Chris Greene Quartet
Reviewed on this page:
On The Verge - Jazz - Soul And Science, Volume One - Soul And Science 2: Electric Boogaloo - Merge - Playtime - A Group Effort - Playtime Volume 2 - Music Appreciation - Playtime III - Boundary Issues - PlaySPACE -
misSPACEd - PlaySPACE 2: Play Harder
It may be fair to say I go way back with Chris Greene, though I've never met him: the Chicago-based sax player, band leader and composer has been sending me his work since the late 90s, when he was working mostly in a funk fusion vein and playing alto. Now he's on tenor or soprano, and his Quartet takes traditional jazz approaches to pop tunes, Latin jazz approaches to funk tunes, and especially subtly funky jazz approaches to subtly funky jazz tunes - the approach isn't too far from Wayne Shorter's contemporary quartet, though more grounded.
His influences include Steve Coleman,
Prince, John Coltrane and James Brown, and while I can't always hear that in his work, what Greene does himself is quite sufficient, both as a soloist and as a composer.
I even spun one of Greene's compositions ("(Yet Another) Lonely Saturday Night") at my wedding.
I'm not as crazy about the fact that he continually re-records his tunes: "Adamantium" is on four of the six discs I've reviewed, and the arrangements don't vary as much as, say, Mitchell's four released versions of "Woodstock."
Greene is big on social media in addition to his own site: I'm following him on Twitter, friending him on Facebook, seeing what he's reading on GoodReads, and I'm not even sure what else.
On The Verge (Chris Greene/New Perspective: 1998)
New Perspective being Charles D. Bayne on keys, Kohki Ohno on bass and Ron Lambert on drums: they're quite adept at solid, retro funk grooves ("Mister Congeniality," recalling the Average White Band; "Bootsy"), but what's more impressive is Greene's writing: "(Yet Another) Lonely Saturday Night" is a masterful, memorable ballad.
And he sneaks in some snazzy tricks: "Core Of Vitality" is such a solid groove it's shocking to notice it's in 5/4 time, and he soars into Trane territory on the opening of "Dragonfly." However, there are a lot of midtempo funk tunes that are too laid-back to generate any heat ("Baby Fitch"), and most of Bayne and Greene's solos are likewise overly timid: they lack the bite, energy and restlessness that's all over the recordings of the leader's influences.
Jazz (Chris Greene and New Perspective: 2004)
This time Greene is backed by Damian Espinosa (keys), Vic Jackson (bass) and Andrew "Blaze" Thomas (drums), and they seem
better suited to his laid-back approach to funk, spinning out slowly mutating, elastic grooves ("Take Care Of Yourself,"
which stretches to thirteen minutes without repetitive vamps or mind-numbingly long solos). Greene's soloing is also more
energetic, and Jackson ("Consider The Source," which upshifts from ballad midway through) and Espinosa
(Tyneresque acoustic piano on "Fat Stuff") also get their opportunities. The compositions are solid
even if nothing's quite as striking as "Lonely Saturday Night."
Two tunes are revived from On The Verge - "Adamantium" and "Core Of Vitality" - and though I'm surprised Greene
couldn't fill out his first record in six years with all-new material, both sound better this time around.
Soul And Science, Volume One (2007)
One original ("4.23") and four covers, two pop ("Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "King Of Pain") and two jazz (Ellington's "Caravan").
The Chris Greene Quartet - Espinosa, acoustic bassist Marc Piane (who co-produced) and drummer Tyrone Blair - is proficient in a wide range of styles from salsa to funk, and wants you to know it, but the continual improvisation puts a jazz stamp on whatever idiom they're taking on. At times when each one of them is playing what amounts to a simultaneous solo - somehow without losing the sense of a shared whole - they recall the Davis-Shorter-Hancock-Carter-Williams band, which is about as high praise as I can give. Through this process, they recompose the tunes so much they're unrecognizable (which in the case of "King Of Pain" is highly welcome). At other times, though, the band is more ordinary: Tommy Turrentine's "Bonnie" sounds like a jazz ballad you could hear anywhere.
Soul And Science 2: Electric Boogaloo (2008)
The album title of the year, so far, and it's also Greene's most enjoyable effort yet. The quartet is as cohesive as they were on Volume One, and the soloing is more striking, with Greene in particular pulling out strings of melody as if he were a magician tugging on one of those endless hankerchiefs.
