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Capitol Jazz: Osby Returns to D.C.

Franz A. Matzner By

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After twenty years as innovating composer and instrumentalist, Osby has begun, like many of jazz
Kennedy Center Jazz Club
Washington, D.C.
October 16, 2003

Taking the stage last week with quite a different line-up than appeared on his latest release, Greg Osby illustrated just how far the Kennedy Center Jazz Club has come since opening its doors to small venue style jazz performance. Only in its second season, the Kennedy Center has already boasted numerous high profile visitors, and thanks to the innovative programming of musical director Dr. Billy Taylor, the 2003-2004 roster has established the Kennedy Center as D.C.’s premier jazz spot, if not one of the premier venues in the country. Despite this fact, the KC Jazz Club is still undergoing some growing pains. For example, the “club” atmosphere still holds a tinge of that high-art seriousness associated with symphony halls, that at times confining, at times amusing weight which falls on a room when an audience is too still, convinced they must listen closely, attentively, and very, very seriously. This is not to say that jazz shouldn’t be listened to with the same profundity of purpose and attention that compels orchestral audiences into rigid silence. Quite the opposite. It’s just that the jazz experience, particularly the club experience KC Jazz is striving for, requires a little looseness, a little movement, and a little irreverence. Most likely, all that couldn’t hurt a few Mozart and Mendelssohn concerts either. Which brings us back to the Greg Osby Four and their tremendous performance.

Backed by Megumi Yonezawa on piano, Matthew Brewer on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums, Osby displayed his unique capacity to blend serious musical ideas with sly ironizing, all while providing down-‘n-dirty entertainment. The youthful cast of players also indicated a key element of Osby’s current jazz identity, namely his role as progenitor of the next wave of jazz. As the evening’s music illustrated, this should not be mistaken as a sign of mellowing or as a changing of the guards. After twenty years as innovating composer and instrumentalist, Osby has begun, like many of jazz’s previously renowned leaders, to experiment with the jazz establishment as a whole. What better way than to influence and interact with the next generations of players?

Following the opening Toots Thielman number and the gentle, rolling “Minstrale”, an Osby composition dedicated to street musicians, Osby paused to introduce the band and remind the audience that in some ways this performance was a homecoming for him, a Howard University educated musician. He explained clearly what the album St. Louis Shoes has already illustrated, that he has departed on a period of personal and musical reflection. This has led Osby into the territory of the jazz standard, albeit jazz standards Osby style. This said, Osby did not simply showcase material from his album. Besides the night’s closing number, the outstanding and brilliantly executed revisiting of Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”, the band treated the audience to a healthy mix of standards, each revealing a different angle on what Osby means by playing the standards. As on “Toodle-oo”, Osby neither tears a tune to shreds, like some who approach classics, nor does he simply take it straight, adding a few embellishments along the way. Osby does something quite different. He shrewdly reconfigures in order to simultaneously maintain the integrity of the tunes, use them to illustrate historical musical development, and shape them into statements totally his own. This approach exhibits a subtle patience of development and staggering musical flexibility. If pieces like the Andrew Hill ballad, “Ashes” can devolve into distractingly cerebral territory, Osby balances these excesses with items like the no-less impressive but more accessibly funky Lou Donaldson composition, “Alligator Boogaloo”.

Again excepting “East St. Louis Tootle-oo”, on which all four musicians excelled, this piece stood out as the set highlight. Taking control, Yonezawa provided rhythmically tough accompanying lines for Osby’s always brilliant improvisation, as well as a scintillating solo steeped in roadhouse grime. Behind all this, McPherson laid down a literally wicked beat made of resonate bass hits and crackling, driving rim work. The end result was a technically astonishing piece that had even the somewhat staid members of the Kennedy Center crowd bouncing in their seats.

This is a solid touring group, and though media attention is deservedly fixed on Osby, Yonezawa, Brewer, and McPherson are all insightful, astute players who demand consideration. It would be fascinating to witness a multi-night engagement by this group. For one, simply due to their excellence, but also to see the Osby Four apply their methods to a longer series of standards.

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