Finding the pocket every single time, the smooth and hip sound of the Chris Greene Quartet offers new beats and a reason to move to them.
“Firecracker” is sweetly syncopative with incredibly airtight, intuitive harmonies and a melody from Chris’ sax that goes off in unexpected ways; but the bass, keys and drums stick with him like glue. On “The Crossover Appeal” CGQ keeps it wickedly funky, and their almost-reggae take on “Nica’s Dream” bops like a small ship on the ocean.
What’s obvious from how they sound together is that the musicians’ friendship absolutely shines through, coming from within and expressing itself with fingers and embouchure.
When did you know for sure you were going to pursue music?
After taking a music theory class and discovering John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” LP during my junior year of high school, I knew that I’d be involved with music as an adult one way or another. (I’d been playing saxophone for six years at that point.)
However, it didn’t totally click that I wanted to make it my profession until the summer before my senior year of high school. I was in the pit orchestra for the annual student variety show. Typically, the orchestra members were the “red-headed stepchildren” of the production. We were just supposed to play and not interfere with the rest of the production. But every night during the run, I got an extended solo during the entr’acte. The audience and the other members of the production would go crazy after my solos – as pedestrian as they were at the time.
Not long after that, I applied to a few college music programs in the Midwest. I got accepted into Indiana University, and the rest as they say, is history.
How did your study under famous cellist David Baker help you learn more about playing sax?
I owe my musical foundation to three people at Indiana University: Dr. David Baker, who helped me with jazz history and the fundamentals of jazz improvisation; saxophone instructor Tom Walsh, who taught a naturally talented but undisciplined kid how to practice saxophone with purpose and how to solve musical problems; and Dominic Spera, who taught me how to arrange music for jazz big bands and combos.
What informs your composition style?
No genre, style, feel or time signature or groove is off limits. I’m the sum total of all my influences – musical and otherwise. So, it’s up to me to stay open to various musical styles and influences. I’m constantly listening to and studying various musical approaches. Once all that is done, I’ll sit down at the keyboard or with my saxophone and begin writing.
What’s the biggest challenge in arranging for a full band?
I’m fortunate that I have a working band to collaborate with. I usually write or arrange with my bandmates in mind. (Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk used the same methodology.)
So when I bring in a composition, I have a pretty good idea of how they will initially approach it. More often than not, they’ll exceed my expectations and add or enhance my ideas.
Talk about “Bud, not Buddy” and how you landed that project, and its musical challenges and rewards.
That was all a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Our son’s former babysitter was also a prolific set designer for many Chicago stage productions. She was finishing up her work for the Chicago Children’s Theatre’s stage adaptation of the children’s novel, “Bud, Not Buddy” and she recommended me to compose the score.
My musical compositional heroes – Prince, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Ed Motta, etc. – are all quirky, ambitious and grandiose at times. I had to dial that all back when writing the musical score for this play, however. I learned very quickly that the music needs to serve the dramatic action, and not the other way around. But it was a tremendous opportunity, and I hope to do it again soon.
The personnel in your quartet and how you mesh together?
We’ve played music with each other in some form or fashion since the mid-90s, but CGQ has been together for 12 years now. Pianist Damian Espinosa and bassist Marc Piane have been with me since the beginning. Our drummer Steve Corley is “the new guy” who’s been with us now for almost seven years. At this point, our band is like a marriage. We finish each other’s music sentences and have developed our own musical in-jokes, so to speak.
How would you describe the jazz scene in Chicago?
There are many places to play in the Chicago area. Some pay better than others, and some are more geared toward listeners than others. But in terms of being able to play out and hone your craft night after night, I consider myself very fortunate to live in Chicago.
As far as music content goes: when I first started in the local scene, it was greatly encouraged to mix genres. Over time, it seemed, the Chicago scene became a little more closed off. The free/avant garde people did their thing, the funk people did their thing, the smooth people did their thing and the straight-ahead jazz people did their thing. Moreover, when I started CGQ, I got a lot of resistance from some of the more renowned Chicago jazz clubs and programming committees due to our eclectic nature.
