The Chris Greene Quartet’s new CD, “A Group Effort,” is delicious, as-real-as-it-gets jazz. Every one of its six songs – five original tunes and a rendition of Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” – is a gem.
The music is clean and cool – and hot, too, with the funk that informs their music as a kind of folk element of our day. The members of Mr. Greene’s group are of a mind on this score, and each of them brings that commonality and his own individual virtues to the table. The result is a group of highly skilled, extraordinarily talented and imaginative musicians: Mr. Greene, bandleader, who plays saxophones; Damian Espinosa, keyboards; Marc Piane, bass; and Steve Corley, percussion, are the CGQ.
All eight tracks – or 11, if the CD is purchased on the band’s website – were recorded live in October 2011 in concert at The Mayne Stage in Rogers Park: “Bride of Mr. Congeniality” (Greene), “Shore Up” (Espinosa), “Future Emperor of Evanston” (Greene), “Stat” (Piane), “Three and Six” (Espinosa), and “Blue Bossa” by Kenny Dorham. The three bonus tracks include Edgar Sampson’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”
So much goes on in each song that it almost hurts for a regular person to think about it. The rhythms, harmonies, themes and inspirations that the group pulls in, both in writing and performing their songs, come from jazz, funk and hip-hop that Mr. Greene and his colleagues grew up with. Regardless of who wrote an original song, their songs all have strong, memorable – even addictive – themes, packaged with superb transformations and references to them. The understanding each of the musicians has of the group is more than impressive; these guys are that good. Add to that, Mr. Greene, whom the RoundTable interviewed, is very articulate about his music. He knows each of their pieces intimately and expresses that ably.
The first song, “Bride of Mr. Congeniality,” written by Mr. Greene, is a catchy, energetic tune that forefronts a bright piano, an audacious saxophone and a taut drum solo. The funny title refers back to a song called “Mr. Congeniality” written for an earlier incarnation of the band (“Chris Greene and New Perspective”) when he was 19 or 20. The alternating 9/8 and 4/4 time signatures were unusual enough for “someone to call me a mad scientist,” he says. Borrowing from the film “Bride of Frankenstein,” he named the song, in appreciation of his wife, Sarah, “the better and more interesting one of the two of us.”
“Shore Up,” by Mr. Espinosa, is a jazz tone poem with a dreamy bass solo and harp-like piano. Unusual in its 15-measure form, influences from classical music can be heard in what Mr. Greene calls a “slow samba-esque tune” that brings to mind Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.”
Mr. Greene wrote “The Future Emperor of Evanston,” partly to “highlight the soprano sax,” he says. It has an appealing and different shawm-like, reedy sound. It is peripatetic, as is “Bride,” but is more extroverted. Mr. Greene says he wanted “a song in 6/8 [with an] Afro-Cuban sound” and “some nice chord changes the guys could sink their teeth into.” The title relates to Mr. Greene’s history in Evanston, where many people know him and his music, and stop him on the street to say hello.
Of “Stat,” by Marc Piane, a tune with a stunning opening with bass, then drums, piano and finally sax, Mr. Greene says, “Marc’s tunes tend to make you think.” Its rhythms and harmonies, with a definite feel of funk, subtly demand the attention of the listener, too. Back-and-forth piano and sax solos drive the song along.
“Three and Six” by Mr. Espinosa, Mr. Greene says, is “the emotional centerpiece of the album.” The bass intro, nearly two minutes long, has its own track, leading into a tune that is just fantastic. The solos on this track are especially lovely. The piano sounds at times almost symphonic in intent, the sax gets very bluesy.
CGQ versions of the non-original songs are kinetic and exciting. Mr. Greene says of “Blue Bossa”: “I always loved the song. …When you’re starting out, beginning to build your repertoire, that’s one of the first 15 songs you learn. What do we do to put some life in it? [Give it a] kind of a dancehall-shuffle-reggae feel, more Caribbean-dance-hall kind of feel.” It has a great, satisfyingly long, percussion solo right in the middle of it, followed by a renewal of the theme by an oh-so-fluid sax over bass and piano that are right where they need to be.
