At the time of his death in 1979, Grant Green had been part of the jazz scene for close to two decades, a career seeing him as part of Blue Note’s stable of musicians during it’s mid-60s peak and making appearances on records by Lou Donaldson, Herbie Hancock and Bobby Hutcherson, among others. But instead of being seen as another hard bop player, Green’s reputation leans towards the sound Blue Note went to in the late 60s and early 70s: stretched out soul-jazz, bordering on light funk. It’s not surprise that Green’s best-of compilations have titles like Blue Breakbeats or Street Funk and Jazz Grooves. After all, at his best, he was a compelling player who knew how to wring a groove out of even the standards.
However, as two new archival releases by Resonance Records show, there’s a lot more to Green’s legacy than breakbeats or deep grooves: at his best, he was a compelling live presence whose playing didn’t rely on being any one specific thing: him and his bands could stretch out on a jazz lick as easily as they could work a Philly Soul groove as they could lean back on an old jazz standard.
From Paris… is comprised of two shows in France: one a studio session for ORTF, then France’s public radio and television broadcaster, in late 1969, and his appearances at the Antibes Jazz Festival on July 18 and 20, 1970. The 1969 session has an intimate vibe, like a small club show in front of an appreciative audience. It opens with a James Brown cover, but before long, Green and his band – Larry Ridley on acoustic bass and Don Lamond on drums – settle into an old Sonny Rollins number: “Oleo.” Here, Green’s playing is very much in a trad vein: sharp runs up and down his fretboard, short little licks that show his command of the guitar; Ridley gets a nice solo in too, and you can hear Green’s rhythm chops in the background. From there’s an interesting swing into the samba rhythms of “How Insensitive.” Although Green had dabbled in Latin rhythms previously – see 1962’s The Latin Bit – here, in a trio format, he works against the vibe, taking sharp little hits up and down the guitar: he’s perhaps too energetic for something as laid back as samba, but he’s more than game for it, too.
After a lengthy blues improvisation, they go back into another Rollins standard, “Sonnymoon for Two,” which builds up the tension for a good seven minutes, Green’s playing stretching out into some nice runs while Ridley and Lamond push the music along, with Ridley also taking a nice solo. It closes with guitarist Barney Kessel sitting in for “I Wish You Love,” which moves along in a nice, slow groove and gives both Kessel and Green ample room to shine.
The second section of From Paris has an altogether different vibe. For his two shows at the Antibes Jazz Festival, Green brought along Claude Bartlee on tenor sax, Billy Wilson on drums and organist Clarence Palmer. It kicks off with an energetic version of “Upshot,” where Green takes some time to rip off an interesting solo, then Bartlee steps in for one of his own. The July 18th set concludes with “Hurt So Bad,” an old Little Anthony and the Imperials song, where Green stretches out on a nice solo, as does Bartlee. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of Palmer and Wilson are locked into a killer groove: Palmer doesn’t play anything flashy, but his organ keeps the music anchored, while Wilson pushes the musicians forward.
The second set, recorded two days later, also opens with “Upshot” where the band lays out for a good 20 minutes, giving Green some room to make darting runs up and down. The dynamic of this band is a marked difference to the 1969 group: Wilson’s playing is louder and more bombastic, while the organ’s pushing chords bolster the music in a way that Ridley’s bass can’t quite accomplish. It closes with them really jamming on “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” going almost half an hour. There’s some interesting moments, but perhaps most compelling is when Palmer gets a chance to solo; as he stretches out, taking both the lead and the bottom end, so Green switches to rhythm and Wilson goes nuts at his kit. It’s exciting stuff.
Live at Oil Can Harry’s, The second album released by Resonance, picks up the story a few years later, with Green’s first trip to Vancouver. Fronting a quintet, Green and company played for a little over an hour in a set recorded for broadcast on CQHM-FM at a Vancouver club. Here, Green was joined by: electric pianist Emmanuel Riggins, Ronnie Ware on bass, Greg Williams at the drum kit and percussionist Gerald Izzard.
The set opens with an old Charlie Parker number, “Now’s the Time,” where Green and the band really swing hard, with Williams’ drumming especially pushing the music forward. From there it’s into “How Insensitive.” This version is different than the earlier version on Paris to Antibes: it opens with Green’s gentle playing, sans band, where he gently strums chords and plays short lines up and down the fretboard. The band slowly works into the music and as a unit, they slowly work up the tension for almost half an hour. Green’s playing melds almost effortlessly into Riggin’s stabs at the piano, while the rhythm section is locked into a solid groove. The Penguin Guide to Jazz once suggested that live, Green often played on autopilot; one wonders what they’d make of this performance, which easily matches the heights of Live at the Lighthouse.
The album closes with a lengthy medley of then-current tunes: Stanley Clarke’s “Vulcan Woman,” The Ohio Players “Skin Tight,” Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” and finally the O’Jays “For the Love of Money.” In addition to showing where his head was at this point, it shows how tight this band was on any given night: Ware slides effortlessly from the lead on “Vulcan Woman” to the lightning quick rhythm on “Skin Tight,” for example. Indeed, the group moves deftly from one song to another, not once sounding like they’re losing their or wandering on the bandstand. There aren’t many moments where Green gets a chance to show off his chops, but his chugging rhythm is a key part of the groove the band works up on this lengthy medley – which, it must be said, it’s too far removed from the hard funk grooves Miles Davis was cooking up with On the Corner only a few years before.
Taken as a whole, these two records chart Green’s evolution as a player. From the more straight-ahead chops on “Oleo” to the long medley at the end of Oil Can Harry’s, it’s easy to see how he wasn’t just advancing as a player, but also that he was constantly listening to new sounds and incorporating them into his repertoire: he was moving steadily from the hard bop sounds of the late 1950s and the soul-jazz of the 60s into a compelling mix of funk and fusion, typical of the mid 70s. In this sense, he wasn’t far from peers like Herbie Hancock or Freddie Hubbard, who made similar moves at about the same time.
However, things didn’t work out quite as well for Green as they did Hubbard or Hancock: by 1975, he was no longer associated with Blue Note. He’d pop up at Creed Taylor’s CTI records and later at Landmark, but a heart attack would cut his career short at 43. Meanwhile, these live documents sat in vaults for decades; I don’t think the Vancouver show has even been bootlegged, despite it’s FM broadcast. But thankfully, they’ve been released. They’re not just essential documents for Green fans, but for anyone interested in the intersection of jazz, fusion and funk. Each are meticulously remastered and presented with huge, detailed liner booklets by Resonance, complete with photos from the gigs in question. I think any jazz fan would like either of these. I know I certainly do.