Chris Greene, jazz saxophonist and composer: Something Else! Interview

Chris Greene returns with his genre-defying new album Boundary Issues, building on a career that traces back to the prestigious Indiana University jazz studies program. The Evanston, Ill.-born saxophonist and composer, who is again collaborating with the Chris Greene Quintet, joined Preston Frazier for a Something Else! Sitdown to discuss this new studio project, a career that’s already included collaborations with Common, the Temptations, Andrew Bird and Steve Coleman among others, and his unlikely origin story in jazz.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did anyone else in your family play saxophone?
CHRIS GREENE: Not really. I mean, my grandfather was kind of a player back in the day. My parents weren’t musicians – because, initially when I told them that I want to be a musician, they were kind of like, ‘Are you sure?’ So, it was all a kind of back-handed rebellious stint, because maybe if they were musicians I thought I would’ve not wanted to be one. But they were huge music fans, who had a good record collection. So, I was listening to music, you know, in the car with my dad driving somewhere or in my mother’s car. First, it was R&B like the Temptations. There was always music around the house but no, none of my parents played an instrument.

PRESTON FRAZIER: So, how did you end up with the sax?
CHRIS GREENE: I don’t know. I always wish I could say it was something – some magic thing that I picked up, but I think it ended up being that I just really liked the way it looked. You know, I didn’t choose guitar, even though I was such a big Prince fan. It was kind of odd that I didn’t choose guitar, but it was one of those things where I just ended up really liking it. And then, you know, we were playing in middle school and high school, and college bands. I was pretty good. I just never really thought anything more of it than a hobby, something I could and enjoy it. Then I realized that people older than me where asking me to sit in their band and play. I would take a solo at school concerts, and I would stand and people would applaud really loud and really vigorously, and I was just, like, “Really? I’m just sitting here playing the little bit, and you guys actually like this. OK, cool.” So, then it’s just kind of like, “Well, maybe I can actually make this a career.” And so I inquired at Indiana University music school, and the rest is sort of history.

PRESTON FRAZIER: After you graduated, was your intent to be a performer and not a teacher or someone who worked behind the boards?
CHRIS GREENE: No, I think I knew I wanted to play. I knew I wanted to play music, but I think the interesting thing about music schools nowadays is that they have finally caught up with the music industry. They train to prepare you for a career – like an actual career – whereas when I went to school, it felt like everybody was just beginning to get their personal email accounts and the internet was just a kind a Wild West. No one really thought too much about that stuff, you know, out there in the early ’90s. It was kind of far off to even think about, you know, having a website. It didn’t dawn on any of us to sell your CD via a website. We were like maybe a decade off. You learn how to play a different style and then you’d be like not necessarily encouraged to branch out and be diverse. I’ve always thought about music, not knowing a lot about jazz, but being in that environment helped me with my technique on the saxophone. It helped me with just, you know, a broader understanding of jazz. I had a connection to R&B and gospel, and it helped me kind of form a foundation in jazz and start my own band and book my own gigs. I also want the experience of playing with other people and playing in many different situations as I can because that’s just how you learn. And, you know, you weren’t necessarily encouraged back then to be as diverse as we can be. Now, it’s just kind of a given that one day you’ll do a jazz gig, the next day you’re up there you’ll do a studio session gig, the next day you’ll do a funk gig. So, it’s a little more commonplace to think that way, but maybe like in the early ’90s, it was just kind of like you had the classical player, a jazz player, a studio/R&B player, you know? At the end of the day I just want to play good music with good musicians.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Describe 1998’s On the Verge, your first release as a leader.
CHRIS GREENE: I would say it’s a little more R&B, with a sprinkling of jazz. I started playing alto sax. I started playing tenor around 2000. Up until that time, it was primarily alto, very much influenced by, like, Charlie Parker – but then, you know, there was Maceo Parker, who I was really into at the time. And then I was really into Steve Coleman stuff. What I appreciated about him was he was a guy who was extremely well versed in jazz history and could tell you anything and everything that you ever wanted to know about Charlie Parker, but there was also a very obvious James Brown funk influence – you know, mixed meters and that kind of thing. Hearing his take on that kind of thing really influenced me a lot, and also playing his own music his way. You know, being an uncompromising artist. But at the same time, a lot of his influences were pretty similar to mine. He’s maybe about, I don’t know, 15 years older than me. It’s just something to look forward to and aspire to.