When the band sticks close to traditional bop they're tough to beat ("Bernie's Tune"), but they also stretch out with electric piano-based fantasia (Dave Holland's "The Oracle")
and gear up for a low-down, greasy version of the Hank Williams tune "You Win Again."
If you've been following Greene, though, there's a lot of familiar material here:
Re-recording the funky "Adamantium" and the ballad "Take Care Of Yourself" is one thing, but I don't really see the point of re-covering "Boogie On Reggae Woman" ("Boogie 2.0"), especially when the approach is similar (after a brief P-Funk quote)
and Stevie has so many terrific overlooked tunes. Next time, how about "Smile Please," or "All Day Sucker," or "Just A Little Piece Of You"?
As the title indicates, the different styles and forms the Quartet has tackled before are blended here. Basically, every dial is set to "Medium." If you're old, you may remember Michael Dukakis promising "good jobs at good wages." Well, these are middling tunes at middling tempos ("M. Tati"). It's all sort of funky ("Good Riddance"), sort of Latin ("In Confidence"), sort of soothing ("Coffee 'n' Scotch"), but never really enough of anything. In particular, Blair's playing is much milder, which is no improvement in my book.
I might not have a problem with that if the tunes were more memorable, but apart from "You'll Thank Me Later (For MJ)" they aren't notable. As usual, the Quartet's sound is coherent and confident, both on the ensemble passages and solos - Greene working up slowly and surely to a dramatic climax on "Out Of Nowhere"; Espinosa pulling out all the stops on "Confidence" - and I suspect Greene got exactly what he was going for here, though it's not floating my boat.
Following the previous album's pattern, there's one jazz standard (Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom") and one pop tune (Madonna's "Borderline").
A live set Greene's giving away online; material draws from as far back as "Adamantium" through last year's "In Confidence." The performances are Opeth-length (four are over ten minutes, two over fifteen), but rather than wearing out the listener they become more enveloping as they go on. In fact, I might make my case now that modern jazz artists should forget about keeping the running times brief and instead try to get everything they can out of each tune, for the following reasons:
1) Downloads have largely removed the time limitations of LPs and CDs. 2) Writing great songs isn't easy, and it's easier to come up with four or five for an album rather than nine or twelve. 3) Anyone who listens to jazz these days is already breaking with the spectacle/instant gratification/short attention span approach to consuming culture, so they'll go along with very long tracks if the quality is there. Anyway, digression over. The energy never flags - particularly on the blistering setcloser "Caravan" - but never spills over into a chaotic free-for-all either, and Greene continues to develop as a soloist, pouring out melodic ideas as easily as you or I turn on the tap to fill the bathtub.
No new compositions, but the Quartet hadn't previously recorded "In A Sentimental Mood" or "Equinox" (which features a dynamite Espinosa solo).
Based On A True Story: Live At The Jazz Showcase (2010)
A DVD capturing a enjoyable live performance of the Quartet. We don't typically review DVDs, but I'll note that the set list is almost entirely different from Playtime, so if you download that one and like it, you'll want to try this. The last recording featuring Blair, who was replaced in 2011 by Steve Corley. Also in 2011, Piane wrote all the tunes for another project, Walk East.
A Group Effort (2012)
A set of new material recorded live. The title applies to the songwriting credits, which are more spread out than previous Greene releases, but it also applies to the band's overall sound, where every member contributes audibly whether they're soloing or in the background.
Often, though, the band coasts on sturdy but unchallenging grooves and soloing that's professional but less than fresh ("Three & Six").
It's on the one standard - Kenny Durham's "Blue Bossa" - that the band turns up the heat and shows how they can cook when they want to: each member tosses tasty musical ideas into the pot at a exhilarating pace. That alone makes the record worth hearing, but it also makes you wish they aimed for the same heights on the other tunes.
Three more standards are included as bonus tracks if you buy the album directly from the group, and they're excellent: the band cools out on Hank Mobley's "This I Dig Of You" then rips through "Stompin' At The Savoy," while the super-sized version of "Boogie On Reggae Woman" is the best of the band's three recordings of the tune - that configuration of the record's worth another half-star easy.
Playtime Volume 2 (2012)
Another free download; it's an interesting move on Greene's part to give away live recordings so soon after each studio release but as promotion for the band's shows it's effective: I'd catch the CGQ if they were playing within a couple of states of where I was. Two tunes from Group Effort (Piane's "Stat," which I have to admit is growing on me - initially I thought it was an overchilled funk vamp, but now I'm hearing echoes of Wayne Shorter's stately melancholia).
There are also two songs from Merge ("You'll Thank Me Later") and one oldie, Charlie Mingus's "Nostalgia In Times Square," that's a perfect example of the Quartet's approach: They're well versed in jazz history but aren't snooty about it; they're fluent in pop and R&B idioms but aren't trying to "cross over"; they play entertaining music you can unwind to without compromising their creativity.
In other words, they're comfortable with who they are and what they do - without being complacent - and that good feeling comes across to the listener.
"Borderline" is impaired by Greene wandering away from the mike, but only slightly - it's refreshing to hear something go wrong in today's climate of technical perfection.
Music Appreciation (2014)
It's hard enough to fill up one CD without recycling yourself, and a double-CD is more than twice as hard. Greene & co. manage this feat by drawing on a variety of songwriting sources and their omnivorous musical backgrounds to encompass a wide array of styles while remaining recognizably in the jazz arena.
Greene's three tunes alone range from the subtle ("Institutional Samba") to the frenetic ("The Moose Is Loose"); Espinosa helps out with the heavy groove "The Missing Part" and subtler "Solution." But it's Piane's "Divers" (which he'd previously cut with Walk East) that surprised me the most - I never would have guessed that the quartet could play riotous almost-free jazz so convincingly, with Greene "speaking in tongues" in the Pharaoh Sanders tradition. And matching the others, Piane's other contribution is soothingly melodic, nearly a diametric opposite ("Clean & Clear").
No pop cover this time; instead there are several jazz tunes both old ("Equinox" recast as smooth soul, which may sound corny but instead it proves Trane's compositions are more versatile than I'd given them credit for being) new (William Kurk's "Day Of Honor") and weird: "Firecracker," by tiki bar patron saint Martin Denny, is a great example of the band's aptitude for marrying pop conventions with advanced ideas without diminishing the appeal of either.
Playtime III (2016)
I still don't see how it makes economic sense to follow each studio album with a free live release containing some of the same songs, but I do know Greene has thought about these issues a lot more than I have so there must be something to it. I suspect it's partly a victory lap - following the widespread (and overdue) recognition for Music Appreciation the group was finally invited to the Chicago Jazz Festival, from which performance this set was drawn - and if so I don't blame him. The one slow number, "Molar Melancholia," hints at the quartet's range, but mostly they stick to intricate high-energy grooves - often with idiosyncratic time signatures - that serve as springboards for rousing extended solos ("Good Riddance," which will make you forget the studio version).
The group seems to have moved away from pop covers; the one tune they hadn't previously recorded is Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream."
I've commented before on how well the individual players complement each other, and if anything that's only grown more true over time: "Firecracker" is a case study in how the quartet swings through a range of moods while remaining perfectly on the same wavelength.
Boundary Issues (2017)
All the critical attention Music Appreciation attracted seems to have gone to Greene's head... in the best possible way. The quartet is secure in its musical identity - they take inspiration from all kinds of music but channel it into jazz - and it shows, everywhere from the cover art (with Greene stepping on a MAGA hat as the band's heads into uncharted territory, if the title's triple entendre wasn't already clear) to the P-Funkesque voiceover on "Here To Help."
Speaking of which, it takes confidence for a quartet to play without assistance, but it takes a different kind of confidence to bring in guests, in this case percussionist JoeVia Armstrong (Shorter's "Speak No Evil") and saxophonist Marqueal Jordan, who gets full room to shine on the on the ecstatic, Steve Coleman-like "The Crossover Appeal" - and takes full advantage.
As before there's a range of styles (Kenny Kirkland's "Dienda") and time signature complexity aplenty ("Blues For Dr. Fear" with guitarist Isaiah Sharkey, who's something of an acquired taste), and in addition to the leader, Espinosa ("Thunder Snow") and Piane ("Wildcat") contribute worthy compositions.
For all the forward thinking and edge-blurring, though, for me the key to the record is the stripped-down, drumless version of the Ellington-Strayhorn standard "Day Dream": Greene's full, pure tone is a revelation, especially if you normally think of the soprano sax as more toy than real instrument (yes, I know Coltrane played soprano - Stevie Wonder played kazoo, so what does that prove?), and his intense, tender treatment shows that CGQ is really about having Something To Say, and only secondarily the way they Say it. (DBW)
The Stones used to (still do, for all I know) put out a live record after every single studio album, and I always thought "Do we really need to hear these songs again so soon?" Well, the opposite applies to the Chris Greene Quartet: they have a similar alternating pattern, but in their case, while the last several studio albums have been excellent, the live ones have been richer, smoother and deeper, to the point that I might suggest you buy the live remakes before checking out the studio originals. [Tries to refrain from calling this the Greene New Deal.] For example, they had nailed the odd meter of "Blues For Dr. Fear" and the sudden shifts in "Thunder Snow" the first time around, but here it's easier to hear why they're there - the intention rather than just the execution.
The guest reappearance of Marqueal Jordan on "The Crossover Appeal (Uno Mas)" deserves an article unto itself: First, it does my heart good to hear two saxophonists listening closely to each other's soloing, and clearly enjoying what they hear. It's also striking to compare how Jordan's playing - individual as it is - is largely based on pre-existing licks and conventions, while Greene - rooted in jazz tradition as he is - doesn't audibly rely on those building blocks, instead seemingly pulling melodies out of thin air. Finally (and perhaps not unrelatedly), I usually find the "both saxes blow at the same time as the crowd goes wild" finale to be cacophonous and showoffy, but here it's a stunning joint improvisation, with just enough space and just enough overlap. And geez, I didn't even mention the monumental drum solo on "Speak No Evil" - it's like, imagine if you replaced both the intro riff and the solo section of "Toad" with stuff you would actually want to hear. (DBW)
It may be hard to remember that even before COVID-19, performing artists were working hard to create alternative income streams: In particular, online memberships were moving fast from the fan club model long employed by major stars (pioneered, like so many other things, by David Bowie and Prince) to the monthly subscription model now ubiquitous in various spheres of human endeavor. All of which is my longwinded way of saying, the Chris Greene Quartet has made this EP available to its VIP members, and
though it's directed at dedicated fans, it would also be a fine introduction to the band, demonstrating many of their strengths. Three more songs recorded at the same show as PlaySPACE: another Boundary original ("Here To Help"), a fairly obscure jazz tune (Jeff Lorber's "Chinese Medicinal Herbs"), and an unobscure pop song ("King Of Pain," which they'd previously recorded back in 2007). Rather than sound like a collection of castoffs, the EP hangs together like a short novel, moving through various styles and emotional states while maintaining a consistent tone that's equal parts invigorating and calming. "King Of Pain" opens and closes in mellow fashion, in between shifting gears several times during a monster Espinosa solo. "Here To Help" is the reverse, starting with a wiry syncopated theme and then smoothing out into sustained synth chords before Greene roars in with brusque, bluesy lines a la Cannonball Adderley. "Herbs," built on an ostinato bass line in 7/8, mostly stays midtempo but soars to a dramatic finale. Through all the twists and turns, the band stays in sync in every meaning of the word, which wouldn't matter if the individual components weren't meaningful, but they are and it does.
PlaySPACE 2: Play Harder (2022)
There's a saying on the far left that the challenge is either to pursue armed struggle without becoming a butcher, or to pursue the electoral route without becoming a bureaucrat. I mention this not because Greene's new original is titled "Samba Fu Maga" (the one studio performance; the rest is live) but because jazz artists face an analogous challenge: make music that's increasingly ambitious and complex until you lose your audience, or continually aim for a lower common denominator until you lose yourself. Bad news on the butchers and bureaucrats front, but the good news is, the Chris Greene Quartet is facing their challenge head-on and succeeding: Their most abstract work connects with the audience (Piane's "Divers") while the simplest tune ("You Win Again," which here becomes a blues extravaganza) is not only heartfelt but stimulates each soloist's creativity. As with the quartet's previous live releases, a mix of originals and covers - though no pop tune this time - some of which they'd previously recorded, others which are new (George Duke's "Omi (Fresh Water)"). The only weak link is Ellington's "Caravan" - no question, the tune is fun to play and everyone loves to hear it, but if you're listening at home this doesn't add to the many versions you're already familiar with. (DBW)
You'll thank me later.