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In his active career as a saxophonist, Greg Osby has been accused of watering down jazz with hip-hop rhythms and, by doing so, "spreading bacteria on bread." He's praised as one of the great alto soloists of the day, even as he's accused of using beats to only appeal to a larger audience outside the jazz community. His constant experimentation -- and outspoken frankness -- has alienated him some and endeared him to musicians of all tastes. He's helped found a collective with the highfalutin tag Macro -- Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations (a.k.a. M-Base). He's produced hip-hop artists under the tag Geo. He's toured the world, performed with some of the greats -- Andrew Hill, Jack DeJohnette, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman. His criticism of the "new traditionalism" school espoused by Wynton Marsalis has alienated Osby from the mainstream jazz community, and he's a vocal opponent of the "young lions" movement in the past decade of jazz. In general, Osby's not afraid to call your bluff, and in his passion for jazz he searches constantly for the righteous and the wrong within the community.
If there's a heart inside jazz, Greg Osby is helping it beat as you read this: His most recent record, the transcendent Banned in New York (Blue Note), was named one of the best records of the year by both Ben Ratliff and Peter Watrous of the New York Times, and it followed an acclaimed record released earlier in the year, Zero. His recent work as an artistic consultant for Blue Note has helped the label expand its palette by signing young, adventuresome players. And, most important for his music, he has created a fantastic circle of kindred talent, most of them artists he helped get signed and with whom he sounds wonderfully comfortable.
It's these players -- Mark Shim (tenor sax), Jason Moran (piano) and Stefon Harris (vibraphone) -- with whom Osby will perform in St. Louis, something he's only done, he says, "once or twice" as leader since he left the city for good in 1978. ("For the life of me I can't understand why, but I can't even buy a gig in St. Louis," he says.) They'll be at the Delmar Lounge on Wednesday, March 24, as part of the Blue Note 60th-anniversary celebration. It promises to be one of the performances of the year.
Osby grew up in St. Louis, went to Soldan High. "When I was growing up," he says, "basically every corner bar or lounge had jazz on the jukebox. Jazz was popular music back then in the mid- to late '60s, and a lot of (clubs) had organs, too, so they'd have trios and combos. In a lot of places you'd go by, you'd hear live music coming out of them. So there was a wealth that influenced me, even if I wasn't really aware of it. Also, at the same time, my mother used to work at this record-distribution company down on Olive called Robert's Records. So literally every day she'd bring home cutouts and promo copies. We had the record collection to die for. We had one of those record players where you could stack six records on at a time, but we'd always stack like 10 or 12 at a time, and we would just listen indiscriminately to whatever she brought home. On any day, a typical listening session would run from Bob Dylan to Wilson Pickett to the Cowsills to the Isley Brothers to Jackson Five, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, any classical music she'd bring. It was that broad, and it really opened my ears to quality music and quality production. That was the best schooling I could have gotten. That, plus the live bands -- when I was in high school I played in a lot of local Top 40 bands. On the weekends, I guess from Friday evening to early Monday morning, my mother wouldn't even see me because I'd be on the road with these groups in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas. We'd travel all over, and I was 15."
You can hear these experiences in his tone, the dusty, guttural moan he ekes out of his alto horn in nearly every note. It's as though he's got dirt inside his lungs that he mixes with air and forces out his mouth. Combine the dirt, though, with both a profound musical fluency in his solos and an intellectual desire to deconstruct the form, and you've got the triangle that makes Osby special. To hear him rip through a solo on Duke Ellington's "I Don't Know About You" is akin to appreciating the beauty of, say, the French language, even though you don't speak it: You're not sure exactly what Osby's saying, but he's saying something profound, and it sure sounds beautiful. "Me and Mark Shim went to hear him play with Andrew Hill at the Vanguard six years ago," says pianist Moran. "That was the first time I heard him play, and I was flabbergasted, because what he was doing, what the band was doing, period; they were just deconstructing standards, and I'd never thought that was possible. I actually thought that if you were playing standards, you were relegated to only playing bebop licks. But they definitely weren't playing bebop licks."