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A Fireside Chat With Greg Osby


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I don't believe in living up to expectations or accommodating desires or needs.

Every so often, Greg Osby goes through a ronin phase. He hermits himself from the public microscope and works on his craft. With great introspection and exploration, Osby returns with a renewed sense of artistry that kicks my ass. Oz's latest release, Inner Circle, has been lauded as his "best" by many.

Since I'm not him, I certainly am not qualified to quantify anything he's done as being the "best," but there are a handful I would say are in the running. The Invisible Hand record with Andrew Hill is choice, Zero with Jason dabbling on the organ is kick ass, Further Ado with Tim Hagans is good ear candy, and his Sound Theater record originally on JMT and reissued by Winter & Winter with a big ass "G" and "S" on the cover is chill too. But the jazz know-it-alls like Banned in New York and Inner Circle, both fine performances and are pretty straightforward, but lack the drama of a Zero. And don't let me forget the Symbols of Light date where Greg weighs in on strings records and turns the whole concept on its head.

I am always curious as to what Oz is up to next. With both Joe Lovano and Dave Holland tinkering with big band material, maybe Oz is looking to take on a large ensemble work? To get it from the source, I sat down with Greg for another candid conversation (I doubt Oz knows how to give any other kind), unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung: It's been about six months since we talked last, what have you been up to?

Greg Osby: Oh, man, Fred, I've been up to a lot. Primarily, I'm just figuring how to revamp my group sound, trying to find a host of engagements that would take the sound of the music to the next level, and that will propel me into some unknown or uncharted territory as an improviser. And also to write some challenging compositions that people would have to give a great deal of thought to before they attack them. I don't like to write songs that encourage people to rely on the familiar or familiar content or familiar approaches.

Usually, you have to engage in a great deal of discussion and decipher the music just so we can come up with a host of variables that fit that particular direction as opposed to relying on stock phrases. That is not challenging to me at all. That's not even interesting. I'd rather not be a part of something that's merely a paint by numbers enterprise. That and I've been doing a couple of film scoring things, a couple of small films, independent documentaries and things like that.

My playing has undergone a dramatic overhaul as I just one day got up and decided to dismiss the logic I had adhered to for years, just so I could satisfy myself. There had been a lot of loose ends that needed tying up and so I just cracked open a lot of my theory books, a lot of my journals and things that I had been working on when I'm on the road and just decided that I take a couple months off, no touring, no playing, no public performances at all, just so I could really work on this music. It's been a fertile period.

FJ: In the meantime, Blue Note has released another record, Inner Circle.

GO: Right, well, I shelved the album upon its completion because I didn't think the general public would be ready for it. I've endured this scenario a few years back with the release of a CD of mine called Zero, which was another highly conceptual composition record and people just really didn't get it. It was one of my most proud moments, one of my proudest achievements and people just weren't getting it, and they really didn't get it.

It was kind of a retroactive response to it after I put out a live CD called Banned in New York maybe four months after Zero was released. People heard that. They heard what I was playing over familiar standards and things in an environment that people could take to readily and they went back and Zero started selling again.

So upon the completion of Inner Circle, I said that I'm really proud of this. This piece represents nine distinct approaches to group logic, to improvisation, to communication within a band unit. It's the best detailing of how a band can talk to one another on the bandstand as a result of steady work because we had been on the road a great deal, all of us. So that's why I call it Inner Circle, because there was a lot of intuition. There was a lot of telepathy as well as the science behind each composition. Each composition represents a different facet of approaches that I had been working on for a long, long time.

I just didn't think it was ready for release, so I decided to do something that I thought was equally as strong but something that I would be a little bit more accessible and so that's when I started the Invisible Hand project with Andrew Hill and Jim Hall. And even after that, I did the project with the strings, the Symbols of Light recording and as I was figuring what to do next, I think maybe folks have caught up with what I'm trying to do and maybe it is not that alien or that foreign to anybody anymore. Maybe it will meet a welcome reception, and so that is when I decided to put out Inner Circle. It was recorded in '99 actually.