However, now it’s starting to come back to that mixed scene and people are mixing and matching more. People who are jazz musicians are putting together bands to play at rock clubs now and the gospel guys are backing up the smooth jazz players, so it’s really becoming a better scene.
As you cross genres, do you feel that naming the genre becomes less important than just performing and on the other end, listening/enjoying?
I think John Coltrane said it best: “I prefer not to answer the controversy about ‘anti-jazz.’ If someone wants to call it that, let him; I’ll continue to look for truth in music as I see it, and I’ll draw on all the sources I can, all the areas of music, all the things there are in the world around us to inspire me. It takes many people to effect a complete change in any system.”
Musical icons who have inspired you?
Prince, James Brown, John Coltrane, Maceo Parker, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Steve Coleman, Branford Marsalis, Ed Motta, Roger Troutman, Rakim, Billie Holiday, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin…the list goes on and on.
What was the production/recording process like on “Boundary Issues” and how has it been received?
I usually get the band in the studio before we’ve had a chance to road test material that has been recently added to our repertoire. The album has five covers and five originals by me, Damian, and Marc. We all have a hand in the musical arrangements.
There’s always a point where we’re no longer focusing on the sheet music or playing it “correctly” and we’re solely focused on making the music sound and feel good. That’s usually when it’s time to call Joe Tortorici (our producer) and Rob Ruccia (our engineer) and starting planning the session.
For the first time, we had guest musicians in the studio with us: guitarist Isaiah Sharkey, Jovia Armstrong and fellow saxophonist Marqueal Jordan.
The reviews have all been positive, and we even ended up getting a Top 50 placement on the JazzWeek Airplay Chart. But I’m really just happy to get feedback from people around the world who’ve bought our music and make a point to contact me to let me know what they think.
Favorite track on it and why?
I’m reluctant to call favorites of any of the songs on my album. They’re like my children. I’m pretty happy with the way “Boundary Issues” came out. I’m usually the worst person to listen to my own music with, because I’m constantly wincing and/or pointing out things that I could have done better. This new album is probably the album where I won’t immediately tense up if you put it on in my presence.
Favorite venue and why?
Right now, our favorite venue in Chicago is Winters Jazz Club, a great new room in the Streeterville area. It’s a very intimate room that’s both upscale and accessible. Great sightlines and acoustics, too.
How has business marketing changed in the past 10 years – is it all social media-driven, or are there other ways to get known?
At the end of the day, having killer music and presentation are paramount. Word-of-mouth still remains the best way to spread the word. Those two things will never change. We used to use posters, pluggers and mailers to promote our shows. Social media is now the standard to get the word out about your events, but now you have the added bonus of being able to interact with people who dig your music. It’s a useful tool.
Favorite festival and why?
Right now, I’ll say the Chicago Jazz Festival. We had the honor of performing there in September, 2016 to a standing-room-only crowd.
Place/venue/festival you have always wanted to play and why?
We’ll play at the opening of an envelope. We’ll play anywhere that’ll have us, but we’d like to make inroads into nearby cities such as Minneapolis, Madison and Indianapolis. Playing the Detroit or Newport jazz festivals are also long-term goals.
Single most exciting thing about playing in the Quartet?
I get to play creative and accessible music in front of appreciative audiences with three of my best friends. I’m a lucky man.
How would you describe your own musical evolution from “On the Verge” to today’s CDs?
The compositions and arrangements, and my playing, are certainly more adventurous. And I’m more musically-informed than I was when I dropped “On the Verge” back in 1998. But that’s a good thing. The day I stop evolving is the day it’s time to quit.
What question is the most-often asked by your audiences?
It’s a tie between, “How long have you guys been together?” and “Do you guys do anything in 4/4 time?”
In your clinics, what glimmers of creativity do you notice in your students?
I just try to get my students to think about sound and style and not think so much about patterns and scales.
Future plans to grow your presence during 2018?
More touring, more recording, producing for other artists, growing my label, and hopefully some opportunities to write for theater or independent film. No boundaries.
Thank you so much for this interview. These were some wonderfully thought-provoking questions!
**CGQ has a show at Studio 5 in Evanston, IL on DEC. 8!*
Photos copyright Ozzie Ramsay, and courtesy of and with permission of Chris Greene.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017