Greg Osby: Channel Three

Will Layman

Osby continues his winning streak with a fresh-sounding saxophone trio approach.

Greg Osby

Channel Three

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2005-08-02
UK Release Date: 2005-08-01
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Jazz fans and jazz critics are all amateur historians. We love to compare new music to what came before it, and I think jazz musicians invite this treatment with their relentless references to older artists and styles. Even when jazz reacts against the past, it still seems to actively use the past.

And so Greg Osby's latest Blue Note recording comes with particular historical baggage, though it is not primarily his earlier recordings. This disc is for saxophone trio -- sax, bass and drums -- and thus immediately suggests comparison to the few classic saxophone trio records: Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson live at the Village Vanguard, Henry Threadgill's band Air, and some relatively few others. The question can't be left alone -- how does Channel Three stand up next to the narrow history on which it draws?

It stands up and even jumps a little.

This trio -- Osby on alto and soprano, Matthew Brewer on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums -- plays fully across the spectrum of jazz history, but with an emphasis on the very recent past. While the closer, Eric Dolphy's "Miss Ann", features conventional walking bass and brush-swung drums beneath Osby's soprano lead, most of the record is more intricately arranged and more modern. But even on "Miss Ann" there is a sense of a trio being exceptionally open and free. It is not so much that Osby plays harmonically free, beyond the chords of the tune, but that his solo takes regular pauses through which the life of the rhythm section is allowed to wriggle and shine. Much the same is true on the opener, Ornette Coleman's "Mob Job", where even the written melody is fragmentary. Perhaps just because these are the album's only two non-originals, these are the only tunes where the band works explicitly as a traditional jazz group. They are home base from which the group departs and to which it ultimately returns, with the journey in the center being beyond history and into what the group is discovering for itself.

Interestingly, all the original tunes have titles that reference television. I don't know precisely what this means, but it is true that this original music is modern in conception while still bite-sized and understandable; Osby clearly wants his audience to still be there at the end of each commercial break. There's only one track which runs longer than six minutes, and each tune is arranged like a small suite, with very specific writing for each instrument.

On both "Vertical Hold" and "Test Pattern", the melody is stated by the bass and alto in a combination of unison, octave, harmony and counterpoint, with Watts avoiding straight time by dancing simultaneously on the cymbals and skins. Even when Osby begins his improvisations, Matthews (a 21 year-old member of Osby's regular quartet) plays specific counterpoint lines rather than the typical 4/4 walk of "jazz". The result -- particularly with Tain seeming like at least two if not more drummers at once -- are trio exercises that sound bigger and busier than anyone could expect.

Avoiding a straight approach to time is what the middle part of this disc is all about. I've tried a dozen times, but I can't count out "Viewer Discretion" at all, even though it sounds natural for the band. Though Osby's tenure with Steve Coleman in the M-BASE collective is plainly a reference point here and on other tracks, this music sounds more flowing or natural than Coleman's early work -- there is less a sense that the band is skittering brilliantly together and more a sense that the M-BASE approach has found its classical form. You can hear this well on "Fine Tuning", where Tain favors a military snare pattern as the bass and alto play a slow-syncopated melody together. As Mr. Osby spins off to improvise, Matthews stays with the melody and the tonics, grounding a tricky tune in what you've already learned to hear.

Both sidemen get a generous chance to duet with the leader. "Diode Emissions" is a steel-lovely ballad duet for soprano and cello-register bass, with Tain merely coloring here and there. Matthews moves through his upper register with a craggy purpose as Osby plays an angular melody that could very nearly hold lyrics. Osby's solo is purposeful and unaccompanied, before Matthews reenters with a load of slow double-stops over Tain's shimmers. Tain duets with the alto on the 6/8 groover, "Please Stand By". Osby mostly plays in his keening upper register, reaching down for low notes only to play in sync with the kick drum's insistent 1-2 accents. It's this kind of organizing strategy that keeps the whole album feeling rich and tied together despite the absence of a chording instrument.

Perhaps the most interesting track is "Channel Three" itself -- a tune for electric bass, soprano, drums and two voices. Watts and Matthews repeatedly sing a harmonized two-note pattern ("oooooh, oooooh"), giving the song a harmonic foundation. The electric bass is in the Jaco Pastorius vein, though largely subordinate to Tain's brilliant Elvin-esque patterns. It's difficult to explain how this kind of exercise avoids every fusion cliché, jam-band cliché, and even Coltrane modal vamp cliché, but it does. The vocals stop, explode for a few cries, then reenter over the bass solo; Tain colors the whole thing like a watercolor-spewing dancer; Osby solos with elliptical restraint, leaving gaping holes through which the rhythm section flows; Matthews never overplays the Jaco card. It's utterly original.

For some time now, Greg Osby has been the standard in the forward-looking wing of mainstream jazz. He came from M-BASE and avant-garde origins, but his signing with Blue Note marked a settling down -- producing 16 albums in as many years. And while many of those discs have included standards and standard instrumentations, Mr. Osby has fulfilled a certain kind of promise -- the promise that even mainstream jazz on a big label is still moving forward, and that this movement need not be restricted to the tiniest audiences in only the most downtown of N.Y. clubs. With Channel Three, Greg Osby has made one of the most interesting, challenging and daring recordings of his mature career. May there be many more.


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10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

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In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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