Saxophonist Greg Osby concluded a tour of the western U.S. on Oct. 25 right here in San Diego at the acoustically superb TSRI hall in La Jolla. For the final evening of the Athenaeum Jazz fall concert series, he appeared with a group of younger improvisers -- including pianist Simona Premazzi, bassist Martin Nevin and drummer Adam Arruda -- collectively activated as the Greg Osby Four.
The group opened strong with an Osby original, "Dialectical Interchange," with heavy emphasis on call-and-response and the juxtaposition between chirping, long tones from the horn and stop-time responses from the group. Premazzi's fluid diatonic musings flowed nicely over the cymbal washes of Arruda's drums, and the leader's windup evolved in a very organic fashion, building with small gestures slowly into a multiphonic climax framed by impassioned squiggles.
Many of Osby's tunes have a jagged melodic component, coupled with an expansive improvisational framework. One such composition, "Equilatigram" flowed like waves against a coastline topography of curves and inlets -- a form that Premazzi exploited with beautiful, melodic contours.
An emotional high was realized for me with Osby's a cappella intro into "Chelsea Bridge," a succulent ballad that recalled the sensuous touch of Ellington sidemen Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster as Mr. Osby wrapped sinewy strands around Nevin's whole notes. Nevin's own solo was slow and deliberate -- very much in the spirit of Charlie Haden -- and Osby's following comments were all about an exquisite balance, where velocity rubbed against plaintive sighs and his personal tone dissolved lemon into warm honey.
There was also a compositional balance on display as the group explored angular original material, Coltrane Quartet modal grooves and abject draws from the gutbucket. In the free-funk reading of Lou Donaldson's "Alligator Boogaloo," Osby layered Charlie Parker lines over the backbeat while Premazzi countered with her most impassioned contributions of the evening.
Most enjoyable for this listener were the trance-like pulses that revealed reimagined classics like the 'Trane-infused reading of "Nature Boy," which began with yearning sighs and ended with volcanic shards of agitation.
The opportunity for San Diegans to experience heady, conceptual art of this magnitude doesn't pop out of thin air. Hats off to Athenaeum Jazz and jazz program coordinator Dan Atkinson for their vision and courage to consistently enrich our cultural landscape.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.