The uniquely distinguished soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, whom I was alarmed and upset to see has just left us (June 4, I think), did a lovely take on Thelonious Monk’s “Introspection” 40 years ago. The opener on this set from Greg Osby comes pretty close to that Monk tune. “Rising Sign” resembles the last Monk ‘compositions’, which were created mostly by changing the order and mutual relation between various complex geometrical figures that had already appeared in Monk compositions and performances and which spoke the textural language of Monk. “Rising Sign” is Monkish in its texturing components, which is not to say derivative. As Lacy insisted, showing signs of having read (I meant to type ‘heard’ but ‘read’ does very well)… showing signs of having read Monk is the jazz equivalent of a European classical composer’s knowledge of Bach. I’m not suggesting direct influence or other relationships between these musicians and the historical affinities I sense here. It’s just what seems to come through.
Osby charges at the opener with all the specific flair of Charlie Rouse, a comparison coming all the more easily to mind since his attack uses the undertones of the alto to produce a rather light but substantial tenor sound. He does, however, remind me a lot of Rouse elsewhere, though in full flight he is plainly a very dark-hued altoist.
There’s something here that brings up the idiom “get one’s ears around”, insofar as “Summertime” is tackled first by two horns pointing in different directions, as if each of them was playing a different tune rather than each his separate take on that mighty composition. George Gershwin had what could be called a confused sense of contemporary African American idiom, but, like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and others, he created something complex that was teased out to become an amazing contribution to jazz. After the initially pretty well daunting separation and fragmentation of different options available in “Summertime” — the ranging and here indeed jagged arpeggio applied to open space and creating structure within it — Osby’s band is well set to blow on very extensive and very solid foundations.
And blow they do, Osby in “Shaw Nuff” even echoing Coleman Hawkins in what one critic has described as the long organ pipe depth of the saxophone. He can also — and on alto — emulate the softer, breathy playing of that older school of tenor saxophone playing: witness the introduction to “Lover Man” here, on which Joan Osborne takes the only vocal in this strong instrumental set. Its composer, the sorely neglected pianist Roger ‘Ram’ Ramirez, created it on the basis of the immensely ambitious harmonic and melodic exploration of the earlier 1930s. The lyric interacts with the harmonies, producing a weight of expression characteristic of the music here. Ms. Osborne’s emphasis on the words has some very beautiful playing from the leader in accompaniment.
On that performance, Nicholas Payton, whom I first encountered as a youthful prodigy on a recording with Doc Cheatham, takes a trumpet solo whose historical reference is to the trumpeters who carried over the bigger tone of the 1930s stylists into modernity: Red Rodney and, really, the Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro lines. He just hasn’t been narrowed by missing the fact that Miles Davis was a very individual and distinctive player for specific expressive purposes. Davis, like John Coltrane, has in the past been imitated as a sort of orthodoxy. The result wasn’t up-to-dateness, but an aural equivalent of blinkeredness, modishness portending atrophy. Osby’s website leads with a slogan about music currently relevant to the urban environment within which it arose. You don’t produce much of that by imitation or by lacking perspective.
This entirely unsuperstitious set has young men capable of being inspired by “Bernie’s Tune” and by the straight playing of a bop theme; an inspiration that makes something new of these and also makes something of new compositions. They have considerable help from Megumi Yonezawa, a pianist who at times seems to be wrestling with the piano and wresting from it rhythmic and harmonic results pioneered when Monk’s music was performed to the composer’s delight by the technically staggering, pretty well orthodox technique of Bud Powell. Too focussed on depth of expression, this pianist, to follow the habitual practice of parading modal scales. This is a really thrilling as well as mutually empathic band, with the duly celebrated Robert Hurst on bass and the as yet not so well known Rodney Green on drums.
This is in every sense a live set, entirely contemporary in an address intelligent enough to appreciate and appropriate a full range of resources. Neither the current situation nor the resources it demands, decently comprehended, could be called entirely new. The exclusively contemporary is the merely symptomatic.
Osby seems to have everything the outstanding individual creative player needs, from the gifts of the classic ballad performer to the ability to play pretty well free but always with continuity of expression. He can build up swing and drive and intensity to a perfectly logical, screaming pitch. Without reference to liner notes, I put this CD into the player — it’s another BlueNote product with ‘Quick Time’ player on it to prevent the ‘burning’ of illegal copies using computer CD player software — and while not hearing any extraneous background sounds, I guessed this had to be a live set.
The atmosphere is unmistakable, and invaluable. It doesn’t automatically come into being in an audience venue. These guys are what in pre-computer times would be called burning. They earned their money on the gig, and like the customers that evening, a buyer of the CD (drawn, the closing announcement lets us know, from both that evening’s sets) will get his or her money’s worth — in what costs more than money. Well, the musicians aren’t copying either.
“A real privilege to be here,” says Ms. Osborne after her song, speaking with feeling there and in her singing.
Not necessarily with her effectiveness, so do I.