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.