Greg Abate’s birthday on May 31 came with a nice surprise. Jazz Week magazine reported that their new album, “Magic Dance”, topped the charts for the fourth week in a row.
The album, released at the end of April on Whaling town strait, is Abate’s 19th as a leader, and is of particular significance as the two-CD set is entirely composed of music composed by his friend, jazz pianist Kenny Barron. Better yet, Abate was able to enlist Barron to join him in the quartet that is at the heart of the 88 minutes of dazzling music.
In this familiar music industry trope, Abate is an overnight sensation – after five decades of pursuing his craft. Last weekend Abate and his quartet performed the music from the new album to a full house at Chan’s in Woonsocket. He will headlining the Falmouth Library Jazz Series at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 13. Upcoming dates include July 3 at Greenvale Vineyard in Portsmouth, RI; August 1 at Jazz on the Green in Jamestown RI and a celebration of the album’s release on September 17 at the Narrows Center in Fall River.
Abate lives in Coventry, RI and was born in Fall River and raised in Woonsocket. He is a product of Berklee College of Music and traveled to California in the late 1960s, which led him to play alto saxophone in The Ray Charles Band in 1973-74. Back in New England a few years later, he founded the groups Channel One and Sax Odyssey, and spent a few years in the Artie Shaw Band a little later.
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Kenny Barron is originally from Philadelphia and has performed with a long list of jazz immortals, including Dizzy Gillespie. He is a beloved figure because while his compositions can be as richly complex as anything in the bebop, all of his music is colored with a warm melodicism. For music fans who may think that jazz in general, and bebop in particular, can be overly complicated and technically forgiving, Barron is like a one-man mission proving that melody and humanity are what makes all music. attractive.
Barron, who received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2010, taught at Rutgers for 25 years, even as he himself pursued a busy career as an accompanist and band conductor. He currently teaches piano and composition at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
Abate and Barron performed on an album together in 1996 and have remained friends. While the two were on the same bill at the Camden, Maine Opera House in 2019, Abate asked him if it would be okay if Abate made an album of Barron’s music. Barron readily agreed, and so Abate began to research the vast treasure of Barron’s compositions. The pandemic intervened to make the registration process longer than expected, but Abate said he was delighted with the reception the new record is receiving.
âThis news of my birthday was just crazy,â said Abate. âI was so surprised at its longevity – four weeks at number one. It is also widely distributed throughout the country. It’s a big deal for jazz. “
It was above all this love of melody that attracted Abate to his friend’s music.
âThe melody is one of my favorite things,â said Abate. âAs a saxophonist, I love people like Phil Woods, Art Pepper and Dexter Gordon. Lots of players have amazing technique but it all feels angular. It can be remarkable and awesome, but I’m the melodic type. Someone like Phil Woods, with his mastery of this melodic thing, is the ultimate for me. Like Dexter Gordon, where there was always a nice melody in the melody – it’s something special.
Since Barron had recorded several of his own pieces before and had other musicians cover them as well, Abate said he felt he had to work on the tunes to make them his own. He immersed himself in the Barron songbook.
âI’ve always loved ‘Voyage’ and some of Kenny’s other tracks, but I haven’t known a lot of them,â Abate explained. âI had heard some of it on his recordings, and he said he would be honored if I wanted to do something like that. But the question became: how could I make them different? “
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Abate therefore approached the project one song at a time.
âI would go back and rearrange them,â Abate noted. âI had them ready for our session scheduled for May. But when that was pushed back by quarantines, I went back and changed everything again. I think it was a positive change. As an artist you can sometimes think about it too much, so it helps to have that deadline to force you to finish. But the way this project went, got delayed, then started again, was probably meant to be.
Abate reunited with Barron and the rhythm section of drummer Johnathan Blake and bassist Dezron Douglas for the first sessions at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey. The original May date was delayed by COVID to September 2020.
âKenny really enjoyed it and I was so glad he agreed to do it,â Abate said of the session.
After the quartet had done the basic tracks, the mixing and mastering was done at Bongo Beach in Westport. This is where the next phase of the Abate project took place. In his quest to give each song a fresh new sound, he added additional saxophone or flute with overdubs.
âIt was a whole different thing at Bongo Beach where I had to go to this little four by six booth,â Abate said of the overdub. âThere was a small fan in the cabin, so I had to wait 10 minutes with the fan before entering the cabin. And I would do stuff like “Cook’s Bay”, where the main melody is played on the flute, but then the alto saxophone comes in behind. Other songs may have one or two saxophones, while âVoyageâ and âInnocenceâ have a big band saxophone sound with soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. I’ve done a lot of overdubs in my career and after a while you know how to word and where to breathe.
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On the record, “Cook’s Bay” is a luminous ballad, a playful slapstick where the shimmering melody of the main line echoes Barron’s magnificent piano lines. “Golden Lotus”, cut from a 1980 Barron album, has a seductive melodic flow, as Abate’s tenor and alto saxophones work in unison. Abate channels his inner Charlie Parker to the frantic rhythm of “Lemuria”, where his viola plays the main line while his tenor ensures harmony. The playful swing of “Voyage”, delivered by this big band sound, is an intoxicating game. “Rain” provides a lush evocation of rain and is a fabulous introduction to Barron’s style lyricism, supporting Abate’s soft tenor saxophone caressing the melody.
The new album is an example of how modern jazz can be accessible to a wide range of music fans, its varied melody and rhythmic lines full of enticing surprises. Nothing less is expected from a musician like Abate, whose stories are as charming as his music.
âI saw auditions for the Ray Charles group listed on a union bulletin board,â Abate recalls of that day in 1973. âSo I went down there and warmed up. Ray walked in and came straight up to me. ‘Who are you?’ he asked, so I told him and he asked me which mouthpiece I was using because he was playing too. âI love your sound,â he said, and I was in it. “
Later, back in New England, Abate was playing a lot on Cape Cod with Lou Colombo of Brockton, who introduced him to Dick Johnson. Soon after, Johnson recruited him for the Artie Shaw Band.
âThe way we played Artie Shaw’s music in the ’80s was very different from the way Artie played it in the’ 40s,â Abate said with a laugh. âWe have taken a much more contemporary approach. Back in New England, I played five nights a week with my band Channel One, which played jazz with a Latin twist. Now I play all over the world; 2020 was the first year in a long time that I haven’t been to Europe, but I’m heading back to England and Wales in October and the US dates are coming up. There’s a lot going on and I’m ready for it. Chan’s last weekend was great. Haven’t seen so many people in one place since March of last year.
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