As soon as the Chris Greene Quartet takes the stage, jazz and rock audiences alike notice something different – something besides the fact that they’re seated next to each other. The jazz crowd can’t help but sense the charisma and electricity, not always seen in a jazz band, that emanates from the quartet even during the saxophonist’s most committed solos. And those fans accustomed to the high energy and loose hi-jinks of a rock band suddenly find themselves diving deeper into improvised music than they might have thought possible. At a time when jazz continues to seek new audiences, the Chris Greene Quartet sits poised on the future’s cusp. In much the way that classical composers have historically used native folk elements as the basis for their art, the CGQ uses familiar modern materials – the funk and hip-hop he heard growing up – as a bridge between jazz and other genres.
At the band’s heart, of course, is the leader, born (in 1973) and raised in Evanston, Illinois, the first suburb north of Chicago and the culturally precocious home of Northwestern University. A young veteran who has worked with a raft of top-name artists – from hip-hop icon Common to superstar vocalist Sheena Easton to local heroes like Liquid Soul and The Mighty Blue Kings – Greene began playing alto saxophone at the age of 10. He developed his skills in the award-winning Evanston High School music program; while there, he began to perform professionally with local jazz and rock groups, and continued to do so after entering the prestigious Jazz Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington. There he studied with the renowned David Baker (who received the NEA “Jazz Masters” designation in 2000).
After college, Greene returned to the Chicago area and immersed himself in its rich stew of genres and venues. By 1995 he had formed Chris Greene and New Perspective, “which was a fusion of what I had studied at Indiana, plus electric jazz, plus the soul and funk and hip-hop that my parents had listened to,” he explains. New Perspective released two albums: On The Verge (1998) and “jazz” (2004).
“That band was my main creative outlet, but not much source of income,” Greene recalls. So he became a hired gun on alto sax, working with a variety of different Chicago bands, eventually including a touring Dave Matthews tribute band from 2000 - 06. “My experience with the tribute band taught me a lot about the music business – how to play in front of certain audiences, how to temper my technique for different crowds, how to keep it interesting while playing over just one or two chords. And that band also made me learn tenor sax, which I always resisted.
“The few times I tried it, I liked it, but I knew that I couldn’t just transfer my alto licks to tenor; to do it right, I knew I would have to start from scratch, go back to the source, dig into Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and all that. People kept telling me my ideas would work on tenor, but I still resisted – until they made me play it in the tribute band. So I started studying the great tenor players at length, all of them from the beginning, and also the contemporary players – and I found out I was a tenor player.”
The tenor is the workhorse of modern jazz, the most potent of the saxophones; and, as a popular bit of folk wisdom reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” For Greene, this meant that he felt a duty to place his horn in an acoustic quartet – to maintain the tradition of jazz’s great tenor-led groups.
“I wanted to really start playing some acoustic jazz on tenor,” he says. But he also found that despite his respect for that tradition, he couldn’t completely ignore the influences that had shaped him up till then. “Because of everything I listened to, it’s always going to come out a little bit funky – or even a lot! But I never want it to sound hackneyed or clichéd. My lofty intention for using funk is the same as that of Bartok or Beethoven, when they used folk melodies as an element in their compositions. So when there’s funk in the music, it’s because I hear it there, and not because I’m just trying to please the audience.”
In assembling what is now the Chris Greene Quartet, the saxophonist started with the shards of New Perspective, which had begun to wane in the early 2000s. “Damian Espinosa had been playing with us since 2001, and he was my first choice for piano. And I had known [bassist] Marc Piane since 1996, had done some gigs with him in different bands; he was my first choice for an acoustic band. I asked Marc who he enjoyed playing rhythm with, and he said he played a lot with Tyrone Blair.
“So we were off and running. Our first gig as the CGQ was in October 2005, at Bistro 1800, a restaurant in Evanston near the Northwestern campus. We might have made $10 each.”
The CGQ has released three physical albums: Soul and Science (Volume One in 2007; Volume Two in 2008) and Merge (2009). The band has also released one digital album, the 2010 Play Time (named after the 1967 film by Jacques Tati), available as a free download from their website; later that year came a DVD, Based On A True Story, recorded in concert at the world-famous Jazz Showcase. In the summer of 2011, drummer Blair was replaced by powerhouse drummer Steve Corley, who has continued to drive the band’s signature blend of 21st-century American musical genres. In October 2011 they recorded a live album at Mayne Stage in Chicago, due for release in early 2012.
“Remember,” says Greene, “you’re talking to a guy who, at Indiana U., would have theory and lessons all morning, then jazz improv or arranging classes in the afternoon, and then would sit and watch Yo! MTV Raps in the evening. Plus, my mom was really big into Philadelphia soul, and my dad was into funk and disco. And because of all that, I already knew a lot of the things the rappers were sampling, which led me to check out James Brown, and then [Brown’s great alto man] Maceo Parker, and the whole school of r-and-b sax playing. And somewhere along the way, all those wires were crossed and soldered together in my head.”
It’s a crossed-wire combination that is finding a growing and steadily more diverse audience. “I’ve had some people, who have a restrictive view of what ‘jazz’ is, actually lecture me – ‘What do you think you’re doing?’, that kind of thing. But we were playing recently at the Chicago Cultural Center, and a 60s-ish black lady comes up – a lady who’d seen a lot in her time, heard people like Duke Ellington and Count Basie – and she said, ‘You know, you guys remind me of how jazz was played back in the day.’ She saw right through all the funk and the other stuff and got the traditional element. She found the honesty; she knew we were coming right out of the tradition.”
It’s that ability to retain that tradition, expanding it at the same time, that makes the Chris Greene Quartet something different on the modern jazz scene.