Masks and variations

The cover art on Greg Osby’s latest Blue Note release is thought provoking, to say the least. The African-American saxophonist, decked out in antebellum finery and top hat, sits before an ornate music stand, with a string trio of what look like black servants (slaves?) in the far background. Inside the liner-note sheet are two more images in the same vein: Osby in his Southern gentleman’s outfit poses with his alto before a distinctly European statue, drapery and plants; and another shot in a photo album frame shows him with three female string musicians, all sporting 19th century duds.

What does all this have to do with the music, which is far from programmatic or referential? Is it that the slaves have taken over the plantation, helping themselves to whatever they like in the musical storehouse? European traditions (the violin, viola and cello as symbols of non-jazz thinking) here cohabit the musical landscape with African-American discoveries. And although someone might jump to make the minstrelsy connection, the arrangements, tempos and sonorities have nothing of pre-jazz America, or even ragtime, about them.

Rather, what we get is postmodern jazz of the most sophisticated sensuousness — luminous writing for string quartet supplementing Osby’s standard alto-piano-bass-drums format. And almost nothing of Osby’s arrangements for strings recalls jazz’s previous uses of those instruments: no Charlie Parker or Ben Webster on a lush bed of cat guts, no John Lewis-Ornette Coleman Third Stream experiments. Instead, these eight musicians work together constantly as a combo, with one quartet playing off the other, the strings comping for the alto or piano solos (hear the amazing synergy they all create on the up-tempo “Social Order”). Precedents for this kind of synthesis in jazz do not abound, but one beautiful example is a late-’60s session, One for One, by pianist Andrew Hill (Osby’s mentor), which melds the jazz and classical strains so seamlessly that the supposed dichotomy just evaporates.

There’s much loveliness on Symbols of Light, but of a kind that’s rare in any decade. Pianist Jason Moran, Osby’s long-term partner in risk taking, is all over this set, contributing a headlong, rushingly dramatic composition (“Repay in Kind”) that comes on like the sound track to some noir action flick. The range of his playing, from the stately “M” to the stride-bluesy “Ministrale Again,” shows him sensitive and fertile in any context.

And Osby, the most inspiring yet introspectively humble leader in contemporary jazz, shines throughout — as composer and arranger, as soloist on both alto and soprano — pouring out steady beams of guiding light.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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