Bunky Green: Urgency and Continuity

Anil Prasad By

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You can play so many things. You can play whatever you hear, but it has to have continuity for it to all hang together.
Saxophonist Bunky Green bristles at the idea of playing by the rules. On more than one occasion, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native was on his way to jazz stardom, but each time his principles guided him elsewhere. This is a significant reason why the highly influential musician has mostly remained unsung and out of the spotlight for decades, instead focusing his energies on his role as a leading jazz educator. For the past two decades, Green has served as the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville.

During the early days of his career, Green took over for Jackie McLean in Charles Mingus' band in 1960. The legendary bassist's adventurous spirit and willingness to push boundaries, often at the risk of commercial success, proved highly influential on Green's artistic psyche. In 1961, he relocated to Chicago, where he recorded and performed with luminaries including Sonny Stitt, Yusef Lateef and Andrew Hill, while also propelling his solo career forward with albums such as Testifyin' Time (Argos, 1965) and Playin' for Keeps (Cadet, 1966).

Unhappy with how he was treated by labels and the music industry in general, Green began transitioning into jazz education in the early '70s. He taught at Chicago State University from 1972 to 1989, while sporadically recording. During the late '70s, he released three albums for the Vanguard label: the commercially oriented Transformations (1977) and Visions (1978), as well as the uncompromising Places We've Never Been (1979). Places We've Never Been features six expansive post-bop pieces with an all-star band including Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez and Freddie Waits. It's particularly notable for its first track, "East and West," which finds Green exploring the cultural and aural influences of a trip to Algiers.

In over three decades since Places We've Never Been, Green has only recorded a handful of albums, but several are outstanding. Healing the Pain (Delos, 1989), which explores the complex emotional landscape related to the death of his parents, is a soulful, slow-burning affair and a career highlight. Another Place (Label Bleu, 2006)—produced by Steve Coleman, who was heavily influenced by Green—picks up where Places We've Never Been left off. The album showcases a broad spectrum of original compositions and standards, full of fiery, kinetic and edgy performances that seem to be more the domain of a hungry twentysomething player than of Green, who was then 70 years old.

Green's most recent recording, Apex (Pi Recordings, 2010), is another ambitious effort. It's a cross-generational collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa, a saxophonist known for his engaging hybrid approach that merges avant-garde jazz and South-Asian elements. The critically acclaimed disc has sparked a resurgence of interest in Green's career. Green and Mahanthappa each brought five top-tier compositions to the sessions, designed to bring out the best in each other as well as their A-list sidemen Jason Moran, Francois Moutin, Damion Reid and Jack DeJohnette. It's an intense album and easily one of the standout jazz releases of recent years. Green and Mahanthappa recently concluded several high-profile summer jazz festival gigs in support of Apex. The duo are now planning the next chapter of their ongoing collaboration.

All About Jazz: You were first introduced to Rudresh Mahanthappa when he sent you a cassette from out of the blue in the early '90s. What can you recall about your reaction to it?

Bunky Green: We were both at an International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) conference, and he brought me a tape. He was playing with a college band in Chicago, and he wanted me to listen to it. So I did, and I got back to him. It was as simple as that. I told him, "It's wonderful, man. Join the club. You're one of us." I said that because there are certain people who play a little differently and don't adhere to the older school as much as others. Rather, they map their own way harmonically. I'm talking about people like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby—both good friends of mine. I saw a similarity in intent with Rudresh, so I complimented him and told him I loved what he was doing. I felt it was the kind of direction I've been going in as well. Through the years, we remained friends, and he sent me his stuff to listen to. He has been moving phenomenally forward in getting into his own culture, examining his musical roots and making it apply to jazz, as opposed to being a carbon copy of someone else.

AAJ: Describe the seeds of your interest in Indian music.

BG: Many years ago, Donald Garrett told me about Ravi Shankar. Donald was with John Coltrane when he was doing the two-bass thing. He was one of those people seeking to find something new and different. I used to sit for hours listening to Shankar, and I went to see him perform. Prior to that, as early as 1965, I was in Algiers and heard an Eastern bagpipe player—as in the small bagpipe, not the Western variety. That really interested me. He blew my mind, and I said to him, "Wow, that's what I'm kind of hearing in my own head. Instead of a lot of harmony, I see you're treating the harmony by dealing with the tonal center." The only thing that was essential for his music was the drone. That stuck with me, and you can hear it on different albums I've done. I couldn't do it too much because the record companies didn't want it, so I had to sneak it in when I had an opportunity. [Laughs.]

