Greg Osby is traveling miles in hand-me-down shoes on his new Blue Note set. The nine tunes are compositions written by other composers -- some which will be familiar, others less so. But St. Louis Shoes is a journey through the dense mind and soul of Osby, a musician whose conceptual understanding is of the intricate nature of improvisational jazz. His formidable skills on soprano and alto saxophone have earned him much praise among the formal jazz community, but has quite possibly kept some listeners at arm's length. His link with the M-BASE (Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations) Collective along with saxophonist Steve Coleman and singer Cassandra Wilson illustrates the notion that jazz, for Osby, was about a complex, mathematically-based non-melodic approach full of unpredictable rhythms and jumpy solos that engaged the analytically-inclined jazz heads first and foremost, although both Coleman and Wilson found ways to reach wider audiences.
St. Louis Shoes is not Osby's first full-on studio exploration of what he calls O.P.M. (Other People's Music). His 1998 live set Banned in New York featured works by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, all of whom are again covered on St. Louis Shoes. This time, though, Osby is returning to his St. Louis roots and the homecoming has stripped away the fanatical devotion to theory and allowed Osby to use his unique voice to express his personality more clearly, which would seem to be far more difficult with this set list.
For instance, the two Ellington pieces (the opener "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and "The Single Petal of a Rose") contain the expected swing and grace associated with the Ellington sound. Yet, Osby and his musical compatriots find themselves through subtle shifts of harmony and meter. Towards the latter portion of the opening tune, Osby and trumpeter Nicolas Payton cleverly take a harmonious journey from old the St. Louis sound to a more modern and decidedly Northeastern route that most likely mirrors Osby's swings through Washington, Boston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia.
Osby and Payton tackle the John "Dizzy" Gillespie / Charlie Parker penned "Shaw Nuff", and while obvious nods are made to that classic pair and their distinctive harmony, the new version remains a musical showcase that never gets locked in structure puzzle mode. This is music without numbers, true artistic expression and an opportunity, which Payton seizes with nervy gusto.
Osby marks his musical roots in a couple of other selections. There's his beautiful take on Cassandra Wilson's "Whirlwind Soldier" which is every bit as melancholy as one would expect, but Osby's tone is lighter and more romantic. Osby spent six years performing in drummer Jack DeJohnette's band Special Edition and Shoes features "Milton on Ebony", a hybridized combination of a couple of DeJohnette's tunes. Again, the music and the bands interaction seems to come from a straightforward theme, not a mathematical theorem, thus it engages the listener more fully.
Jazz improvisation's connection with the audience comes from its ability to stretch the sense of melody beyond the active listener's sense of anticipation. To extend or shorten the phrase, to reconfigure the harmony or the rhythm, yet never completely lose the recognizable element, the melody. The best example of Osby's command would be his take on the Gershwin standard "Summertime", which has been interpreted so many times, that even George and Ira would probably call for a short-term revocation of its canonical position as a jazz standard. While the rhythm swings underneath thanks to bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Rodney Green, and pianist Harold O'Neal, Osby plays with a distinct drawl that never sounds like he's merely aping the accent, especially in contrast to Payton's sharp lines.
Much could be made of the absence of pianist Jason Moran from St. Louis Shoes, but the new band, which is culled from new and long-time musical compatriots. The 21-year-old O'Neal carries on ably in Moran's spot, who himself was exactly the same age when he joined up with Osby. Jazz bands have long been the training ground for new talent and it's good to see Osby extending that tradition. Green also began early with Osby, but then spent time with Christian McBride, Charlie Haden, and Diana Krall. Hurst is best known for stints with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, but he performed with Osby during the M-BASE days. Payton seems to relish the opportunity to relax his studied approach by walking a mile or two in Osby's St. Louis Shoes. Hopefully, this combination has some more journeys ahead of them.