Chris Greene says he has been playing music with pianist Damian Espinosa longer than anyone else in CGQ. “We met in 2001 and hired each other,” he says. Perspective, his earlier band, rooted in older jazz styles, but overtly more funky and electric, folded in 2004. He says then he “thought of Damian first. He makes me play better. He has such incredible harmonic knowledge. He makes me and the band sound hipper than [we are].”
Marc Piane he has known the longest. Bassist and “backbone of the band,” Mr. Greene calls him and says, “Musically, if I have some kind of dilemma, he’ll be the first one I call on.” He says he thought of Mr. Piane right away when putting together CGQ, he says, “because of his genre range.”
Steve Corley, percussion, came back into the band, Mr. Greene says, when his predecessor no longer worked out. “I … need a drummer to be two places at once:
[for] an all-out swing tune, but also the musical depth to do a funk tune in 9/8. I like [that] about Steve … an incredibly musical mind at the service of the band.”
It is almost difficult to describe what makes it such a pleasure to listen to this group. They are so perfectly together they could be connected telepathically. Perhaps the title of the CD says it best: It is truly “A Group Effort.”
Saxophonist and Bandleader
Chris Greene is a lifelong Evanstonian. He was born here and attended Timber Ridge, Washington, Chute, and Evanston Township High School. He started playing saxophone at the age of 10. When reps came to school to show instruments to the fifth-graders, he says, he tried the trombone first. But the sax “looked really cool and shiny.” Thus a star was born.
He took lessons all through school, at ETHS and at college. He says he owes ETHS’s David Fodor a lot: “When I started getting really, really serious, my senior year in high school was his first year at ETHS. He was finding his way to rebuilding the band program. I really wanted to play and he saw that and threw every possible opportunity my way. … It was the kind of match in 1990-91 made in heaven.”
His parents, says Mr. Greene, were into the soul and R&B of the 70s, and he did not hear much jazz at home. He says he “had a superficial knowledge till high school, then began to be able to draw on stuff behind me.”
When he graduated from high school, Mr. Greene went to Indiana University at Bloomington as a jazz studies major. He studied with David Baker, a symphonic jazz composer, cellist and highly regarded educator, especially for his methodology for learning to improvise.
At Indiana, “Baker was big on knowing history and seminal recordings, then six-degree-separation of other people. … With Baker, part of it was deconstructing improvisations on recordings, not,” says Mr. Greene, “using transcriptions by others. Like the old guys, they learned it off the record: You should be able to hear it in your head. [Baker] wanted you to be a complete musician – not just on your own instrument, but also piano for teaching, accompaniment, or for yourself.”
He says, “I was taught to think for myself … like those guys, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Coltrane. They could do scales in chords and make this stuff work in real time. It’s not thinking ‘noun-verb-object.’ It’s thinking ‘conversation.’
“He had us read, too, [and take] jazz arranging classes, history of jazz classes.” Music theory classes helped him “look beyond the page,” he says. He was also taught to really think about context as that which is “most important and least talked about. [For example] me, myself: It’s 2012. It shouldn’t sound like 1959. You should be able to tell who CGQ listened to: jazz history plus Motown, Phil-La of Soul stylistically. Dad was into Sly Stone, George Clinton – funky stuff. From there on to Prince … mid ’80s, hip hop, I was into that, I’d heard a lot of that stuff… James Brown … Evanston, ’80s MTV. Like it or not, it’s part of my make-up.”
Mr. Greene formed the group “Chris Greene and New Perspective” after leaving Indiana in 1994. Mr. Espinosa was part of this group but Mr. Piane and Mr. Corley were not. “Perspective” made the CDs “On the Verge” (1998) and “Jazz” (2004) before breaking up. CGQ’s first CD, “Soul and Silence, vol. 1,” came out in 2007, the first of now five CDs with this ensemble.
“A Group Effort” was released in May 2012. It was produced by Chris Greene for Cee Gee Music; engineered by Joe Tortorici and mastered by Todd Carter at Bel Air SoundStudio. CGQ will perform two shows at the Jazz Showcase, 806 Plymouth Court, Chicago, at 8 and 10 p.m. on July 23. More information can be found at chrisgreenejazz.com and chrisgreenquartet.bandcamp.com.