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Greg Osby: New Mission, New Label, New Responsibility


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We need more soldiers - people that are honest, with integrity. Who have a reinforced work ethic and are willing to do the ground work and get the music out there.
—Greg Osby
For over two decades Greg Osby has been at the forefront of modern jazz. As a composer and player he breaks new ground, challenging audiences and the establishment with his complex, propulsive, and ever-evolving music.

Never one to mince words, Osby has built a reputation as a blunt spokesman willing to tell it like it is, whether discussing the state of art, his personal development, or the less appealing aspects of the music business. Now, launching a new label, Osby is even better positioned to formalize what he has been unofficially doing for many years, namely fostering the next generation of talent.

In discussion, Osby is both varied and volatile, moving much like his playing; alternately blunt and abstract, introspective and overt, elaborately descriptive and pointedly focused, articulating in strong terms the need for leaders like himself to take responsibility for the state of jazz today.

The Mission

All About Jazz: Last we spoke—a little under a year ago—you were here in D.C. debuting your new band. You spoke a little about your plans, and it sounds like they have really come together. You've got a new album out and most importantly it's on your own label, which you've just launched. Let's talk about the label, starting with the mission statement. It's certainly not your typical statement. Right off the bat you say, "Inner Circle Music was formed based on the assumption that the needs of creative music loving consumers have not been adequately fulfilled of late." Can you explain what you mean by that?

Greg Osby: Well, it's everything. The implosion of the record industry—the recording industry as a whole—you can see that's resulted in a mass dissatisfaction from consumers, as well as the participants. It's something that was timely and inevitable ... A lot of people have been disenchanted for a long time—just buying CDs and box sets, where maybe one-fifth of the project was worthy of production. I mean, it was either released prematurely or ill-conceived, ill-prepared, under prepared, or really just rushed to meet deadlines and satisfy quotas. They had a couple bucks left over at the end of the year and just slapped something together. Even in the pop field, there are 13 tracks on it and maybe you get one hit single.

So people got tired of that. People got tired of feeling like they were being shafted and ripped off.

AAJ: That raises the next part of your mission statement. Your assertion that the market "is inundated with releases that have no focus, cultural designation, or direction." You've already half explained that statement as diagnosing a structural problem with the industry, but it could also be read as a pretty sweeping criticism of other artists' work.

GO: Yeah, it's like if the shoe fits? [Laughs]. A lot of people record too soon, before they need to. I waited until I was 28 years old to record. I was being courted the day I stepped foot in New York when I was 22. But I took personal responsibility and recognized that I needed more apprenticing. I needed more instilling of the values that should go into performance and the documentation of these works. There were people in my peer group who took the carrot, so to speak. A lot of them are phantoms now because they didn't wait.

AAJ: Do you think there is a myth of the young new prodigy that reinforces that? We are always presented with the story of a 17-year-old genius or the 19-year-old, still in school, but here is their debut release.

GO: That is a commodity concept. Find somebody and wring them dry until we can kick them to the curb and sink our teeth into the next new flavor. We have to be wary of that—artists and their handlers.

Everybody wants to be successful. Everybody wants to be lauded, appreciated, and celebrated for their efforts. However, a career should be paramount in their consideration, a career of long-term development and the establishment of something to say. As opposed to that overnight sensation, that young s17-year-old who doesn't really have anything to say, who really hasn't experienced the blues, can't play them with any validity—hasn't even lost a girlfriend—can't play a ballad with any kind of conviction. I don't want to hear that kind of story being told by kids. I just don't. [chuckling]

AAJ: Can you explain a little bit more the phrase "cultural designation?" It is tempting to read a lot into that.

GO: A lot of contemporary musicians who are being—let me put this tactfully—who are being celebrated, their music doesn't contain any of the particulars that led us to this point in time, in terms of embracing the rich lineage of jazz music. To put it bluntly, a lot of their music sounds European. It doesn't sound African. It doesn't sound African-American, it doesn't sound like African-American jazz. It doesn't sound like jazz that was born of these shores. It sounds more like contemporary classical, or avant-garde, new music, third-stream or something like that. It floats, it meanders, it hovers. It has no propulsive element that gives it feeling and depth.

I've always tried to be careful not to have the scales tip too heavily in any one direction. There should be balances. If the scales become imbalanced, it throws off the continuum. It really kills what your intentions are. I'm hearing a lot of that. I'm seeing people winning polls, working constantly, but when I hear that music I question whether I'm listening to the same thing that I saw get rave five-star reviews.