FJ: Have folks caught up?

GO: Well, it remains to be seen, Fred. Despite what I always think and what I always endeavor towards, I see a lot of raised eyebrows and a lot of people scratching their heads when we play. When I am playing with people in my group or with someone else, they just, some people don't get it, and some people are curious, and then some people whole-heartedly embrace it because they've been waiting for that next offering.

So all in all, I can't allow myself to be influenced or swayed by public opinion or whatever because that will in some way tarnish the level of creativity and the nature of what I'm trying to do. I'll probably won't be shelving anything from this point on. Either people get it or they don't or they'll get it later. I just have to crank them out because ideas are non-stop.

FJ: People will misinterpret that as being part of your rebel and anti-establishment persona.

GO: That's a very interesting description to give anybody. I don't really understand what that means because in this music, people who are the strongest and who have made the most profound statements did what they thought was correct. They did it with honesty, with earnestness. Those are the people that we still celebrate.

I don't believe that. I'm not anti-establishment. I'm playing acoustic music and it's coming from a jazz base. I study. I try to come out of the box with something different and refreshing and progressive each time. I'm not doing the same thing over and over again. I would think anti-establishment would be somebody who is not concerned with moving forward and who is not embracing the value system of a living music. It is supposed to be propellant. It is supposed to continue to grow. I think anti-establishment would be somebody who allows themselves to stagnate and to embrace things that represent non-chance.

I'm very much establishment, Fred. I love music. I love the world. I love culture. I travel and I incorporate all of that into the music. I grow. I develop. You couldn't be more establishment than that.

However, I don't believe in living up to expectations or accommodating desires or needs. That has become the standardized approach in music and that is directly responsible for the great impasse that we are dealing with right now. The creative prowess for a lot of musicians is on a complete shutdown right now and people are stymied. They don't know what to do next because they are waiting on somebody who is "anti-establishment" to take the fall. They stick their neck out there and take the lumps so then people would know which way to go and which way not to go, not that that's my role and not that I embrace it, but I just embrace satisfying myself with doing something that will keep me inspired.

FJ: Ironic that you seem to attract these monikers while merely trying to be your own man.

GO: Absolutely, Fred. It's ironic. It's ironic that in this new millennium, we're still dealing with a society that discourages progress. Given what this government and this country is supposed to represent, they still expect you to adhere to a host of principles that really, truly are suppressive in their own way.

I'm paying for it. I'm still paying for it. I'm the poster child for wearing many hats and self help and self reliance. I don't have a booking agent. I don't have a manager, a real manager. Clubs won't book me. I go largely, everything I get I get on my own basically and I'm just grateful that I have a fan in the president of my record label, Bruce Lundvall who really believes in my music and concerned with artist development and not concerned with the fast buck or else I would have been dropped a long time ago. I'm very fortunate that I've had a twelve year run with a record company who has allowed me to document things as I see and hear them.

It is really challenging, Fred, when I have to look and see people that have just come on the scene and they don't have any track record, they don't have any credentials and they are on every jazz festival and they're making top dollar. I'm not even a money cat. It is just activity. I like to keep my band working, keep developing. It is hard to do that when you only have one or two gigs a month. So it is just an interesting dynamic.

In speaking with Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams and other people that I admire, they have had to endure the same trials so I guess it just comes with the territory. Artists grants as well as teaching positions, those things helped to sustain an artist through the dry spells and to subsidize the meager earnings they make actually performing their great music. I guess it is some of the perils of individualism and having a clue.

FJ: I shouldn't bitch since I participate in it, but have you seen the latest Downbeat Critics Poll?

