The Chris Greene Quartet is:
Chris Greene – saxophones
Damian Espinosa – piano, keyboards
Marc Piane – bass
Steve Corley – drums, percussion
Jazz musicians generally break down into two types: Those who find their place in the music and stay in that comfort zone, polishing and deepening their craft, and those who reach across stylistic lines, upending expectations—their own as well as those of their listeners.
Chris Greene falls into the latter camp. Since coming of age as a saxophonist and bandleader, he has been happiest (apologies to Robert Frost) taking the road others might not take. A practitioner of the “What if?” school of creativity, he avoids dependable choices in favor of ones with the promise of freshness and surprise.
The young Chicago veteran shows off that sensibility right from the start on his terrifically enjoyable new album, Boundary Issues. On “Here to Help,” one of three Greene originals, he pays personal tribute to a pair of departed Windy City heroes: First, Eddie Harris, via a romping “Compared to What?”–style section fueled by Damian Espinosa’s soulful piano, and then house music legend Frankie Knuckles via a pulsed-up part two energized by the leader’s tenor playing.
Greene also reveals his inventiveness on the Horace Silver classic, “Nica’s Dream.” As someone who came up through acid jazz, playing with such bands as Liquid Soul, Greene might be expected to equip the hard-bop vehicle with funky beats. Instead, drawing upon his experience with Ted Sirota’s Heavyweight Dub band, he memorializes Silver (who died in 2014) with a spacious reggae arrangement.
“I thought the biggest tribute to a guy like him would be to do something different,” said Greene. “Doing ‘Nica’s Dream’ as a reggae tune came to me while I was listening to music in the shower. It was like, why not?”
Greene’s penchant for moving off beaten paths applies to his choice of guest players as well. Joining his long-standing quartet on selected cuts are saxophonist Marqueal Jordan, known for his work with smooth jazz star Brian Culbertson; percussionist JoVia Armstrong, a rising star who has played with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble and JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound; and guitarist Isaiah Sharkey, a no-longer-secret weapon in soul great D’Angelo’s band.
“I wanted to go outside of tradition, to bring in these ridiculously talented players who because they weren’t known for playing jazz would bring something new to the music,” said Greene. “Isaiah is 26, but he plays like he’s 46. What gets lost with Marqueal because of the style of music he plays is that he is a monster saxophone player. JoVia is truly special in all kinds of ways.”
As witness his treatments of songs by artists as different as Madonna, John Coltrane, Sting, Charles Mingus, and lounge music king Martin Denny, Greene has a deep understanding of Boundary Issues. “I have a hard time staying in place,” he said. “I don’t know my place, I guess, which is why I’m always stepping outside of the so-called boundaries. With the music I like, I just can’t help thinking, what would it be like if I did this, or this?”
Chris Greene was born on August 28, 1973 in Evanston, Illinois. His parents were big music fans, but there was only a smattering of jazz in the household. His mother blasted Motown at her monthly card parties. His father played a lot of funk, soul, and disco. Young Chris absorbed all manner of pop styles watching MTV.
He took up the saxophone at age 10, and began studying it seriously when he was 16, “playing the hell out of a blues pentatonic scale.” He mainly played alto saxophone in the well-regarded Evanston High School Wind and Jazz Ensemble, as well as with local bands including a rock unit called Truth. “They were into Sting and I was eager to be their Branford [Marsalis],” he said. (Years later, he played in a Dave Matthews cover band.)
He didn’t know much about improvisation. “When I soloed it was with more nerve than skill,” he said. As a self-styled “Joe Jazz Visionary,” he had no great affinity for “older people’s music. Cannonball [Adderley] was okay, but he was no Grover Washington Jr.” As devoted a follower of John Coltrane as he would become, he initially couldn’t stand him. “The only Coltrane album my father had was Om, which I thought was absolutely terrible, the worst thing I ever heard.”
The super-spacey album so turned off Greene to Trane, when someone later told him to listen to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and he saw that Coltrane was on it, he hesitated to put it on. “All I could think of was that Om guy,” he said with a laugh. Eventually, he was “blown away” by Coltrane’s playing on “My Favorite Things,” which has had a strong influence on his efforts on soprano saxophone, as revealed on his gorgeous reading on Boundary Issues of Kenny Kirkland’s “Dienda,” from one of his favorite Branford Marsalis albums.
