In his latest effort, Symbols of Light (A Solution), Osby integrates another aspect of music, the classical string quartet, with equally brilliant results. Many jazz musicians have layered string orchestration beneath their improvisational playing - from Charlie Parker in the ’50s to Charlie Haden in the late ’90s - but with mixed results. The most common criticism is that the orchestration comes across like an after-thought, that it’s not an integral part of the performance. In the case of Osby’s Symbols of Light, however, the string quartet not only fits with the many-mooded, deeply felt compositions, it actually adds to the emotion and drive.
The 40-year-old Osby was born and grew up in St. Louis, MO., playing in R&B, funk and blues groups throughout his teen years before attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. He later transferred to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and, after graduating, settled in New York City where he worked with jazz masters such as Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock and Muhal Richard Abrams.
In the late ’80s he began making his own records, first with the German JMT label (Greg Osby and Sound Theater, Mind Games, Season of Renewal), then, starting in 1990, with Blue Note (Man-Talk for Moderns, Vol. X, 3-D Lifestyles, Further Ado, Banned in New York, Friendly Fire with Joe Lovano, and last year’s Invisible Hand, among others). All along, he has been interested in telling stories about life as he has experienced it through music, and he has worked hard to create a distinctive, personal musical dialect with which to do so. With the addition of a string quartet - Christian Howes and Marlene Rice-Shaw on violins, Judith Insell-Stack on viola and Nioka Workman on cello - he has expanded his vocabulary without sounding pretentious or snotty.
The "solution" Osby mentions in the title of this Blue Note release refers to the problems of connecting American improvisational styles with West European traditions and folk music. "It’s clear to me that jazz can be fed through other sources than its historical precedents," he says in press material, "through collaboration and experimentation, being open-minded and embracing many disciplines. In fact, I think that’s the only way jazz will survive. Otherwise, our music is feeding on itself, eating its young and not going anywhere."
Theory aside, the music on Symbols of Light is striking, exciting, new and also very enjoyable, all the while maintaining a sense of freedom. The members of his quartet - featuring the fabulous Jason Moran on piano, Scott Colley on bass and Marlon Browden on drums - are given the space to express themselves and use their own voices. Even the classical musicians - who are, as a class, notoriously bad improvisers - are given the freedom to choose between several different, interlocking lines on each tune. The results are fully fleshed-out arrangements that move and pulse with lives of their own.
"Three for Civility" opens the disc with a stagger-stepping introduction from young Moran that is at once loose and modern and lush and lyrical; Browden applies a light touch on his drums, but also rolls and rollicks elementally before the strings play the theme, hammering home the point - if you missed it in the piano intro - that this is not your typical jazz disc. Osby slips in with some sly murmurs, barely even noticeable, before taking off on a stern, dignified solo.
"Repay in Kind," written by Moran, is a tribute to modern reedman Henry Threadgill with a furious, pulsating theme played by the string quartet that brings to mind Shostakovich and Bartók. "M," a composition by Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, features Osby on his soprano sax, recalling the sparse, lovely soprano work of Wayne Shorter, while "The Keep" has the wide-ranging scope and ambition of Eric Dolphy.
"Golden Sunset," composed by one of Osby mentors, pianist Andrew Hill, is a shimmering duet with sax and piano. The string quartet returns in the expansive, angular "This is Bliss," once again as an integral part of the music, not merely added sugar. "Wild is the Wind" acknowledges Osby’s admiration for singer Johnny Mathis, while "Minstrale Again (The Barefoot Tapdance)" concludes the disc with a spritely, sardonic duet that again features Moran.
Discs such as this prove there are still American musicians who are interested in probing and exploring, keeping traditions alive while moving forward. And you can rest assured that Osby’s next CD - no doubt expected in the coming year and probably recorded, mixed, produced and ready to press already - will continue to keep listeners on the edge of seats.