GO: No, I haven't but I heard I was nominated in several categories, at least eight or nine categories, which is flattering. It's quite flattering, but I don't even mean to dismiss the whole thing, but I take it with a grain of salt. A lot of times, that acknowledgment doesn't translate into work. I win polls. I won the Jazz Journalists Association best alto saxophone award three years in a row and I looked around the room and I was the only cat there that doesn't work regularly (laughing).

It is interesting to me. A lot of the people in the journalists' community regard what I do as valid, but they don't book the gigs. It is the shortsightedness of a lot of promoters who don't hear my music or they may have seen me in a situation that was repugnant to them and they're mind's ear is tuned to that and they just can't get away from that.

People still make references to Greg Osby doing that hip-hop. I did that in 1993. They heard me with Jack DeJohnette or with Muhal Richard Abrams or Lester Bowie or the World Saxophone Quartet, way back in the '80s and they still can't shirk that imagery. So they don't acknowledge what I'm doing now or know the contributions that I've made, or where my music is going and the wonderful musicians that have come through my band. And they will give the gig to somebody else.

FJ: First impressions are a bitch in music.

GO: It is unfortunate, Fred. People don't go back and listen to things after they do a little bit of learning and a little bit of growth. We're obligated to do so because we don't know everything and after a little bit of life experience, that compounds our intellect where we can revisit things and get a different impression of it, get a whole different spin and a different take on it.

A lot of people don't honor themselves with repeated listening, which contributes to the lack of progress. There are many factors that contribute to that. The musicians themselves are at fault. Promoters are at fault. Record companies, they just put the records out and they don't do any kind of creative marketing. They just hope that the records will sell themselves or hope that the artists will get his own work. It's very different. Every hand should wash the other, but they don't. There's too many islands and we need more unification in the industry.

I've tried to do that on some small level. I've chatted with many of the writers in New York to try to establish a stronger rapport and keep the pipeline active. I've initiated calls on my own to talk to people and tell them what I think or what I'm working on or what I think should be there focus. As opposed to talking about what a musician isn't doing, talk about the people that are doing something and try to encourage some activity.

That us-versus-them mentality, musicians in direct opposition with the journalist community, that doesn't work. That's proven that it doesn't work because it makes for bad reviews. It makes for dissension and skepticism. That's not healthy. We need to join forces to thrust this music out there and to give it the shot of adrenaline that it needs.

FJ: With Tommy Mottola appearing on CNBC along with other music executives crying wolf that the music industry is losing their shirt to downloads and CD burners, do you foresee major labels even keeping a jazz division in the future?

GO: The wane is in effect right now. A lot of the majors are dropping artists because they don't concern themselves with the long run. They don't concern themselves with artist development. A guy was a young prot'g' or whatever and they snatched him up and the records didn't sell or the fervor died down and they drop the cat like a hot potato and now they're damaged goods. All they can do is get a deal with some independent label in Europe or some fly-by-night label or do something on their own and hope to sell it out of the trunk of their car or at their gigs, which are a lot more difficult to come by now because of the damage goods nature and they don't have major label backing.

But I whole-heartedly advocate internet sales, E commerce, file sharing, networks. I am totally down with that. Last weekend, I played with Phil Lesh again, ex-bassist for The Grateful Dead and I've been playing with him off and on for the past three or four years. As a result of my relationship with him and talking to him, I put six live concerts on my website in MP3 format, available for download.

Now, this doesn't compete at all with my legitimate record sales. I do have a problem with people downloading legitimate property but live concerts and outtakes and bootlegs, that's great because that stimulates. It creates a buzz. It keeps your music and what's going on with your band in circulation, even when you're not actively touring. The Grateful Dead and these jam bands, they allow people to tape. You look out to the audience and you see people with their boom mics and mics on tripods and after the concert, they get the set lists and they put the stuff into global circulation. How come the jazz community couldn't embrace that?

