CHAT WITH GREG OSBY
(September 28, 2001)
I've talked to Greg Osby so many times, if this were the real world, I
would like to have called him a friend. But since I doubt Oz would recognize
me in a police lineup, it's tough to say I am any more familiar with him
than when I first spoke with him years ago. I can say this with fair confidence,
Oz is an original. After years of being critically pigeonholed as this
or that, Oz has become somewhat of a media darling, but isn't that always
the case that the news only covers the news, never makes it. Oz just released
his eighth album for Blue Note, Symbols of Light (A Solution), a string
recording placed on its head, and has another in the can, Inner Circle
with Jason Moran, another bad ass. And we got into the albums, but I wanted
to talk about the impending departure of his friend and pianist for years,
Jason, whose own name and career have grown in great length through Oz.
Oz has never sounded as good as he does with Jason by his side and Jason
owes much of his success to Oz. Kind of like Miles and Trane. I am pleased
once more to bring to you Mr. Greg Osby, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: With your increasing popularity comes lofty expectations, how
much of a factor does that play?
GREG OSBY: No, that doesn't factor into any of my decision making or the
creative process at all. I'm only documenting what I'm doing at the moment
I'm doing it. It is literally like a snapshot of the moment. So my sentiments
change about art, life, and music immediately after something is committed
to tape. It is my utmost concern and hope that people accept it for what
it represents and can see through their differences. If not, I can't consume
myself with that because that would change the way I create and it would
change my whole intentions. I can't allow myself to let that affect things.
FJ: We live in interesting times. When you struggle to reach the mountaintop,
it is merely a matter of time before those whom aided in your climb are
conniving to tear you down. You've been around the block. Do you find
people nipping at your heels?
GREG OSBY: Yeah, a lot of the writers, especially in the New York area
are people that I know very well. There's a mutual respect. We don't agree
upon everything, but in no way do I go out or set out to appease them
musically or artistically in any sense because once again, my objective
is to document a host of means and measures in an organized fashion and
have the musicians that I choose to document this work with, to have them
to interpret those means through their own artistry in a combined effort.
That's what you have, a joint project based upon my initial germs. To
have too many opinions and too many concerns, that would be me succumbing
to the too many cooks syndrome. Also, you alienate people in any number
of ways. They may, through their alienation, turn against you because
you may force them to confront something that is outside their rudimentary
way of thinking or the way they prepare intellectually for art. A lot
of people are offended by it. They would rather keep things compartmentalized
so that they can remain in their own comfort zone. I can't be concerned
with that either, Fred. I'm only concerned with people that are progressive,
people that are as curious as I am, and people that are eager to witness
and accept individualized expression.
FJ: Are you still eager?
GREG OSBY: Oh, absolutely, Fred. Absolutely. I woke up this morning in
a mild funk because I'm ready to take that next step with the music. We
had a triumphant outing in New Orleans this weekend, but I recognize a
lot of holes in the performance and in the assemblage of the material
itself. I reach these types of artistic impasses every so often, at least
FJ: What are you weary of?
GREG OSBY: I'm referring to the band. I'm referring to my own playing.
I'm referring to the group logic, a host of reasons and issues that bring
me to this point. It is up to me to get in the lab and assess what the
problem is and incorporate some new fixtures that will catapult the group
and myself inspirationally speaking to the next level. And that's what
keeps me moving. Complacency doesn't exist in my vocabulary.
FJ: In the end, you are the ultimate judge. Everyone else is interpreting
your work second hand. But people hear that Osby's done a strings record
and you might as well let the criticisms fly.
GREG OSBY: Well, I've gotten a bit of that already. I've gotten commentary
that precedes the release via the internet and email and these chat rooms
and things like that. People, they associate a strings project with the
precedent sound. For example, these big, lush arrangements and it is really
syrupy and overdone and real sugar coated and sappy. It is just too much
and the artist actually gets lost in the wash, gets lost in the soup.
It's very Hollywood, for lack of a better term. There is nothing really
compelling about it, which is why I chose to do this project with a smaller
ensemble, with a string quartet. There is a lot more urgency in a quartet
and I really wanted the quartet to be imbedded in the fabric of each composition
as opposed to being an afterthought. I wanted the string players to actually
feel part of the ensemble and feel like they made a contribution and I
wanted what they do to be integral, an integral component to the foundation
of each composition, as opposed to the us and them syndrome.
FJ: So the strings are done in real time, no overdubbing.
GREG OSBY: No, they are done in real time, which is a bit difficult. Now
I had to overdub a couple of my sax parts because I had to stop and conduct
the strings with a pencil because they are used to seeing a conductor.
