turbulent “The Keep,” they interact accordingly, underscoring each track with power, grace and elan, pushing and pulling the proceedings along with bassist Scott Colley, as Osby wails over the top with typical fluidity and boldness.

Osby’s intimate duet reading (with Moran) of Andrew Hill’s “Golden Sunset” is a lyrical highlight here while he makes his most effective use of the two violins, viola and cello on “This Is Bliss,” a buoyant piece full of complex unisons, swirling ostinatos and contrapuntal lines set against the saxophonist’s whirlwind improvisations on alto.

Elsewhere, Osby organically integrates the strings into the fabric of the music on the moody “One Room” and the edgy “Northbound,” which has Browden deftly switching from brushes to mallets to underscore the shifting character of the piece. “Social Order” opens with a stark statement by bassist Colley before kicking into a surging, self-assured hyperdrive with Browden’s swinging pulse goosing Osby’s fire-breathing excursions on alto. Moran’s dissonant, spiky solo exchanges with Osby are particularly exhilarating on this burner. They engage in a more intimate dialogue on the album’s affecting closer, “Minstrale Again (The Barefoot Tap Dance),” which has Moran dipping a bit into a spirited old-school stride bag while still pushing the envelope harmonically. Like two seasoned tap dancers, they exchange steps in joyful fashion on this jaunty number. On this track, and his profound reading of “Wild Is the Wind,” a haunting ballad long associated with Johnny Mathis, Osby reveals more warmth and humanity than he displayed on many of his more severe outings from the past. And that’s a quality that will go a long way in helping to get his fiercely uncompromising vision over with a wider audience.

Originally Published