Now I've been on gigs with my peers and elders when they just stop tunes in mid-flight and tell people to turn off the video camcorders and to turn off the mini-disc players and to turn off the cassettes. They huffed and puffed off stage thinking that people recording a couple of tunes or recording a set is going to adversely effect their sales, not realizing that that tape might wind up in the hands of somebody in the farthest reaches of the earth or the continent or whatever, who did not have access to it. They could download it or it may get mailed to somebody and they may talk to a promoter or somebody that may want to book your band, and they may in turn become interested in what you do and they may encourage a young player to start playing the instrument that you play. You may even get a few new fans. There may be some legitimate sale activity and so I believe in it. I think it is a great thing and cheap promotional vehicle.

Back in the '80s, I used to do a lot of sampling sessions for hip-hop music, for hip-hop producers. I had a group called Sample Bandits and we would go into the studio and replicate samples of recordings that they couldn't get sample clearance for. So we would do that and dirty it up a bit and change it so it wouldn't be a direct plagiarization.

And the thing is, they would give me passes to their shows and when they would do their shows, they would throw out cassettes to the audience, like whole boxes of cassettes of an artist that they were producing who had a release that was about to happen in six months. So six months later, when that artist's CD was released, it would ship platinum and everybody on the scene would already be aware of it because they got these free singles six months prior.

How come jazz labels can't do that? How come they can't go in the Village Vanguard and put a CD single of the table because CD-Rs are dirt cheap now, so that when those artist's recordings are released, everybody will be familiar with it and they probably will go out and get it. They'll say, "Oh, I know that guy. I got this at the Vanguard." It just becomes a sharing thing and once again, my experience with Phil Lesh has shown me that people will support you legitimately when they know that they can get something from you for free, when they can get free music or they get a pass out of it or they get a download. When you do a record, they will buy it. There are a lot of grassroots techniques that people in improvised music could stand to embrace that would do wonders.

FJ: Jazz artists are capped off at the knees because of the perception of jazz today is not cool, but rather a gauge of age. It isn't helped that club covers run north of twenty bucks and then bangs the kid for a two drink minimum. This has created an avalanche that has jazz being Humpty Dumpty, where all the king's horses and all the king's men will be useless.

GO: That's right. Well, the bar is raised when a host of artists and their greedy managers demanded a whole lot more. So everybody followed suit and now, musicians have out-priced themselves in the marketplace. That is a lot to play for one set of music. At least if you go to a rock concert or a pop concert, at least you get fireworks, scantly clad girls, and you get a show. It is more like a revue. It's not just one set of music and then they kick you out after the set.

That's too much. Artists, they will just have to embrace the reality of the situation. I'm not, I've never been a money guy. I've been an activity guy. I'd rather work a lot more and receive less. It will all balance itself out. I don't want to do twenty concerts a year for high money. I'd rather do a hundred concerts that make the same amount of money because you reach more people and you're able to develop more as a group and as an individual.

The institution of double bills, that is all but defunct now. You get more for your money. Musicians would collaborate with one another and you'd have like minded bands or like sounding bands on the bill and that would be a lot more enticing to patrons and you could fill clubs a lot more readily. Who wants to see the same group that you just saw a couple months ago playing the same material, and it is obvious that they haven't developed anything? They haven't been doing anything, so labels as well as clubs and concerts, they're going to have to think about presentation and think about how they're going to package the music and make it appealing to that slippery demographic, that host of money bearing individuals who elude these venues.

I've been able to get a younger crowd due to some of my collaboratives with alternative musics. That's been good, but it can still use a lot more work. I think college activity is the key. The problem is that that is so selective. I talked to the people at Blue Note and I am just this close with convincing them about my idea of caravans. We get four or five vans and emblaze them with the Blue Note logo and just travel across the country and hit every venue from little bars to school gymnasiums to retirement communities or whatever, wherever people will have it and just do a showcasing of the artists on that label presenting their new work. It was proven a few years ago when we went out with the New Directions group that playing in alternative venues and hitting these different markets like clockwork, it can be effective. We sold a lot of product and got a lot of new, instant fans.