This is no dismissal of an artist's right to choose their course and to present themselves in a mode that they feel is accurate or honest. They have a choice to do anything they want. Some of these things that I am saying have been said about my music too.

AAJ: It's always a tricky proposition to make these judgments. I've followed your music for a long time, and listening to your latest band, it sounds to me that you are blending traditional elements with a lot of avant-garde elements. It seems to set up a questioning of that very dichotomy between "modern jazz" and "traditional jazz," that there is an old school and a new school and they are at odds.

GO: The structure is still there. The quest for discovery is still there. And the age-old allegiance to group improvisation and being spontaneous is still there, but also I'm trying to meld a lot of the things, or bring to fruition a lot of things that never saw the light of day. Things that I've worked on for many years but never had the opportunity to display them properly, or develop them fully. But now I have a platform and I have a great cast of support players. Let me be clear. I never had any label interference—no one ever was directorial—but now it is much more liberating. I can record whenever I feel like it.

AAJ: Going back to the statement. You didn't use the word "jazz" anywhere in it. Was this a deliberate choice because the label will present different genres of music?

GO: Not really. Every project will have an underpinning of the jazz ideology. I'm not going to move away from that. That was not done to move away from the term, to dismiss it, or to bury it. That was not my goal or my mission. Group improvisation, with a pulse; not overt blues elements because I don't think you have to emphasize the blues. Your music doesn't have to ooze with those elements. That becomes patronizing to me, a pantomime. When you are so deliberate it is borderline minstrelsy. I don't think anyone has to do that. That's just not necessary.

AAJ: Yet earlier you said that some of the music today lacks cultural designation because it doesn't have its roots back in African or African-American sounds. That begs the question of what it means to be tied back to that heritage considering not all of your roster is African-American.

GO: Absolutely. I can play classical music if I want to. But I don't wear a powdered wig, carry a snuff box, or have ruffles on my shirt. You can do your thing. You can make your choices. You can devote yourself to whatever compounds are necessary to bring validity to the context. You can do that. [But] to ignore certain grounding elements that define a genre, or certain premises—we know what that sounds like. It just sounds like someone on a trapeze without a net, you know?

AAJ: So you will still be working within the constructs of jazz?

GO: Absolutely. Because we need help! We need more soldiers. We need more people that are honest, with integrity. Who have a reinforced work ethic [and] are willing to do the ground work and get the music out there. That are willing to attract new patrons. These are the people I hand selected.

The Roster

AAJ: Let's turn to the roster of Inner Circle Music. Is there a common thread in what you found in these different artists?

GO: Desire. Panache. Adventure. This is not your run-of-the-mill bunch. Of course, everyone would say that about themselves and those in their immediate circle.

I have a vibraphonist, Michael Pintos. It's interesting how we met. We met through a mutual friend. We were talking about video games. And my love for Star Wars and things science fiction. And he was right there along with me. I was elated [chuckles] to find someone who I could relate to on that level. 'Cause that's my fantasy facet that I can't share with everyone. A lot of people consider it to be nerdy, or wasteful—they just don't get it. He also shares my love of computers and technology and high tech.

He is just an amazing composer. He writes these elongated pieces, very through composed, which I tease him about. A lot of vibraphonists, guitarists, as well as pianists, write these long phrases and don't give people a chance to breathe. So he's guilty of that sometimes [Laughs]. But I'm really, really, really proud of him and very much looking forward to presenting him to the world on stage. He has a different slant on the instrument. He's absorbed all the people who are important [on the vibraphone], but he has something different to bring to it. Especially in terms of composition. I'm really looking forward to people checking him out in his own format.

I have a saxophonist from Kansas City, Logan Richardson. Amazing. He's been playing with Nasheet Waits' group. I have another tenor player, Meilana Gillard. She's from Ohio. She has this real cool, modernist kind of groove-oriented thing, but still heavy on the compositions. Great sound. Great articulation.

And another young lady, Lauren Sevian on baritone saxophone. She really roars. She's a kick-ass baritone saxophone and probably the most straight ahead of the people. When people hear it, they are going to be like, who is this guy? She's very good looking, very cool. A very down chick; a man's woman. You know, somebody you like to hang out around. She takes no prisoners with the horn.

I have another young man, Jacob Yoffee. He's living in Pittsburgh right now and is a copy of Gary Thomas, so he has a lot of those aspects to show. I signed him because I really wanted to show that there are alternative sources for young players to check out. Because nobody ever really checked out Gary to my satisfaction. He's a great resource. All the young altoists are on this Kenny Garrett trip, but there are a whole lot of other cats to be influenced by.

