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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.]

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