I don't know. I don't know what people are thinking in marketing and promotion, I really don't. I don't know how they are earning their money and how they're figuring that their job is secure when no creative ideas are flowing.

FJ: A model is the Empty Bottle in Chicago. A dive with ten dollar covers and beers are a buck. Shows start at 10 and go into the wee hours of the morning. Artists play to a packed house and indie labels that sell their records consistently sell out pressing, twenty-five hundred, four thousand CDs with zero marketing and no record store presence. I can't recall the last record on Verve to sell four thousand copies of anything. The artists, clubs, and labels sell T-shirts and the kids eat it up. I haven't seen an Osby shirt.

GO: Right, thing is Fred, a lot of these companies, they work off of precedent. They may have done something like that before and it was ineffective for whatever reason and so as far as they're concerned, that won't work for anyone. I've run up against this with my label and other labels. We tried that with so and so, whose music was infinitely a lot more different or less provocative than my music and so they say that they can't do that because they did it before. If that didn't work, how do you justify putting these ads in these jazz rags.

FJ: I have never heard of anyone ever buying a record because they saw an ad in Jazz Times.

GO: Right, people don't buy records just because they see a record in Jazz Times, Jazziz or Downbeat. Take that money ' which is a great deal of money ' and put it somewhere else. Try something else and see if that will stimulate some sales or activity. They are steadfast to certain things because it is standard. The record comes out and they place it here, here, and here, but things that are potentially innovative and could make a lot of noise, they won't do.

It's difficult to convince people. Also, people are challenged because they figure you are trying to tell them how to do their job. They just want you to be the lowly musician and play the music and they do this. I've run up against that from everyone from people in the record company to promotions people to club owners to agents to even recording engineers.

FJ: Last time we talked, you were still on the fence about Jason and whether he was staying on. Is Jason still in the band?

GO: He is, but only a few gigs left because he has become excessively popular with his own trio, which is outstanding and I've encouraged it. It's time. It's been a six year run and I need to stimulate myself and look around and see if there is somebody else. Even though we have a marvelous relationship, a marvelous connection, I can't allow myself to be crippled by that. Just like I found him, I have to find someone to cultivate as well. It is time. It's time.

Like I said to you in the beginning, Fred, I'm revamping my sound and my direction, composition and the band. At this point, I am kind of leaning towards being guitar-based. There are a couple of guitarists that I am interested in because to be quite honest, there are not any other piano players that I like enough to come behind Jason. I'd hate to put it out there like that even though there are some great stylists in their own right, but a lot of people are too established and too set in their ways to follow my lead or to give me what I think I need unless I find another unknown.

I pulled Jason out of college and so if I find another youngster in college that has prodigious talent, then it may happen, but it has just become difficult to travel with piano. It will be a lot easier to travel with guitar and it will change the sound too. I look forward to change.

FJ: Trio or quartet?

GO: Quartet. I'm going to do some trio things too, but without piano or guitar, just sax, bass, and drums. I have some guys. I have Damion Reid on drums. His father is Richard Reid (bassist). He's from Los Angeles and he's an outstanding young drummer. I fluctuate between him and Eric Harland. Eric Harland is back in the fold again, as well as I've been doing a couple of things with Ed Simon again on piano. We will just see.

The bass chair, I am kind of playing musical chairs with that because I haven't really settled on somebody who is solid enough to give me what I need. They have to be very, very well versed in a great deal of music, not just jazz, swinging real hard and walking bass and all that kind of stuff. Somebody who is too entrenched in that, I would recognize it as a debilitating situation because they will play up to expectations and I really don't want that.

FJ: Do you have another album in the can?

GO: I don't have anything in the can, but I have about four albums worth of material already ready and I don't know which one to do first yet. Bruce Lundvall, he wants me to do a standards recording.

FJ: Not another concept record.