PRESTON FRAZIER: When did you form the Chris Green Quartet with Damien Espinosa, Marc Piane and Steve Corley?
CHRIS GREENE: The group’s been around since about 2005. Steve Corley is a gentleman; he’s the new guy. He’s been with us since about 2011. So, the new guy’s been with us about six years. One thing jazz history tells us is that the groups that made the biggest impact are the ones that stayed together over long periods of time and developed. Duke Ellington wrote for the specific personalities in his band. Whenever I bring a song idea or composition, I’ve always got the guys in mind. You know, I’ve always got their strengths and personalities in mind. But I also want to give them something just a little bit above their heads. You know, a lot of great musicians I work with, you wanna give them something just a little bit above their heads so that they have to stretch to reach it and make it sound good. What always was weird to me was, Chicago has no shortage of great players. But what always kind of – not frustrated me but always kind of disappointed me was you go to see some great players and they weren’t necessarily a band. It’d be one person plus the three or four musicians that they can call out. Their heads are kind of buried in the sheet music. There’s no cohesiveness. They’re all, like, musicians, but it’s not quite a band. So, you know, I wanted to loose, get with some guys that I could develop some music with, and develop a nice little repertoire and hopefully build a following in the process.

PRESTON FRAZIER: So, your previous release was Music Appreciation, which was back in 2014. How does the new release differ?
CHRIS GREENE: In a lot of ways, it’s a continuation along the same path that Music Appreciation set. I would say that, just thinking back, [2012’s] A Group Effort is kind of like how we sound live in concert – you know, the energy. Music Appreciation to me was like, “OK not only are we a band, these are all the things that we like. These are some of the various musical strands and things that we like and are really into.” You know, we’re in the funky stuff; we’re in the off meter stuff. We’re into taking songs like “Firecracker,” made famous by the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and turning it into a viable jazz vehicle. We also appreciate our local Chicago composers and performers, like William Kirk. We also like Wayne Shorter, and we’re gonna do one of his songs. We also like Charles Mingus, and we’re gonna do one of his songs. We’re gonna put these songs together and kind of stir them within one big pot, and there you go. Then we were pretty much just saying, “OK, now that you know some of things we’re into, we’re not even thinking in terms of genres and style anymore.” It’s really just, like, what can we do to make something interesting both for us as a band to play and challenging for us and interesting for the audience to listen to? Like, we’re breaking down the boundaries between us and the audience, but we’re breaking down our own boundaries as musicians too. It’s just like the first song on Boundary Issues, “Here to Help.” It starts out as kind of an Eddie Harris thing. but then it morphs into, like, a deep house kind of groove. So, it’s just kind of like we’re switching back and forth between that, or we’re turning “Dienda” by Kenny Kirkland – which is normally known as a pretty jazz waltz – into a borderline 1970s contemporary jazz CTI Records kind of thing. So, we just kind of look at all the possibilities of music that we like and that we listen to. We’re just wanna play music with no regards to boundaries and styles, or anything. It’s just really, “Let’s just make good music. We’ll deal with categories and such later.”

PRESTON FRAZIER: I’ve listened to it a few times, and Boundary Issues seems a little more aggressive than Music Appreciation. It’s a little funkier.
CHRIS GREENE: Yeah, I would say that. There’s definitely some funkier elements. In addition, what’s cool is, there’s the “Blues for Dr. Fear” song. We kind of had like an old 1960s Chess records kind of vibe. Our imagery in that song was, “What if the Yellow Jackets had to back up Muddy Waters in 1962?” Again, you know, I am a jazz musician but at the same time, you know, it’s 2017. We’re very much hopefully a band of our time. You know, we study the traditions, and constantly look to the tradition for influence. But at the same, it’s the here and now. So, we gotta play the music the way we hear it. You know, I came up listening to a lot of punk and R&B, so if I’m gonna stay true to myself, that’s just gonna come out naturally.

PRESTON FRAZIER: So, it looks like Marc and Damien also contributed some originals to Boundary Issues. Were those songs written specifically for the album, or were they from different projects?
CHRIS GREENE: Actually, they wrote them specifically for the band. The cool thing about it is, whenever we write for the band, the songs pretty much have everybody’s fingerprints on them. You know, like, Damien may make a suggestion about a chord for one of my songs or I may make a suggestion about a rhythm for Marc’s song or something. Like for instance, I’m pretty proud of my songs but I’m known for not being able to write endings. I just have a problem knowing how to end my songs. You know, if I could end every song with, like, “a shave and a haircut,” I would do it. But the guys are like, “No, don’t do that.” So, we help each other with that. With Damien’s “Thunder Snow,” he has this great song in mind and his chord changes are written out for us to improvise over them. But for some reason, it just felt stiff and a little forced for us to write this great melody to these chord changes. So, I just asked him, “What if we just did the Ornette Colman thing and just abandoned the chord changes?” And it just ended up like that. So, you know, everyone’s got a voice; everyone’s got a little bit of a say in it. Like, “Why don’t we try this or why don’t we try that? What if we end the song like this? Or what if we start the song like that?”