Some of the passages aren't so deliberate and I had to actually detail
where the people are going. It took a bit of doing for them to find their
way in the middle of my music. I tried to make it as assessable to them
FJ: Sounds like a pain in the ass.
GREG OSBY: Well, each new recording is difficult on its own terms, just
like a birth of a new baby. You nurse it and you nurture it and you try
to see it to fruition and sometimes, with all the preparation, nothing
can save it. It's doomed. I'm really proud of it and I just hope people
get it. Bottom line is that I don't want to alienate anyone. I want everyone
to get it. I hope that they get it. I hope they see where I was going
with this and I hope they understand that I was not trying to pattern
this after anyone else. It doesn't like anyone else. It sounds unique.
It sounds fresh, individualistic. It sounds new. It is based upon some
things that I am familiar with, but it doesn't sound like any one of them.
Those are the things that I hope people get and I hope that in the end,
they respect us as artists who are trying to portray ourselves as ourselves.
FJ: Give some cliff notes so people have a heads up.
OSBY: What I was trying to do, I guess I will give an explanation of the
title. The title is Symbols of Light (A Solution). Symbols of Light, to
me, are these resources that are untapped and if investigated can propel
American improvised music or jazz if you will into the limelight again.
Right now, we are at the bottom rung of the appreciation ladder of the
arts in the States and the world for the most part. It used to be a better
situation. It's not so now because a lot of musicians choose to feed on
their own devices, an animal that eats its own offspring, that eats its
own young. It doesn't flourish because you have to allow yourself to be
influenced and to be affected by other sources and so one symbol of light
to me is this small chamber ensemble that I've integrated into my group.
That's why I say a solution. It's not the solution or the only one, but
it is a solution. I have experimented with other types of music and there
have been other solutions like Japanese music and Chinese music and Indian
music and hip-hop. All of these are symbols of light and the light is
available to us. We can reach it, but we have to step out of our arena
every once in a while.
Jazz has lost its meaning.
Jazz used to be cool, a look that Miles, Chet, and Trane personified.
Now, jazz is merely a word to gage how old you are.
OSBY: Right, jazz, right now, is tied to so many things that aren't reflective
of the real history and lineage of this music. It's tied to something
that is more innocuous.
Where did it lose its way?
OSBY: It lost its way in the Eighties or so. A lot of people would like
to say in the Seventies when fusion, but after that you have these smooth
jazz radio stations and they have people that actually can play, but they
choose to play this lighter affair. And they also, they put that moniker
on those who have nothing to do with jazz. Say for instance, smooth jazz
stations are supposed to play smooth jazz, but they'll play Sade and Anita
Baker and a whole lot of people that aren't jazz musicians. It's not to
say Al Jarreau or Joe Sample and George Benson and all these people aren't
jazz players or can't even play jazz because I know they can, but that's
not what they're doing. So for me to say that I'm a jazz musician and
to cast me under the same umbrella as these people, there is no connection
really other than there is instruments being played. We don't have the
same intentions and we don't have the same demographics that we're trying
to appeal to. Right now, it is almost embarrassing, Fred, to be honest.
Of course, I would like to establish myself and to coupled with the people
that I hold in dear nobility regarding their place in the pantheon of
the history of this music, but right now, I don't even want to be associated
with that. Look what's happening. The people they call jazz musicians,
they make a whole lot of money and they say that's jazz. These are people
that aren't really jazz musicians. They don't carry their own instruments.
They don't ride the train throughout Europe and take three flights to
gigs. They don't tour around the United States like I do and don't get
paid and don't get money. When I appear in the United States, it's only
an appearance I'm making. I'm only able to make the band's salary and
pay for their lodging and for transportation. I don't get paid. It's too
cheap. That's just the way it is. There is no relationship between me
The outlook of labels toward jazz has been at an artistic low. Concepts
dominate albums to my dismay. How have you been able to avoid such pitfalls
for the duration of your journey?
OSBY: Yeah, well, Fred, it's like when I negotiated my contract with Blue
Note, I was insistent that no one at the company would come to me with
any of those types of suggestions. I was what twenty-nine, thirty years
old already and I had already had history as a recording artist and so
I knew the ropes and I wasn't desperate either. So if it wasn't that way,
I would rather stay on small, independent labels and have total autonomy
and I can do whatever I wanted to do. I was also witnessed to what happens
to artists who succumb to that, who succumb to the whims of A&R representatives
of companies who really don't have an admirable musical attitude. It is
just business people and they want to generate sales and make money and
I understand that. It is a business, but I'm into the documentation of
the truth as I see it and not somebody's idea of what might be fashionable
or marketable. I don't want to be regarded as product and I don't want
to get kicked to the curb because my record didn't sell because somebody
didn't do their job, because the people in marketing didn't market the
record properly or somebody didn't properly promote the recording or do
their job or make the necessary phone calls. They always look at the artists.