And Harold O'Neil on piano. We'll be releasing his project in the early part of 2009. He's been in and out of the band, back and forth from his native town Kansas City. For lack of a better description, he's a contemporary Andrew Hill; a composer, conceptualist. I mean, a different kind of guy. He's into martial arts, break dancing, and amazing at all of them. And he's playing sounds like that—a kaleidoscope of influences. I'll be really happy when people get a chance to hear him.

AAJ: So there is no obvious musical or stylistic continuity. They are all taking different approaches. And if I am correct, doing a lot of their own composition?

GO: Absolutely. These people jumped out at me. I hear a lot of music. A lot of new music. People send me things daily. DVDs, CDs, whole passels of people. Even before I started this thing. People just thought I could point them in the right direction or make a recommendation. And sometimes things would jump out at me, but I was powerless. All I could do was make a recommendation. I've been helpful bringing attention to a handful of people, but there are hundreds more that are just as deserving. Today I wish I had the financial wherewithal to help guide the careers of a lot of other people I hear. But I have to be very, very selective right now because our funding is ... measured. [Laughs]

The Business End

AAJ: That brings up a whole other side to launching a label. To accomplish the goals you set out in the mission statement there has to be some measure of commercial success. Is that a new challenge for you?

GO: I've always had a foot in the door of business and finance. Recognize that I'm somebody that was never one of the top ten most wanted in terms of booking and being presented at the major festivals. Even though I was with a great label, I was always turned away by the major promoters and agents because they considered my music too much work or to leftist or too challenging. So everything I've gotten, I've gotten myself.

AAJ: Has that given you the perspective to launch the label and navigate the business side on behalf of yourself and the other artists?

GO: Yes and no. The development of this label was inevitable. When the Blue Note contract ended, where am I gonna go? Especially in the United States. Who's gonna sign me? Concord? Verve? These labels don't have anyone on their roster that sound remotely like me. Obviously, they are not even interested in that sound or direction. So what am I going to do? Crawl back to a two-bit European label that has a minimal distribution?

Basically, I look at a lot of those European labels as mercenaries. They are predatory in nature. They come over here, to New York, with fangs gnashing and they find these innocent, young musicians who are desperate to be documented, who really shouldn't be thinking about that yet and are still developing, and give them a two-bit deal and take 50 to 100 percent of their publishing rights and run back to Europe with an armful of masters that they own for all perpetuity.

They are taking advantage of people. Fattening up their catalogs with ill-gotten projects. Meanwhile, these kids have given up ten or twelve of their best new compositions. It's just absurd. These kids aren't advised to stand firm. It just saddens me. Now you have some CDs that you had to pay for yourself, that no one will ever hear, while some unknown European cat, living in some villa overlooking cypress trees and mountains with snowcapped tips, is enjoying the spoils of your blood, sweat and tears.

Now I know, that's the way it is sometimes. Business is cut-throat. But I just can't take it. So I had to develop a situation where I could help cultivate the business sensibility of some young players, guide them through, answer questions when asked.

First Release

AAJ: Let's take a look at the first release for the label, 9 Levels. A tremendous work, owing its success in no small part to the new slate of band members, including vocalist Sara Serpa who is heavily featured. You discovered Sara on the Internet, correct?

GO: Right, right. I was surfing. I was on a friend's page and she happened to be [pictured] there and I said, what a charming looking young lady. Which isn't really what I said, you understand. Wow. She's fine! [Laughs]

Then, I was listening and on the first tune she was singing this tricky rhyme and she was perfectly in tune. And her delivery had this really nice lilt to it, a nice bounce. Man, she sounded like a flute at times then she sounded like a trumpet, then at times violin tendencies and guitarist, percussion things. It wasn't necessarily a scat thing—more like a horn.

And I had been thinking for years, who am I going to employ to be my trusted second? I'd had guitarists, other horn players, tenors, trumpets, trombones. For a long time I'd be like: If I could get a singer that could sing my melodies in tandem with me and ghost my melodicism, I'd be there. Now there are a couple of other people that I've considered, but they don't have the improvisational prowess that Sara has. She can look at chord changes and negotiate them like a horn player. She has perfect pitch. Great range, incredible stamina, and just a fearlessness that is necessary to get on stage with a group like us.

AAJ: It also sounds like this band has pushed your own playing to new places.

