A Fireside Chat With Greg Osby

AAJ Staff By

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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?


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