Alto saxophonist Greg Osby has been releasing about one album per year since signing to Blue Note in 1990, some of which have been contrived and shaky forays into rap, spirituality and other commercial gimmickry. (If you want a mix of rap and jazz, find a copy of Soweto Kinch's excellent Conversations with the Unseen ; if you want spirituality, look no further than Coltrane or David S. Ware.) Osby, a veteran of the M-Base Collective, is at his best live and without a specific creative agenda, as his MiniDisc-recorded Banned in New York (1998) first suggested, and as the aptly titled Public will reaffirm.
The head of "Rising Sign," the first song of this set recorded at New York's Jazz Standard in January of this year, could be interpreted as a thematic statement for the entire disc. Touching various points in a constellation of notes, the head seems to sketch a melody cubistically rather than follow it outright, a technique characteristic of Osby's style and one he will employ repeatedly on Public. The sound is punchy, angular. At its summit it toys with dissonance, as if wheezing with relief. Yet it lingers in the ears like the equally punchy head to Hank Mobley's "New World, Old Imports." Osby seems to be saying that he and his bandtrumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Megumi Yonezawa, bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Rodney Greenintend over the course of the set to offer challenging music in a manner that won't alienate. And so they do.
Their ten-minute rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime" is hardly recognizable at first. Osby and Payton take turns snake charming before Osby drifts into the first hazy strains and then hands over to his trumpeter, who belts out some confident, jarringly conservative phrases during his solo. Yonezawa, a talent who deserves greater acclaim, acts like an expert typesetter on some of these phrases, contextualizing them in boldface, italics, underline. When Osby returns for his solo, he wanders further and further until he's snake charming again, opening up a perfect opportunity to drift back into the song's hazy strains. Hurst and Green operate in a funky, distinctly percussive role throughout instead of using the brushes and baritone languor more commonly associated with this standard.
As a four-piece, Osby and his band make a loud restatement of the opening theme on "Equalatogram," more punchy, angular stuff that Yonezawa keeps in check with a fluid piano line. It's a strange track, if only because it has the feel of a solo that has been isolated from something largeran impression enhanced by its abrupt beginning and even more abrupt ending. Dizzy Gillespie's "Shaw 'Nuff" gets a deceptively straightforward treatment that prances the fine line between hard- and post-bop. There are some inspired solos and interplay all around, but Hurst and Green should receive highest kudos for their sustained energy, the tight, intricate framework that provides Osby, Payton and Yonezawa, respectively, with their platforms. The final track, a cover of Billie Holliday's "Lover Man" featuring pop singer Joan Osborne in a guest spot, is carried out in a traditional vein without forsaking the element of challenge altogether.
For a recorded live performance, the volume of the applause is just right: present but never distracting. This was one problem that marred a recent and otherwise impeccable Chesky release. Producers, musicians and label execs take note.
Track Listing: Rising Sign; Summertime; Visitation; Bernie's Tune; Equalatogram; Shaw 'Nuff; Lover Man.
Personnel: Greg Osby: alto sax; Robert Hurst: bass; Nicholas Payton: trumpet (2, 4, 6, 7); Joan Osborne: vocals (7); Rodney Green: drums; Megumi Yonezawa: piano.