GO: Well, I had to create custom material for the individuals' personalities. Which was challenging because I didn't really know them that well. I knew them enough to know that I would have to step up my game. So given that, the music I wrote was the most difficult music I've ever written in my life, technically. I had to actually practice it for a really long time to execute it. Then I heard Sara singing it and she was nailing it a lot more accurately than I was! That was impressive.

I sent everybody the music and they really poured their hearts into it. They questioned specifics, phrasing, interpretations—oh, ok, they aren't playing around. They are really getting inside the music. They really want to embody the effects that I employ in the music. I was flattered and very excited that this would be the first release of the new label.

AAJ: Now this is a bit abstract. Do you feel like there is a built-in trajectory, a vision in your mind, of where you are trying to go as an artist and that each project is a step toward that vision? Or is each project its own challenge attacking its own set of parameters and contexts?

GO: Both of those are true. This may sound a little lofty. I'm trying to capture a projection of possibilities. I don't want to use the term "hope," because that is very Obama-ish. A projection of possibilities in music that I don't hear being done to a large degree.

That's not to say that I'm the first to have ever done them, but they definitely aren't being done on a large scale today. Because some things—to use your word—are so abstract that nobody can get with it. Musicians have become so self-indulgent and selfish. I mean, really. "It's all about me. It's all about the art. People can't get with what I'm dealin' with. They aren't advanced enough and I don't want to deal with them anyway."

This kind of glib, throw-away attitude toward people that you really should be trying to reach. You don't have to make concessions as an artist, [but] to be original, to be challenging, to be contagious people can still tap their foot and bop their heads. It doesn't have to be swimmy, meandering, aimless. What's my image of that? There was an episode of "Lost in Space" in the 60s. One guy gets untethered and is floating around in space. That's kind of an abstract reference. But that's what a lot of this music sounds like to me—gravity-less, airless, nothing to grab onto.

Next Steps

AAJ: What's next for the label?

GO: We're doing the releases throughout October. We'll have a showcase in New York. We'll be releasing the albums then. But I wanted to launch the label first with myself so I could promote everyone else. Then launch them all en masse, so it would be more like I was launching with a catalog. Not just my CD.

I have a strategy, people working with me and for me, photography, publicity, designers. I want to give it a polished, major-label look. A lot of these individual releases look like someone did it on their desktop with clipart [chuckles]. They look slipshod. You know, that's the first beacon. It has to look good. I've had a heavy hand in designing all my covers from the very beginning. I'd be very, very detailed. The colors, the fonts. I really, really want to do this the right way and present these artists in the right light. And hopefully I'll be able to do more things for more people.

That's the stage I am in with my career. I've done everything I wanted to do; I've realized a lot of my dreams and goals as a musician, as a saxophonist, touring, recording artist. Now, I'm trying to help some other people. I think it is important. I feel obligated to do it. Seeing the failures in the industry, the failures in the way young artists are nurtured and presented. There is a void. So you have a choice. You can either lament or step and do something about it.

Selected Discography:

Greg Osby, 9 Levels (Inner Circle Music, 2008)
Jimmy Herring, Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2008)
Paul Motian Trio + 2, Live at the Village Vanguard (Winter And Winter, 2007)
Greg Osby, Channel Three (Blue Note, 2005)
Greg Osby, Public (Blue Note, 2004)
Marc Copland/Greg Osby, a href=/php/article.php?id=14879 target_=blank>Night Call (Nagel-Heyer, 2004)
Greg Osby, St Louis Shoes (Blue Note, 2003)
Greg Osby, Inner Circle (Blue Note, 2002)
Greg Osby, Symbols Of Light (A Solution) (Blue Note, 2001)
Greg Osby, The Invisible Hand (Blue Note, 2000)
Sam Rivers' Rivbea All-Star Orchestra, Inspiration (RCA Victor, 1999)
Jason Moran, Soundtrack To Human Motion (Blue Note, 1999)
Greg Osby, Banned In New York (Blue Note, 1998)
Greg Osby, Zero (Blue Note, 1998)
Greg Osby, Further Ado (Blue Note, 1997)
Herbie Hancock, Quartet Live (Jazz Door, 1994)
M-Base Collective, Anatomy Of A Groove (DIW/Sony, 1992)
Greg Osby, Season Of Renewal (JMT, 1990)
Steve Coleman, Sine Die (Pangaea, 1988)
Greg Osby, Sound Theatre (JMT, 1987)
Jack DeJohnette, Irresistible Forces (MCA/Impulse, 1987)

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