Alto saxophonist Greg Osby has spent his career looking forward. In the late 80s he was a key player in Brooklyn's M-BASE crew, a group that combined jazz improvisation with other African-American forms, from hip-hop to funk to soul. On his own he sought to collaborate more directly with hip-hop artists, and while I don't think those fusion experiments ultimately succeeded, it's hard to argue with where they've led him: Osby hit his stride in the late 90s, and few jazzmen since have covered so much ground and sounded so confident doing it. The title of his new album, St. Louis Shoes (Blue Note), suggests a return to his hometown, but he's hardly getting nostalgic or sentimental about it. While the new recording contains no originals, and some of the selections are the kind of workhorses you'd figure a guy like Osby wouldn't touch--"East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," "Summertime," the bebop nugget "Shaw 'Nuff"--his arrangements radically alter their substance. He'll rework chord progressions or change the lead and support roles of the instruments; as he says in the liner notes, "usually the only thing left intact is the melody." The dark version of "Summertime" retains that forlorn, beautiful tune, but new harmonies give the performance a seething tension, particularly in the multilinear improvisation by Osby and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who has rarely sounded better. Osby's longtime pianist Jason Moran has moved on to become a leader himself; here we're introduced to another fine young pianist, the 22-year-old Harold O'Neal. He's not the iconoclast his predecessor was, but his wonderfully dense, knotty intervals on "Milton on Ebony" (a synthesis of two Jack DeJohnette pieces) suggest he's got plenty to offer. For this gig Osby's joined by pianist Megumi Yonezawa, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Eric McPherson. Friday, August 15, 9 PM, and Saturday, August 16, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.