At Indiana University, Greene studied under revered music educator David Baker, who died in 2016, and the much-admired current jazz studies department chair Thomas Walsh. “It was a great experience for me,” he said. “I was a kid with a lot of natural talent, but with a lack of discipline. I learned how to practice, how to break things down, how to solve problems.”
Back in Chicago, he continued his education by reaching out to established artists including genius innovator Steve Coleman. “He was hard-headed in his determination to play music his way,” said Greene. “It was a huge eye-opener for me how he put things together.”
Greene also got a major boost from Coleman’s legendary mentor, Chicago tenor legend Von Freeman, at one of his famous jam sessions. “He didn’t know me from Adam, but he was very encouraging. He said, ‘Hey, I hear what you’re trying to do. Keep at it.’ That meant so much.”
Partly as a personal challenge to catch up with a mother lode of modern jazz history, Greene began concentrating on tenor saxophone. He formed New Perspective, a band that released two albums (On the Verge, 1998, and Jazz, 2004), and played in a wide assortment of jazz, soul, pop, and prog-rock groups. (Among the notable artists he has hooked up with over the years are Common, the Temptations, Brazilian soul star Ed Motta, and Andrew Bird.)
In 2005, Greene formed his current quartet, which includes pianist Damian Espinosa, bassist Marc Piane, and (since 2011) drummer Steve Corley. Described by AllAboutJazz as “a post-bop maverick intent on shaking things up for the mainstream,” the saxophonist has been committed from the get-go to the pleasure principle. Whether the group is hugging tradition or engaging in experimentation, it radiates a deep sense of well-being.
With Boundary Issues, the Chris Greene Quartet has released eight albums, including three volumes in its live Playtime mixtape series, the latest of which was released in December 2016. With each release, Greene has moved steadily from funk mildly seasoned with jazz to uncompromising jazz boasting subtle funk touches.
On Music Appreciation (2014), the quartet presented a double-album-length course in genre-bending, ranging from the Yellow Light Orchestra’s cover of Martin Denny’s “Firecracker” to odd-time Latin originals to a tune written for the leader’s infant son that combines the influences of Lester Young and Ornette Coleman.
The group raises the bar even higher on Boundary Issues, both with the creative risks it takes and the level of trust the members place in each other. Written as a 24-bar blues, Espinosa’s “Thunder Show” took on a mid-’60s Ornette feel after Greene took a page from the Joe Zawinul book of song development by embracing the strong melody in the opening part but throwing out the chords for the soloing in the second section and opening up space for his bandmates.
On the Yellowjackets’ “Summer Song,” Greene plays the part sung on the original recording by Bobby McFerrin. “Blues for Dr. Fear,” a shuffle-style number inspired by his adorable son’s “rambunctious alter ego,” is written in two keys with a main section in 11/8. “It was like, what if the Yellowjackets recorded for Chess Records?” Greene said, describing the collision of styles, to which Sharkey contributes potent modern sounds.
Greene has a built-in critic’s sensibility. He characterized Piane as “a combination of Ray Brown and Paul Chambers” who “also can be exploratory like Jimmy Garrison.” Lauding Corley for his flexibility in handling time schemes, he said it was “like if Jack DeJohnette and Questlove had a baby.”
As witness the title of the quartet’s 2012 album, A Group Effort, Greene prizes the band’s ability to think and feel as one, to “leave fingerprints on each other’s playing.” But in a lovely stroke, he ends Boundary Issues not with a full group performance, but an impromptu duet with Espinosa on the Billy Strayhorn classic, “Day Dream.”
He called the tune as the band was packing up at the end of the session, envisioning one of those killer album closers he had always thrilled to as a young listener that left him counting the days until the artist’s next recording came out. The simplicity and bittersweet emotion he and Espinosa achieve on the song, which he chose because it isn’t played as often as other Strayhorn classics, fully meet that end.
Greene has so much to offer, it won’t be long before he returns in high style.