AAJ: Tell us about the collaborative model you adopted when working with Rudresh Mahanthappa on Apex.

From left: Bunky Green, Rudresh Mahanthappa

BG: The Apex story started in Chicago in 2009, when we played in Millennium Park together. Rudresh wanted me to play with him and called me to ask. At first I said, "I don't know."

But he was pretty persistent and said, "I just want you to do this gig with me. Come on, you can do it."

So I agreed and we did it. I realized when you're on the bandstand with Rudresh, you better come to play. Oh yes. And that's because it's so intense from the moment you start to the moment you walk off the stage.

We heard the recording of the performance and said, "Wow, we need to record this." Rudresh took it from there. In terms of the material, there was never any problem because I've got material going back, stylistically, using those Eastern scales, all the way to the '70s, when I recorded for Vanguard Records. There are a bunch of albums I did for Vanguard with Elvin Jones and others, including Summit Meeting (1977) and Time Capsule (1977). On my own personal recordings for Vanguard, I did a thing called "East & West" that was in that vein. That was on an album called Places We've Never Been, from 1979. I also wrote three tunes for Elvin Jones' Time Capsule, and those were kind of in that vein as well. So it was always there. And when you go back and really listen to my stuff, you can hear that I've been playing like that. You can't find someone playing "outside" without consistency and knowledge. They can do it because they've been doing it for a long time, and they can do it naturally.

People ask, "How can a person Bunky's age play so young?" That's been the game lately for the last few years. It's like people rediscovered me. And every time, I have to say, "Wait, have you thought about going back and listening a little bit? Put some time in, and you can really see I've played like that throughout my career. You'll also see it was picked up by some other people after they saw where I was going."

So when Rudresh and I got together, everything was fine. There's a kind of continuity between what we do together and what I did before. I tend to be more harmonically oriented than Rudresh, because I have an entire history coming up through Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

We just sat down and said, "Okay, let's compose this stuff, construct this thing architecturally and do what it takes to make it work, because it's already there. All we have to do is go down and rehearse with the appropriate people and do it." Jason Moran was marvelous, because he's so flexible and able to relate to wherever you're going. Not only that, he'll take you some other places. Jack DeJohnette has always been the type of player he's been. He plays the history of jazz and goes into the future. So Apex was set up for some degree of success. And apparently, the album has been very successful.

AAJ: Were there any challenges you and Mahanthappa faced when putting the album together?

BG: It was a unique situation, in that the only challenge was getting everyone together so we could map things out, architecturally speaking. We said, "We have all the pieces. Now how shall we put them together as a consummate whole?" It all came so fast, it was incredible. I brought my music in, and the rhythm section absorbed it immediately. We would run through things a couple of times and have it. By the third time, people were just playing the tune. It was a very natural thing. Rudresh and I quite often run so close that we sound alike, and it's hard to differentiate sometimes. [Laughs.] That shows you how compatible everything is. This is an ongoing collaboration, and we're going to see where it goes.

AAJ: Places We've Never Been is considered an underground jazz classic. Mahanthappa points to it as hugely inspirational to him. How do you look back at it?

BG: I think it was apocalyptic, really, because there it was: Eastern echoes in that kind of playing. You also hear them in the stuff I did with Elvin Jones. During those sessions, I was just playing what I wanted. I didn't have someone breathing down my neck. The record company wasn't saying, "We want this kind of product." On those sessions, it was more or less the product I wanted it to be. Places We've Never Been was far reaching, stylistically, in terms of what I was doing as a player. That's what interested Rudresh. The way I approached the harmonic fabric was suggestive, rather than just playing the harmony as it was. I created a lot of tension and relief by going against standard harmony and then ultimately resolving it with continuity. That's the whole bag. You can play so many things. You can play whatever you hear, but it has to have continuity for it to all hang together.

AAJ: When you were with Vanguard, you had a deal in which they let you make Places We've Never Been in exchange for doing several albums their way.

BG: [Laughs.] Exactly. And even doing one album your way wasn't really always the case for most people. It was something the person handling me at Vanguard let me do. His name is Ed Bland. He was the producer and knew where I was coming from. If it had been someone else, I don't think I would have been able to get that album out. I knew I really needed to document it, and he gave me that opportunity.
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