You're record sucked or this fad is weak, but I don't want to be responsible
for people not doing their job. If the record fails, it is because the
music fell short of its mark or it didn't reach the people. And you know,
Fred, I've learned. I've learned what I had to do, what I had to implement,
and what I had to eliminate in order to make my point a lot more clearly.
I've had to figure out how to edit and how to delete things and figure
out how not to bombard people with everything I want to do on one CD and
try to make one or two statements, but make them really strong, profound
statements, as opposed to everything that I think is hip at that moment.
So, a long story short, I'm not into those concept type of records, Greg
Osby does Gershwin, Greg Osby does Jerome Kern.
Why doesn't Greg Osby do Jerome Kern?
OSBY: Well, Fred, first of all, I think I'm a competent enough composer
that I express myself better with my own music. Even though those catalog
of compositions by those composers are great in it of itself, they are
not reflective of where I am and it is definitely not reflective of the
state of the art in a contemporary sense. I may give a lot of those songs
a treatment. I do often, especially live. A recording I may make one or
two of those songs, but rethink it so it fits my theory and so it almost
sounds like an original composition. I'd rather not do just a blanketed
treatment of those songs because they've been done to death and they wouldn't
do the composer any justice or me.
You're a bandleader now and the cats in your band look to you to get paid.
Is there a time when you long for those simpler days when you were with
OSBY: It is a hassle. Being a leader, you have to argue with promoters.
You have to argue with agents. I don't even have a booking agent in the
United States because they always say that they're plate is full even
though a couple of weeks later, I find that they've booked somebody else
or they've signed somebody else to their roster just because they didn't
hear my music or they didn't think it was valid or they couldn't sell
it to venues. They're limited ability to access what makes my music unique.
They want it to sound like something else so they pass. As a result, I
have to book my own band. I have to book my own flights. I have to wear
all the hats. It's a hassle. You would think as a forty-year-old musician,
who's been on the scene for twenty years, that I would have ample representation,
that I would have this big infrastructure of people working with me and
working for me, but it's not like that at all. It's a total misconception
that people have. It's not only me. I'm not exclusive in that sense. It
is just about everybody. There are a lot of musicians that are insulated
by this big machine. But I feel a responsibility to the band, Fred. I
try to keep them together and keep them working. I'd rather not get paid
or get paid less than they get paid just to keep the band working a lot.
The musicians that come out of your band are individuals, a lesson learned
OSBY: I find players that reside periphery of the scene. They're not necessarily
that popular. They don't work a lot and people don't hire them because
of the differences that they have with the way they think and the way
they play. And that appeals to me. That's like Miles Davis. He hired John
Coltrane and he was despised by the musical community and the critical
community. Philly Joe Jones, nobody liked the way he drummed. Nobody really
liked Red Garland. They said he was a cocktail piano player. These are
the kind of people that I figure if I can assemble them in a controlled
situation and pair them with other misfits of the scene, then it may bear
some fruit, that they would warrant a forum. Also, I talk to musicians
at large about individuality and concepts and approaches and advancing
their musicianship and their personality through music. I reinforce composition
and study and open-mindedness and the acceptance of things that are unfamiliar
and unknown and research his identity. It is art, but it is also a science
too. A lot of it is exact and a lot of it is accidental. You have to be
open to allow yourself to respond to things. Wynton and his musicians
and disciples or whomever that work with him, I have a great deal of respect
for him because he encourages quality. He encourages study. We have a
similar value system. But our priorities and our objectives are dissimilar
and I think we have a lot more commonalities than differences. He may
be in the trade mags because he has this corporation behind him that he
has to honor and he has to deliver rhetoric that adheres to the way they
see things and to do otherwise would alienate them and it might jeopardize
his position. That is just my assumption. That may not be the deal. He
may truly feel with the utmost conviction that what he says is proper
or right. I have respect for it. I had a lot more differences when I was
younger, but as I've grown older, I recognize that people will find their
own way and he'll be forty this year, so it's not like he's saying things
that are a result of youthful intolerance of people not agreeing with
him. That's just the way he feels.
Are you keeping Scott (Colley) around for a while?