PRESTON FRAZIER: So, does the composer bring in the rough sketch, whether it be a demo or the sheet music, to the band and then you work from there?
CHRIS GREENE: Kinda sorta. Everyone’s kind of got their own mode as to what they’re hearing. But for the most part, like, we’re hearing the song and we’ll just talk through what they’re composing and what kind of feel do you want. “You want kind of an Afro-Cuban thing here? Do you want something specific played at this particular point or do we have the freedom to interpret the melody or chord changes however we want?” So you know, we’ll talk through those things. And then, occasionally, we’ll play through a song and then he’ll say, “Hey, you know what? I don’t know if such-and-such works. How about this?” So, as the leader of the band, I kind of get the final say on what works. But at the same time, they’re some of the most creative musicians I know. As a leader, I have to kinda manage everyone’s creativity and manage this idea. I have to mix your idea with my idea and see how it goes.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Where was Boundary Issues recorded?
CHRIS GREENE: We recorded it at a Uptown Recording studio this past August, at the end of August into September. And that’s another thing. Like, everything was done live. We were all in the same room, both the band and the guests that we brought in. I would say they’re either first or second takes. Maybe it was the occasional third take. But the vast majority of the album are first or second takes, and all live.

PRESTON FRAZIER: You mentioned the album’s special guests. How’d you decide to cast them?
CHRIS GREENE: Well, JoVia Armstrong is just a killer percussionist. It was one of those things where you had a good feeling about it, and we ended up together on this tribute gig, of all things, a couple of Halloweens ago – and I just really like the way she plays. I like musicians who know how to react in certain situations. And so, she knew when to turn it up and be aggressive, but then she knew when to, you know, play color and just help the music along. She’s just a real cool person to hang out with. And I was like, “OK, you know what? I think I’m probably gonna do some recording.” And I’m sure, like everybody else, you take somebody’s number and they’re probably thinking, “Oh, they’re never gonna call.” But, you know, I gave her a call. Isaiah Sharkey [who guests on “Blues for Dr. Fear”], what are we gonna say that hasn’t been said? I mean, he’s currently on the road with John Mayer. He tours on and off with D’Angelo. I’ve seen clips of him on the internet maybe, like, three years ago and I thought he was a lot older than he was. I didn’t realize he was, like, in his mid-20s. Man, he’s a great player, and it turns out he was from Chicago. It was one of those things where I’d sure like to meet that guy. And I end up playing in a gig and he ends up sittin’ with the band. And I have a gig with this funk band; he ends up sitting in with the funk band. We’re kind of like talking during the set break, and it turns out we’re fans of a lot of the same artists. We were gonna have a guitar player on a couple of songs on this album, and I was like you know Chicago has a number of wonderful jazz guitar players – but there’s something special about this kid. He’s such a talented kid and such a talented player that, you know, I think he would give us a little bit of a different vantage to having him on the two songs that he plays with us. I put the music in front of him. He ran through it a couple of times and then, he knocked it out.

And as far as the other guests: Marqueal Jordan is pretty much one of my favorite musicians, just one of my favorite people. Everyone knows that he is an incredible singer, a great entertainer. Really charismatic onstage. He’s an above-average practitioner of contemporary/smooth jazz. But what gets lost in shuffle with all of the things that he does well is that people forget that he’s a bad-ass saxophone player. I just really wanted to capture that, to let the people who follow us know that you all need to be checkin’ out Marqueal Jordan because he’s a great player. He came in and copped a vibe, like I knew he would. He’s another great musician with just great instincts, and I knew he would catch exactly what we were trying to do. So, I was really happy with the way it all came together. You know, the guests came in and did their thing and, it was just a really, really great, creative series of recordings.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I usually ask people in an interview for the Top 5 albums that have influenced them. So, if you could give me your list, that would fantastic.
CHRIS GREENE: Let’s say Top 5 today. Prince, 1999. Maceo Parker, Life on Planet Groove. Three – John Coltrane, My Favorite Things. Four – oh, man, this is tough. Four, Ed Motta, Dwitza. Five? Five, five, five. Boy, this is rough. I’m gonna have to – I don’t know: A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Any additional thoughts on Boundary Issues?
CHRIS GREENE: I’m just really, really proud of the album – really, really just happy with the way it all came out. I’ve created the kind of album that might not hit you right away. But I think it’s one of those albums that you’ll wanna listen to it over and over and over again, because hopefully it’ll be something different each time. And I think it’ll just kind of gradually reveal itself to you. If anybody just wants to take a look, hopefully there’s something in it for everybody. It’s important for me as an artist to express myself and be true. But it’s also important to remember that a lot of the people who buy our albums aren’t necessarily musicians. I have to figure out how to distill all these influences from funk to hip hop to straight-ahead to early Louis Armstrong jazz to current stuff. Like, how do I distill all that stuff into something for the average person who knows nothing about music except what they like? How do I communicate to them? And so hopefully, hopefully, there’s something in what we do for the guy that owns 10,000 jazz records and also all the way down to the person who has convinced themselves that they don’t like jazz. So, hopefully, there’s something in that, something in what we do for all of that.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier