Greg Osby has recorded his most accessible CD yet. Listeners who found Osby to be too abstruse in past recordings will find St. Louis Shoes
to be engaging, if not downright entertaining. Still, those who have appreciated Osby’s past work will be impressed by his refusal to be predicted. One thing’s for sure: Each of Osby’s projects, while self-contained thematically, represents another facet of his musical persona that previously had been implied but never fully expressed. Instead of experimenting with various musical forms, Osby’s latest CD is grounded in his hometown of St. Louis as the geographic center for the recording. And yet, even though Osby ostensibly plays "standards" on the CD, including chestnuts like "Summertime" and "Shaw Nuff," Osby was careful to reharmonize all of the tunes, add unique bass lines, or create an entirely personalized angle toward the tunes different from those that one normally hears on less imaginative projects.
One would never know it from the evidence of the CD, but Osby and trumpeter Nicholas Payton had never performed previously. Osby chose Payton for the St. Louis tribute because his style, though developed in New Orleans, is infused with a blues sensibility and the collaborative spirit needed to accomplish Osby’s intentions. True to form, Osby shakes things up by creating once again an entirely new group, one without a previous history, to examine his notions about jazz. In fact, pianist Harold O’Neal is but 21 years old, a recommendation of Andrew Hill’s. Yet, age is no consideration, nor is background, on St. Louis Shoes,
O’Neal playing with technical ability beyond his years on tunes like "Light Blue."
Osby’s tone, tart and jagged as ever, blends into the group sound more than it has on past recordings, where he was clearly the performance leader. Osby and Payton, despite their lack of personal recorded history, share an understanding of the music and a sense of phrasing that becomes a give-and-take, even as they allow space for O’Neal and bassist Robert Hurst to solo as well.
Choosing "standards" that aren’t quite recognized by the general public, Osby injects his own personality into the arrangements, Duke Ellington’s "The Single Petal of a Rose" becoming a piece of elasticized meter, the phrases swelling and contrasting according to the emotional intent. And "Summertime" involves alternatively ominous trills at the beginning of the choruses and improvisations that dart darkly around the melody instead of addressing it head-on.
Ending the CD with a slow, street-march arrangement of "St. Louis Blues," Osby comes full circle from "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" at the beginning, filling the CD’s center with inventive approaches to tunes not of Osby’s own composing. Even so, Osby has managed to make each of the songs his own through his fresh interpretations that reveal hidden gems, so often overlooked, within each of them.