OSBY: Scott, I've been using him primarily as a session cat. It's really
difficult to get him to tour. I do use him on isolated gigs and stuff,
but he is one of the most popular and adept bassists in New York right
now, so it is hard to take him on a tour right now. He's always triple
booked. He's just one of those kind of guys. But he brings such high musicianship
to anything that he's involved in that I like to get first dibs on him.
I'm still into the locating and the cultivation of younger, unknown players.
This is a lot more gratifying when I see the preverbal diamond in the
rough and I take them and polish them. Maybe they might not hang around
for a while, but when I send them on their way, they take the value system
along with them. That's a great feeling to know that I'm affecting other
situations. That's cool.
Helps you sleep at night.
OSBY: Yeah, not only that but I know that Jason (Moran), his days are
numbered with the group because his profile is steadily advancing and
we have had many scheduling conflicts. It is going to get to a point where
it is going to reach an impasse and I don't want him to have to make a
decision because I know he feel indebted. I want him to feel like he has
to leave the nest because his trio is the definitive jazz piano trio for
me right now. He deserves his own forum.
It is how Miles felt about Trane's departure. Have you found another pianist?
OSBY: No and that's frustrating. Before him, there was nobody like him
and there will be nobody like him after. I'm convinced of that. Not to
say that it is impossible, but I went years in frustration trying to find
people, even people that were notable and in their own right, they were
established jazz pianists. They were just set in their ways and they were
inflexible and a bit unyielding artistically. They just couldn't see their
way through a lot of my approaches.
Sounds like you're damned.
OSBY: Yeah. Either I will just do a trio with sax, bass, and drums or
I may do a quartet and I may get a trumpet player to be like the Ornette
Coleman Quartet or there is a couple of guitar players that I'm interested
in so I may just move to guitar.
FJ: An end to an era.
OSBY: Yeah, Fred. It can do in a few different directions so, but on the
piano tip, I don't think Jason can be replaced.
And the future?
OBSY: Well, I've been dealing with a bit of personal frustration in the
past few outings. We just got back from New Orleans yesterday and I realized
that I'm going to have to get back in the lab and reassess a couple of
measures and things and figure out what the next step is because I'm a
bit, I wouldn't say dissatisfied, but I'm ready to make a change in my
playing. Do a little studying and lock myself away for a while. Because
when you're working a lot, the amount of attention you can give to your
own account is limited with hotel rooms, trains and planes. There is a
lot of things I want to study and take apart and get inside, a lot of
new world philosophies and things like that. There are a few elders that
I want to talk to and pick their brains and get the stuff from the source.
I'm going to have to have some musicians come to my house and shackle
them so they can't leave for a few days and play and bounce ideas off
them. I can do analyzing on my own, but the true test is to see how it
works with others. It may be hip to me, but is may sound really foreign
to other people. So I have to see how people accept the stuff, so I have
to kidnap some guys.
Sun Tzu, if your enemy is irritated, continue irritating him. Do you enjoy
irritating people, keeping them on their toes?
OSBY: Not in the dark sense. I want to stimulate people into action. I
don't want people to listen to the music and remain unaffected. So if
they are driven into motivation through something that is an irritant
then so be it. I'd rather they respond to some of the more positive efforts
and be accepting of what was presented. Then again there are some musicians
without be nasty or anything, I think they could stand to be irritated
because in their limited amount of years on the scene, they've allowed
themselves to become complacent. They've stopped growing and it is harmful
to the scene at large when you have legions of guys that don't care about
advancing their craft or working on anything that is stimulating or progressive.
They keep talking about swinging. Keep swinging and we're deep in the
groove. No, you're not. You're pretty much a pantomime to somebody who
was far greater than you are. You're making no contributions. You're just
a mirror of someone. That's not reflective of the greatness that the music
Nobody likes cover bands.
OSBY: No, but some cover bands are really cool. They're like repertoire
bands. I consider some musicians to be repertoire musicians. They play
the music of other people and they do it well. They keep that music in
circulation. That's OK. That's their lot in life. That's their calling.
Fine, but don't call these musicians the best the scene has to offer.
Why are these musicians the only ones that work the most? These musicians
frequent the polls. They frequent the jazz mags and all the high paying
gigs, where in my opinion, the musicians that are out here actively plowing,
they're snubbed and swept under the rug and exist on grant funding or
they mooch off of their wife. That's the tragedy of the business. There
is a huge imbalance in the way the funding and the attention is appropriated.
But then again, Fred, that is nothing new. But that doesn't make it right.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and believes the Lakers are the best
team in the history of basketball. Comments? Email