The West

The sax stacks up
Greg Osby. Picture: Lourdes Delgardo

Saxophonist Greg Osby takes my call at his New York apartment late on a Friday night. I assume he's been playing somewhere earlier in the evening, perhaps at one of the Big Apple's small jazz clubs. But no, he tells me, he's been out listening to Prism, a classical saxophone quartet.

"Prism were playing a suite I had written for them and I had to give a talk about it to the audience before the performance," he explains.

Evidently the performance went down well because Osby sounds relaxed and ready to talk, even though it is approaching midnight in New York.

Writing compositions for classical musicians is just one of the accomplishments of this talented jazz artist, whose reputation is based on his playing skills, pioneering work as an innovator and collaborator, and his willingness to become an educator.

Over the past couple of decades he has nurtured many aspiring jazz musicians who have undergone further jazz education under his discerning eye and ear.

However, he recently relinquished his post as a full-time professor of music at the Berklee School of Music in Boston to devote more time to his own playing, writing and arranging.

He still does a lot of private teaching, though, and says Skype is a good way to keep in touch with students around the world. "It's available to anyone who has a webcam and a willingness to learn," he says.

Audiences will see the performance side of this multi- talented saxophonist as he headlines the Perth International Jazz Festival, sharing the international billing with fellow American, guitarist Peter Bernstein.

Osby has performed in Perth once before as a guest artist - in 2008 - and he will once again team up with local musicians to present a concert program of original works and a few standards.

Standards, those mostly familiar tunes from the American jazz handbook, are the usual way musicians from different countries can get to know each other readily from a performance point of view.

But Osby points out that his "standards" will be major reworkings of the chord charts, or "reimaginings" as he likes to term them.

"They will be reworked and modernised to fit the potential of the musicians I will be playing with," he says.

"We will be turning something we know into something different, because I believe as an artist you've got to keep on your toes. Complacency is the enemy of creativity, so we won't be doing what everyone else is doing. We won't be sleep-walking into the material." Osby says he is also eager for Perth musicians to perform with him on his own compositions. "The true test of any material is how well it can be performed by someone who was not involved in its creation." In conversation Osby reveals a passion for jazz as an art form with creative limits that have not yet been reached. "Creativity in jazz is part of one's personal growth," he says. "You can't keep recycling what you've been doing, you have to keep renewing your art form."

Back in the 1980s Osby was part of a jazz movement called M-base, which was essentially a collective of like-minded musicians who took improvisation to new levels of freedom and creativity.

Asked if he was still involved in the M-base movement, Osby responds: "It's pretty much dissipated now. There are still remnants of it going around but it's practically impossible to keep that kind of music going. We've all moved on."

Osby says he enjoys playing with younger musicians (he's now 53) and that he likes to feed off their curiosity and their enthusiasm to learn from his experience.

"There are a lot of hot players out there now who were once members of my band."

The West Australian

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