The CD Features Yet Another Stellar Cast of Multi-Talented Newcomers on Nine Provocative New Compositions
13th August 2008 -- On the cutting edge for more than 25 years, the St. Louis native has worked to base his career on anything but musical clichés. Instead going for broke in the various soul, funk and blues bands of his early years, Greg Osby expanded his musical vocabulary first at Howard University in Washington, DC, and later Berklee College of Music, followed by a move to New York in 1983. Osby’s drive to create an original sound could be heard on dates led by such iconoclastic leaders as Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, and Jim Hall, among many others. His work with fellow collaborators Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson helped to establish a new school of jazz in New York’s mid ‘80s/early ‘90s Downtown scene and the M-Base Collective. Around this time, Osby was sailing into his own future as a recording artist/leader, first for the German label JMT/Polygram and eventually for Blue Note, his recording home for 16 years. 9 Levels, the first official release on Inner Circle Music is the latest development in a rich career that has seen many artistic and critical triumphs and yet continues to expand his music’s boundaries each time out.
Marshalling the new creative forces of some of today’s strongest new young players, 9 Levels is the alto saxophonist/composer/bandleader/conceptualist’s first album in three years. Refusing to coast on the success of his lengthy sixteen year run at Blue Note Records, the four-time JJA Award winner returns with this new lineup, playing songs that soundly detail his vision and perspective on the Zen like principles of “The 9 Levels of Humanity”. Vocalist Sara Serpa, guitarist Nir Felder, pianist Adam Birnbaum, bassist Joseph Lepore and drummer Hamir Atwal make up the tightly hewn unit that interprets Osby’s music as if Lady Destiny herself had ordained it.
This distinctive ensemble that Osby has gathered for 9 Levels exhibits a few major and dramatic departures from his normal sonic palette of the past few years – vocalist Sara Serpa, a vibrant newcomer from the leader’s current touring band, hails from Lisbon, Portugal and is a perfect compliment to Osby’s labyrinthine brand of melodicism. Her unique vocal stylings mirror his serpentine saxophone melodies in perfect synchronicity and provide a lighter touch to some of the more conceptual strains in the music without rendering it trite or simply reducing herself to “chick singer” status. As her solos show, she can clearly hold her own. Osby became acquainted with Serpa through a mutual friend on Myspace. After clicking on one of her audio examples, Osby heard something so unique and natural in her voice that he felt that she would work well with his band’s new direction.
“I wanted to take advantage of having such well developed and proficient musicians who could confidently play anything I presented them with,” says Osby. “It isn’t often that I enjoy the luxury of having a foil of Sara’s caliber along with such a strong band to boot.” It’s equally inspiring and challenging to be able to relay musical information back and forth with players who are so skillful and who possess such a high level of musicality." Pianist Adam Birnbaum, guitarist Nir Felder and bassist Joseph Lepore are all mainstays on the current New York scene while drummer Hamir Atwal, is currently a student at the Berklee College of music in Boston.
As usual, the Osby originals are delivered in his trademark style – detailed and experimental but with a signature approach that firmly denotes the era in which they were created, keeping, as Osby states, “one foot firmly planted on the ground for referential stability.” The opener “Principle” is “inspired by the sonic vortex that I found myself in whenever I played the music of Andrew Hill – with Andrew himself, of course." Osby asserts. “I employed a piano comping pattern that is my impression of something Andrew would play as a theme for the piece”. Drummer Hamir Atwal embraces the rhythm demands of this piece with a finesse and confidence that belies his youth.
“Tolerance” is an example of Osby’s penchant for contrapuntalism and melodic independence in contemporary composition. Notable here is the contrast of approaches during the solos. Nir Felder’s lines flow with an almost ballet-like grace while Adam Birnbaum’s piano solo is sparse and elegant. Osby’s solo, which follows, extends the themes even further.
Switching to soprano in ¾ on “Humility”, Osby darts and flutters about during his improvisation like an inspired hummingbird. The sparse volley of vocal background lines add nicely to this effect.
“Truth”, a blues, traverses many moods and takes many turns, all of them reflecting Osby’s innovative, transformative knack for dipping in and out of the mainstream of jazz, but as always with a personal twist. The introductory bass solo by Joseph Lepore is a tasteful mix of tradition over a modern feel. “Innocence” is equally as elegant as it is haunting.
Referring to the two pieces on 9 Levels that were penned by other composers, “Less Tension Please” and “Two of One”, Osby relates, "Part of the initial concept for this project and my new direction in general, was to seek out work from other artists that offered choices that I would never think of or allow myself to make. I wanted to complete the project with a utilization of alternative colors (in composition) and aesthetic perspectives that would take me out of the realm of familiarity. At this stage in my career, it is of the utmost importance that I do that as often and as deliberately as possible”.
“Resilience”, with it’s lumbering, mournful feel develops into a jubilant but contained cacophonous dialoging of artful collective improvisation. The gorgeous and deceptively complex tune “Optimism”, opens with a stunning vocal chorus and proceeds with a brooding bass line that underscores the entire piece.
With this stunning collection of stylized new works as well as hosting the introduction of some refreshing new voices, Greg Osby has added another chapter to his ever-impressive resume as one of his generation’s most important bandleaders, composers and talent scouts. 9 Levels is a grand verification that the future of jazz is secure and in good hands.