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Greg Osby: The Invisible Hand

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illustration of Greg Osby

The “black book” on the cover of Greg Osby’s 1995 Blue Note album of the same name was spiral bound-a student’s notebook, not an insider’s secret list of phone numbers. That self-produced collection of hip hop-driven jazz made clear how much Osby had learned about the genre, as he programmed all of the album’s terse beats and designed the cut-and-paste soundscapes himself. But the real results of the saxophonist’s lengthy musical education really started showing up on the superb series of albums that followed, from the style-defining Art Forum, through his conceptually audacious live recording Banned in New York. In his liner notes to 1998’s Zero he placed a premium on his vast playing experiences and learning opportunities for enabling him “to function liberally and comfortably within any given environment with sure-footed certainty” without sacrificing his identity. Last year’s superb meeting with Joe Lovano, Friendly Fire, found Osby doing just that, situating his twitchy, rapid-fire delivery within a more conventional rhythmic setting than he normally employs-and with fiery results. The Invisible Hand, however, has to be regarded as his finest, most mature accomplishment yet, as Osby not only proves his arresting malleability, but shows a calmer, more contemplative side.

On this ballad-heavy session, Osby’s complex rhythmic vocabulary-one fueled by blistering bebop, his funk-fusion experiments as a founder of M-Base and his skill at absorbing the stuttering, off-kilter delivery of rappers-surrenders none of its character. Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Terri Lynn Carrington are just as elastic as Osby’s usual rhythm sections, but their playing is more languid and less angular. The leader’s steely, meticulously detailed and tonally concentrated solos unspool with less ferocity here than usual, but his agile bob-and-weave style remains unmistakable. Only on “Indiana,” which is free of chordal instruments, does Osby approach his typical slaloming velocity. Whether on a lean interpretation of Quincy Jones’ “Who Needs Forever,” where subtly overdubbed flute and clarinet counterpoint by Gary Thomas and himself add a surprising degree of spaciousness, or on the somber original “The Watcher,” Osby’s pretty, lyrical side, more implied than stated, has never sounded more vulnerable.

By bringing together idiosyncratic legends, pianist Andrew Hill and guitarist Jim Hall for the first time-they’ve both used the saxophonist as a sideman in the past-Osby reveals his innate conceptual nerve, but more importantly it proves to be a beautiful musical match. Hall limns the elusive contours of Hill’s “Ashes” like a liquid gliding down a mountainside, while Hall’s “Sanctus,” a melancholy bit of through-composed thematic development, reveals their spontaneously intersecting lines to be carefully braided, not tangled. Hall is absent on “Jitterbug Waltz,” but Hill’s dazzling performance serves as something of a blueprint for Osby’s sound. Both musicians dance around the rhythm as if they’re walking on fire, playing ingenious phrases that accelerate and slacken but never settle squarely on the groove to create a delicious tension. It’s Hill that’s absent on the gorgeously arranged “Nature Boy,” where Osby breaks apart the lovely theme in chopped-up, unsettling phrases, while Hall, by contrast, is pure melodic grace. The fact that veterans like Hill and Hall agreed to work as sidemen for Osby suggests something that the music on The Invisible Hand virtually screams: Greg Osby has quietly become one of the most potent, complete and important saxophonists in jazz.