Greg Osby plays hip hop. He plays funk. He plays Japanese folk music. He plays with a classical string quartet. He writes music for urban street poems. He plays with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. But above all else, the alto saxophonist plays jazz. And he plays it in whatever context he explores, including all of the above and a lot more. Osby, who performs with his quartet at the Carrboro ArtsCenter on Friday, June 15, is the rare musician who can incorporate a wide variety of influences yet never lose track of his own sound, his own concept, his own place, both within and against the jazz tradition.
"My project is to maintain a faithfulness in what I believe in," Osby explained by phone from his home in New Jersey. "Actually, I like to put myself in these different contexts to try to apply my own set of rules as opposed to letting the environment dominate me and force me to modify what I do to fit. See, I don't want to make what I do fit; I want just to apply what I do inside that, and speak truthfully that way."
At a time when the debate between preserving tradition and allowing for extreme innovation continues to drag on inside the jazz world, Osby offers a third way. Osby doesn't abandon the jazz past that's been resurrected in a canonical and perhaps overly schematized fashion by Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center crew (see Ken Burns' PBS Jazz series for a sense of this perspective). Nor does he seek to depart from all rules and practices as a number of free-jazz players have. Instead, Osby systematically but adventurously pursues encounters with other musical genres in order to develop his own sound.
"This is a hybrid music," Osby asserts. And for him it demands intensive and wide-ranging study, both within and outside its traditional boundaries. "A lot of jazz players, they just don't go outside the gate," Osby says. "They stay in their yard, and eat the grass until it's bald. And you can't survive that way." Instead, Osby believes that the only way that the genre will prosper is for "jazz musicians to step outside of their own arena and allow themselves to be touched and graced by musicians and art that embraces a different aesthetic."
On his latest release, Symbols of Light (A Solution) (Blue Note), Osby follows his own advice by composing music for a string quartet, merging the sounds of violins, viola, and cello into his group's hard-swinging grooves. On "3 For Civility" and "Repay in Kind," he intertwines the strings with his jazz quartet, which currently features Jason Moran on piano (whom Osby refers to as "my own musical Allen Iverson" and "kindred spirit") and the rhythm section of Scott Colley (bass) and Marlon Browden (drums). What is so refreshing about the album is Osby's ability to let individual voices and sonorities emerge from the rich fabric of the eight instruments instead of pitting the jazz group against the classical group, achieving a risky, achingly beautiful synthesis on the track, "Symbols of Light."
"There's an urgency represented by smaller string ensembles," Osby explains. "I wanted something smaller and more urgent."
Osby's career has itself been marked by an urgency to achieve new levels of musical and artistic expressiveness, but also by a rare patience and a dedication to developing his craft. He grew up in St. Louis, where, as a young child and saxophone neophyte, he remembers parking his bike below the warehouse window of experimental musicians such as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Baikida Carroll and other members of BAG (the Black Artist's Group).
Osby went on to attend Howard University and the Berklee School of Music. In the 1980s, he toured and recorded with musicians ranging from Jack DeJohnette to Jon Faddis, Michelle Rosewoman to Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock to Andrew Hill. He also gained renown as an active member of Brooklyn's M-Base Collective, a musical music-business workshop whose members included Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman and Geri Allen. The M-Base Collective was modeled after both earlier jazz collectives such as Chicago's A.A.C.M. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and multi-group "umbrella" structures such as George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership Connection.
The '90s saw Osby become one of the stars of the revitalized Blue Note records: He released 10 albums, each with a well-developed theme, ranging from an experimental hip-hop and jazz disc to last year's Invisible Hand, which featured the unusual pairing of pianist Andrew Hill and guitarist Jim Hall. Osby has also participated in such projects as the Blue Note New Directions band, which put out an album of rearranged tracks originally recorded in Blue Note's hard-bop glory days. Increasingly, he's become a respectful ringleader and mentor to such promising young musicians as pianist Moran, vibraphonist Stephon Harris, bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits.
"I'm very much concerned with individuals and the way they think and the way they approach music," Osby said regarding his groups and protégés. "I've been known to pull individuals off the scene and into my own groups, and these individuals may more or less be renegades of the scene, may not be that popular, or they have something that they do that holds them out of favor with the general populace. They may have an unorthodox approach, they may have a nontraditional attitude, or they may come from a different discipline than a strictly straight-ahead jazz background. These are the kind of things that appeal to me, that I'm fascinated by."
Osby's music isn't easy, and while he likes independent-minded musicians, he asks that they meet him on his terms. "I'm also interested in people who can early and accurately interpret my music through their ears," Osby says. "Because I have a lot of specifics in my music. There are a lot of measures that I use for music that are very individualized: time standards, a cueing system, a system of signals and alerts that people have to be aware of, shifting the forms. We'll springboard into different keys and tonalities and change time signatures and rhythms. I have a lot of rhythmic cues that I play and certain melodic cues that I play, and people have to listen. They can't go out on a personal tangent."
Osby's own alto-saxophone playing is remarkably distinctive, with a kind of dry-ice tone that burns and chills all at once. He explains that he doesn't study or seek to replicate other alto players but is instead intrigued by the project of transferring the sounds and techniques of other instruments onto the alto--another way, Osby explains, to force himself to discover a more comprehensive, yet flexible, sense of musical self.
While Osby is able to venture far afield from a jazz setting (he speaks of being especially surprised and excited during a recent Philadelphia concert when he sat in with former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and his rock group), the best example of what to expect at his quartet's performances is captured on the brilliant 1998 mock-bootleg album, Banned in New York. He and his quartet (albeit with a different rhythm section) burn through a continual set of jazz standards (Sonny Rollins' "Pent Up House," Ellington's "I Didn't Know About You," Charlie Parker's "Big Foot") and Osby originals without stopping. The band charges through the music but never loses control--individuals step forth to solo, then fluidly move back into the collective ensemble, then step forward again. The rhythm churns, then opens up into a quietly spacious swing groove. The music crescendos and recedes, full of personality, wit, thoughtful interplay and daredevil cool.
"I'd like people to come to the show with a clean slate, without expectation," Osby says of the upcoming show, then revises the statement: "The only expectation would be to be introduced to something that's potentially inspiring and motivating--the reflection of some individuals that have worked hard at something that's individualistic and highly conceptual, with a heavy dose of feeling ... nothing that's accidental or haphazard, but with a lot of risks taken," he says. "There will be shards of references, but it shouldn't be held to that. We're trying to do our thing. I think we're on to something."