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Although Jimmy Greene recorded his new album, While Looking Up (Mack Avenue), well before the current coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., its message seems particularly resonant during these trying times. The saxophonist and Connecticut resident, 45, was aiming to create a musical work that would heal — or at least provide temporary refuge from — the caustic political divisiveness that has overtaken the national discourse. For Greene, that meant turning to his faith and to some old friends with whom he hadn’t recorded in some time. And so, he rounded up confederates from his 2009 recording Mission Statement — guitarist Lage Lund, bassist Reuben Rogers and vibraphonist Stefon Harris — as well as pianist Aaron Goldberg and drummer Kendrick Scott, with whom he goes back even further. Much has transpired in the roughly 14 years since Greene led a recording session with these particular sidemen, not the least of which was the horrific 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown; Greene and his wife Nelba lost their 6-year-old daughter, Ana. After a hiatus, Greene once again picked up the saxophone and returned to the studio, recording the 2014 release Beautiful Life and its 2017 followup, Flowers: Beautiful Life, Volume 2, which celebrated Ana’s bright spirit. And while Ana’s presence certainly can be felt throughout While Looking Up, the album allows Greene to revisit the aesthetic he was developing on Mission Statement with trusted and cherished colleagues.
Reached by phone at home in late March, Greene was doing his best to cope with the new rules of engagement brought on by the pandemic. It was the first day back from spring break for the educator at West Connecticut University in Danbury, but all classes had moved online for the remainder of the semester. He’s been keeping mind and body healthy by taking daily walks, even as a light snow was falling on his neighborhood.
[caption id="attachment_28347" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Jimmy Greene (Photo by Anna Webber)[/caption] What do you hope to communicate with the title of your new album? The title just comes from looking heavenward, looking for connections in our world that are bigger than ourselves to get through the daily challenges we face. And now is probably one of the more challenging times in our history, this pandemic. And the connections we have, here on Earth, are what’s hugely responsible for sustaining us. But at times, we need to have — at least I feel personally — a connection with God. And my faith is something that’s a constant; no matter what’s going on, I know that that’s something I can always rely upon. Could While Looking Up also reference the need to look up from personal devices and the 24-hour news cycle? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV47xoiGTJ0
Reading the news, being well-informed, is an important part of being a responsible citizen. But, at some point, if we’re glued to every single bit of news and don’t take a break from that, and don’t try to find strength outside of that, it can be bad for us. Just being totally plugged in to every missive coming out of the White House or every Tweet and every response to the Tweet and every person taking sides, that can be pretty exhausting. And I think there’s a human element and a spiritual element that connects us all, and I think we need to pay attention to that, especially in these times. What drove your decision to record with your former colleagues? In late 2018, I was just looking back on the 10 years since we recorded Mission Statement. And that album for me was a turning point in a lot of ways. Compositionally, concept- and vision-wise, it was a turning point for me in my recording career as a leader. And even years later, it’s proven kind of significant. People approach me all the time and tell me how much they like that album and how much it affected them. I felt like, it’s been 10 years, I wanted to see what it would be like to get some of these folks back together. Everybody’s grown a lot musically and personally.
I think there’s a human element and a spiritual element that connects us all, and I think we need to pay attention to that, especially in these times.
You include a version of the Billie Holiday classic “Good Morning, Heartache” on the new album. Did you have Lester Young in mind? [caption id="attachment_28350" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Photo by Anna Webber[/caption]
Pres is someone that I’ve always loved and spent a good deal of time learning his solos and learning about him and his sound. I wasn’t specifically trying to reference him, I was just trying to play the tune with Reuben and Kendrick, and I think there’s a lot of dialogue between the three of us. We’re all really listening to each other and interacting. And that’s something I’ve really paid a lot of attention to recently. I’ve been working the last three years in the great Ron Carter’s quartet, Foursight. And those who’ve played with him know you’ve gotta pay attention to everything he plays. Because he can throw you some harmonic curveballs, and if you’re not listening, then you’ll swing and miss [laughs]. What influenced you to record Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” as a ballad? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsan1dtU0Ew
I was on tour with Ron Carter. We were coming back from Italy and it was a nine-hour flight, and the documentary Whitney was available. What an amazing voice and talent. But after watching the documentary, I was left with a feeling of melancholy, just the tragic way she passed and the struggles she had throughout her life. I wanted to do “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” as a ballad, to capture that feeling. While Looking Up is scheduled to be released on April 3, the day before what would have been Ana’s 14th birthday. Was this intentional? Nope, it was Mack Avenue’s decision. They chose that date, and I thought, ‘Wow,’ what better day to have the album released than right around Ana’s birthday?’