GO: No, I'm giving it my own treatment. I had to tell him that if I do the recording, you won't recognize these songs at all. They will sound like I wrote them and he said that that is exactly what he knew I would do. So I am kind of considering that and I have a tentative lineup of either Jack DeJohnette or Terri Lyne Carrington, Dave Holland or Christian McBride, Jason Moran or Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

So we will see what happens. I have everybody on hold and so it is kind of an availability thing. I already have my arrangements together and like I said, these songs will barely be recognizable unless I do an obvious melodic quote.

FJ: How many records do you have left on this contract?

GO: I don't really know. It may be one, but we've already discussed re-upping because it is just my home. I don't really know any other thing, any other situation. I would be a fish out of water anywhere else because they know me, they know what to expect from me, they don't bother me.

"When are you going to do another record?"

I tell them when and I deliver it. They don't come to the studio. They don't make questions or suggestions. Bruce has just made this request because it is just something he'd like to hear. He likes the way I interpret the standards that I incorporate in my sets.

Of course, I wouldn't leave any stone unturned. I also have this organ trio with Jason and Eric Harland and guitarist Liberty Ellman that I would like to record too. I did a few of those tracks on my Zero recording, but I'd like to do a whole thing and really revitalize that institution. I also have a trio with Bobby Previte and Charlie Hunter. We played the Knitting Factory two weeks ago and we intend to record that as well. There are a lot of irons in the fire. There are many things happening. I would like to do a duo recording with Jason, but now, I spoke with Andrew Hill yesterday and now he wants to do a duo recording.

So there is so much to do and so few opportunities. I can't record all these things for the label. They only grant one a year. That's when this whole independent thing keeps coming up. I should do my own recordings and I should put them out on my own because that is the frustration that Prince had when he was writing slave on his face. They want him to do one record a year. Cats are too prolific to be confined to that release schedule.

There is also the element of saturation and just because you crank out more, doesn't mean that they're all good. I know a lot of people that are very prolific, but the quality is questionable at best. That would have to be mapped out because anything that is in direct competition with contracted products, it could get pretty hairy, but that could be done.

Often times, I do go into markets and they don't have any of my product in stock at all. I'm talking about major retailers. I will call the guy at Blue Note whose job it is to do retail roundup and ask how come he knew what my dates were on this tour, and how come he didn't call Tower or Virgin and made sure they had what was necessary.

What can I say, Fred, you try not to tell people how to do their jobs. You try to sit back and wait and see if people are going to honor their position by doing it and then the record doesn't do what it should do and all fingers are pointed at you. Like I wear all of those hats.

FJ: You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.

GO: Yeah, I have to try to just keep cranking out interesting music that is interesting to me, and hopefully I can share with others and they can embrace it and find it interesting too. I am in the middle of this study period. I took off two months really and turned down a whole lot of work. I have a couple of little gigs, but I said that there was too much on the line here and I had all these journals and approaches and all my journals and notebooks and things, unfinished concepts and things that you can't do on the road because of jet lag and the fatigue and hairy schedules.

It has been a very fertile and very productive period right now and I'm writing a whole lot, cranking out almost a new song a day, practicing like a fiend all night long. I live out in the woods, so I can just make all the noise I want. So it has been a very good period.

FJ: Is it time to get back out into the public eye?

GO: Oh, absolutely. I am leaving tomorrow for Maine. We're playing a jazz festival up there. I have a gig with my group and a duo with Jason. We've been doing that quite a bit. We have a duo tour in the spring in Europe. We have a few chamber society hits as a duo. For me, as a duo player, I have to assume the roles of the missing elements, so sometimes I walk bass on the saxophone or I play rhythmic or percussive elements to make up for the lack of drums. Jason is an orchestra in and of himself, so we kind of fill it up. It is very taxing for a player because you are blowing non-stop. So it takes a lot of thought and a lot of stamina, but it has worked very well for us. I've gotten a lot of interest to it.

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December 2003



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