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Greg Abate: The World Can Sleep Better

Rob Mariani By

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Only about 10 minutes late for a lunchtime interview with saxophonist Greg Abate, driving up to the restaurant he's clearly visible, standing by the door looking at his watch and scanning the parking lot with a slightly anxious expression on his face. Unlike some of the other famous and infamous players of bebop and jazz, Abate is very punctual. It's a habit he's picked up through the years of playing the music he loves and managing an often dauntingly complicated career touring the world. Abate is one of today's definitive bebop players, respected by audiences and musicians alike. As such, he works venues from concert stages and stadiums to small, out-of-the-way clubs in foreign countries. Sometimes he puts together a quartet or quintet of his favorite musicians for specific gigs, and other times he simply shows up at a gig and works with the musicians that have been provided.

Abate is one of the most respected jazz players of his ilk. He plays a lot of gigs around New England and in his home state, Rhode Island. And what has always been impressive about him is that, unlike so many other talented jazz players, he only plays his kind of music. Classic bebop jazz. He doesn't play very many weddings or dances, but even when he does, he only plays bebop—tunes and solos right out of the classic Charlie Parker lexicon—complex, high energy melody lines.

Despite his refusal to play more popular music, like R&B or hard rock, Abate has made a good living, raised three kids, and maintained a comfortable household in rural Coventry, Rhode Island.

His first love continues to be the alto sax. As a twelve year-old in an era when most kids his age were into The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Abate was captivated by the serene, lyrical alto playing of saxophonist Paul Desmond, the late pianist Dave Brubeck's jazz partner of many years. That influence might not be easily recognized from the high energy, complex way he plays today, but it was Desmond's creative command of the instrument that first attracted him.

Greg Abate is almost always working. After graduating from The Berklee College of Music, he spent two years as lead alto player with pianist/singer Ray Charles and his Orchestra, touring the USA and just about every Western European country, as well as Japan.

He also worked and traveled with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, directed by New Englander, Dick Johnson, another of New England's most respected alto sax players. He's sat in with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton's small group at concerts in Moscow, Idaho, and played with such other famed jazz stars as saxophonists James Moody and Paquito D'Rivera. He has also added his bebop talents to such well-known vocalists as Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme and Tony Bennett.

To date, Abate has recorded over 15 albums as leader, one of which, Evolution(1201, 2002), was nominated for a Grammy in four categories in 2002.

Currently, he is an adjunct professor of Jazz Studies at Rhode Island College and is also a very active jazz clinician. As a co-sponsor with the Conn-Selmer Instrument Co., he conducts workshops and master classes throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Greg Abate Quintet with Phil WoodsBack here at home, Abate works with local legend Duke Bellair's Jazz Orchestra, playing straight-ahead jazz every Monday night at Bovi's Tavern in East Providence. Today his favorite groove continues to be playing sax with smaller groups where he can trade musical ideas with jazz stars like guitarist Herb Ellis and classic jazz pianist Kenny Barron.

Recently, Abate recorded a new CD with one of the all-time great stars of the alto sax, and one of his long-time idols, Phil Woods. It's safe to say that just about every jazz saxophonist since the '60s has been inspired by Woods' inventive bebop style. On this recording, Abate plays baritone, tenor and flute as well as his signature alto saxophone. He and Woods are like two trees growing gracefully out of the same roots. Their time feeling, their phrasing and their interplay with the rhythm section makes for a seamless combination— two musicians who share the same roots. "In my opinion," says Abate on his CD's liner notes, "Phil Woods has been the premier alto player for many decades. To actually play together was a fabulous experience."

Woods responds with equal admiration: "I sleep a lot better knowing there are alto players like Greg Abate."


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