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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Narada Burton Greene (1937 - 2021)

Burton Greene in 2018. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

By Martin Schray

For Burton Greene, the most important thing was having your own musical voice. On the other hand, it was also no contradiction for him to 'know your roots.' He once said that he had known about three hundred bebop standards before he played a note of free jazz. Greene started his career in Chicago and the Black musicians there would have gotten on him if he had just copied his idols. In a 2003 interview with Dan Wharburton, he said: “I came off the stand one time after a jam session, I was strutting like a peacock, wow, I nailed it, and a cat came up to me and said: 'What is that shit you playing, Jack? You from the North side, right? I suggest you go home and practice. I don't wanna see yo ass in here unless you play who you are.' From then on, Greene liked to break the rules, he liked to smash the form, everything was about personality. The last thing he was interested in was to recreate the museum, as he called it. And he truly did succeed on his effort.

Greene, whose mother was a classical pianist, first studied classical music in Chicago at the Fine Arts Academy from 1944 to 1951, then modern jazz from 1955 to 1956. He moved to New York City in the early 1960s, where he became part of the free jazz scene. With Alan Silva he founded the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble in 1963, which was dedicated to free improvisation early on. In 1964, he was a founding member of the Jazz Composers' Guild with Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor, who became one of his main influences. The following year he formed his own quartet with Marion Brown and Henry Grimes. In the years to follow he played with all the alpha dogs on the scene: Rashied Ali, Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri, Byard Lancaster and Sam Rivers (among others) and recorded albums for the avant-garde label ESP before leaving for Asia and then Europe in 1969. After a brief stay in Paris, he moved on to Amsterdam. In Europe, he first worked with some of the great ex-pats such as John Tchicai, Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton, as well as first class European musicians like Maarten Altena, Johnny Dyani and Willem Breuker, and also with fusion bands like Gong. Since exploring new sounds was part of his musical DNA, he became interested in synthesizers just to plow this field extensively, even if he would later return to his roots. During the 1980s he began to dig into the klezmer tradition (Greene had a Jewish background) from the perspective of jazz music and founded the group Klezmokum, in which he performed regularly with Perry Robinson (then in 2003 the quartet The Klezzthetics, as a smaller formation). In the last part of his career Greene made a number of solo records, for example for CIMP and NoBusiness, plus several works with smaller ensembles like Compendium (Improvisational Being, 2017).

There are several reasons why Greene’s style is so unique. He claims that he was the first one in free jazz to use the inside of the piano. He put golf balls in there, he scraped the strings with the tuning hammer, he even used a garbage can cover. But that’s not all. His free outbreaks were spiced with lyricism, swing, and drive. He became deeply involved with yoga and the meditation techniques of Swami Swatchidananda and studied Indian classical music music as well as the folk and art music of Eastern Europe, which is also audible in his music. His sound is incredibly crisp, lush, direct and fluid at the same time, a true pleasure to listen to.

Greene has left a large oeuvre, among it some outstanding albums. Quite recommendable is his first album, Burton Greene Quartet (ESP 1966), with Marion Brown on alto sax, Henry Grimes on bass, and both Dave Grant and Tom Price on percussion. Another excellent one is Presenting Burton Greene (Columbia, 1969) with Byard Lancaster (alto sax, trumpet), Steve Tintweiss (bass) and Shelly Rusten (percussion) and, of course, Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, with Gary William Friedman (alto sax), Jon Winter flute), Alan Silva (bass) and Clarence Walker (percussion), which he recorded in 1964 and was only released by Cadence in 1998. If you are interested in his klezmer recordings, Nagila Monsters (Tzadik, 2008) may be a good start. Live at Kerrytown (NoBusiness, 20212) is a wonderful solo album.

On Monday, June 27th, Narada Burton Greene passed away at the age of 84. He will surely be missed.

Watch a solo performance here:


Paul said...

Martin, thank you very much for this piece. It's a sad loss, but luckily we are left with a generous discography. In fact, I saw that ESP Disk has made it's recordings from Burton Greene free to download. Anyway, I was lucky to catch Greene playing at the October Revolution festival in Philadelphia in 2017 ... it was a wonderful experience - in one of the oldest churches in the US, here was ex-pat Burton playing music from throughout his career, telling stories about his beginnings in Chicago and his work in New York, his life in Europe, and of the first, fabled October Revolution. He was generous. Both with stories and music, what a spirit.

Jazzmb66 said...

Thank you Burton and thank you Martin. I will have to hunt down that Columbia album.

Anonymous said...

Not to forget Burton´s excellent and highly sensitive contribution to Patti Waters ´
ESP recording "Patti Waters sings" (1966)
Bye Bye golden years of free music.