If Greg Osby can be considered mainstream, it shows just how far jazz has come in fifty years. At the core of Osby's visionary leadership is a relentless, almost quixotic obsession for honest musical expression. The Post-Bop epithet reveals only what he is not--what he came after--but nothing specific about what he is. In the 1980s, Osby and others founded the M-Base style, an updated conception along Ornette Coleman's direction. However, fine art depicting the human condition is often difficult to classify, and so it is with Osby's Channel Three.
Outsiders frequently mistake free jazz as an immature and reckless disregard for musical convention (sometimes they're right), but Osby takes his job very seriously. Picasso's early work reveals a painter with a detailed eye capable of highly realistic portraits. By adapting his superior skills to express a subject abstractly, he began creating timeless masterpieces. In a similar fashion, Osby proves that details are just as important in free jazz. Everything he plays goes through a complex decision-making process, fully informed by what has come before. If nothing else, Osby knows which rules he's breaking, especially within the context of a piano-less sax trio.
That said, Channel Three, Osby's 16th album for Blue Note, contains some of Osby's least dissonant and most lyrical work yet. He starts and finishes with covers; in between are seven original compositions. Channel Three is a well-conceived concept record: graphic design, titles, and even the harmonic structures evoke TV-age nostalgia. This could be an Osby inside joke, since the entertaining and homogenizing effects of television are frequently blamed for the decline of live jazz as a widespread American past-time.
Veteran Jeff "Tain" Watts obviously subscribes to the Max Roach school of drumming, or at least his philosophy of treating the entire trap set as a single musical instrument. Often defining the pulse on cymbals, Watts transforms the remaining drums into an unexpected color palette. Considering the span of time since Watts and Osby attended Berklee School of Music together (25 years), and collaborated on Art Forum (9 years), their resulting rhythmic interplay is outright mysterious. Speaking of mystery, you won't believe the chops on 21-year-old bassist, Matthew Brewer. He kicks-off the CD with a muscular pizzicato solo on Coleman's "Mob Job," and doesn't ever let up. You'd think with only three musicians in the room, minor timing issues would be immediately obvious. Think again, there aren't any. The bass and drums jolt along as if firing on the same nerve impulses, surrounding and supporting a true sax genius.
The entirety of Channel Three was pristinely recorded, mixed, and mastered by Joseph Marciano in Brooklyn. The overall audio quality and track separation hints at a modern-day VanGelder. This music swings, it's soaked in Southern blues, and it's wildly improvisational. So, by all measures, Channel Three is pure jazz and may end up as one of Greg Osby's most enduring accomplishments. Hear him live this summer and fall at Village Vanguard in NYC or the Green Mill in Chicago.
Channel Three is mature, intentional jazz from a major musician. Highly recommended.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.