The danger of passing from Young Turk to Senior Statesman, a feat which Greg Osby seems to have managed without anyone noticing, is that your endeavours, once the subject of great controversy, are now taken for granted. They are praised of course, as is the Great Man’s due, but they are no longer open to scrutiny in the way that earlier efforts were. Osby joins a long list of jazz musicians whose mature work is every bit as groundbreaking as his younger projects (most notably as part of M-Bass) but whose reception latterly consists merely of polite, albeit universal, approval.
This is unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable. Yet it is especially regrettable in the light of the recent Burns-Marsalis mantra, “Where are the current Armstrongs, Ellingtons etc?”. For if the critical spotlight was focused a little less complacently on Steve Coleman, Greg Osby and one or two others, then the mainstream jazz tradition might not be so easily condemned to eke out its remaining days as a specialised branch of the heritage industry.
Symbols of Light is not like this or that album—though it is so steeped in any number of historical reference points that not even Stanley Crouch could complain. It is not another sub-Coltrane extended tour, it does not skip skillfully but pointlessly down paths blazed long ago by Free Jazz legends of the past. Despite its use of a string quartet it is not Parker with Strings for the new millennium. Nor is it Milhaud-Russell Thirdstream coming back for more. It is not even Max Roach’s short-lived double quintet, to which it does bear superficial resemblance. This is jazz in the best creative sense, exploratory, confident in its structural soundness and dependent for its ultimate success on the extemporising gifts of its principal soloist. It waves respectfully to its forebears but sees no reason to tug its forelock.
OK. You get the picture. I like this album, I think Osby is a major artist and I believe that contemporary jazz is still capable of innovation and standing on its own creative feet. I do not think it died some time around the era that Miles Davis discovered Marshall amplifiers. I also know that if Osby had not been part of our consciousness for so long then this album would be making serious waves.
So what have we got? Quite simply, Osby has augmented a standard quartet (sax/piano/bass/drums) with another standard quartet—of strings. These he has used as a sort of fifth instrument. They are not a backdrop, nor are they individual soloists. They do play a major role on the session and allow Osby a whole new set of possibilities for his considerable solo skills. Here, I have to own up to ignorance. What I know about string quartets would not hold you up in the street for five minutes. I do know this though. If Osby has ever had an instrumental line-up that suited his playing better, I missed it. He weaves his way around, soars above and jostles alongside the string voice in a burst of sustained creativity you will travel a long way to hear matched.
Sometimes the Quartet carries the central motif, as in the rather Nyman-esque “Repay in Kind”, but mostly they have a role equivalent to the pianist Jason Moran’s—joint second-in-command, though without his improvising function. The key factor is that they are, in Osby’s words “integrated into the general fabric” and act neither as generic contrast (as happened with Roach) nor as “sweetener” (as happened with nearly everyone else). Whether it is down to the scoring, the arranging, Osby’s talent or sheer luck I have no idea, but the result is a more coherent use of this embodiment of European Classical music than has hitherto been the case. Jazz-Classical encounters have tended to be inhibiting affairs, like two groups of guests at a dinner table who can find little in common with each other. Here the dialogue is free-flowing and inspired.
There are 11 pieces—all relatively concise yet of sufficient length to allow for the necessary thematic developments. It is invidious to have to choose individual dishes from such a feast but the pick for me is “This is Bliss” which actually lives up to its title, and features the awesome sound of Osby appearing to use the sax’s full range. The downbeat “Northbound” and the very noir “Minstrale Again” also stand out. Osby is at all times magnificent, rarely repeating himself and finding new points of departure with each change in time signature. Whether the underpinning is a waltz (“3 for Civility”) or a showbiz tune (Johnny Mathis’“Wild Is the Wind”!) there is no hint of anything other than absolute fluency.
Interesting to note the inclusion of “Golden Sunset”, a self-penned number that first saw light of day on a set with Andrew Hill. If there is a guiding light behind this album it might well be someone like Hill, who showed that there were (and still are) other roads to follow in modern jazz to those mapped out by the twin giants, Coleman and Coltrane. Osby is, of course, no mere disciple, but Hill’s “third way” seems to me to be as close to Osby’s approach as any that comes to mind.
This is music that takes some exhausting and will , I believe, stand the test of time. It is also downright beautiful and not at all “difficult”. The level of performance is exceptional and I have not even praised Osby’s other players—Moran, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Marlon Browden. All are excellent, though Moran’s Monk-with-a-Classical-training style will never make him my favourite player. Really, it is Osby and the strings that take this session somewhere special. If Chamber Music and Avant-Garde Jazz are two of the most terrifying phrases in your vocabulary, don’t worry—they are in mine too. This is bold, forthright but very accessible contemporary music. I call it jazz but, whatever ends up being the preferred term, it sure as hell beats yet another album of standards, no matter how proficiently executed.
Osby hasn’t gone all blasé and lazy on us. Jazz fans should be just as alert. Symbols of Light is something more than just another well crafted set of tunes from a trusted but overly familiar figure. It is as fresh as any hungry first record could ever hope to be and it is happening right now.