November 25 marks the release of A Beautiful Life, a musically brilliant and emotionally potent new album by Jimmy Greene in tribute to his murdered daughter, Ana Grace. I could write a long essay about Jimmy the human being – we’ve been friends over half our lives by now – his humility, his strength, his faith and his caring responsibility. But that’s not what this is. Instead, I wanted to whet your appetites with some personal highlights from the catalog of Jimmy the musician. Though he is my friend and a major formative figure in my own development as a young musician, I have also been a fan of his music since I first heard his soulful, mature playing when he was 16. It has of course only gotten better. As a saxophonist and composer he has developed a distinct and important voice.
I have omitted the tracks from A Beautiful Life because a) you should just buy the record without my putting it on the list and b) I am not about to take on the responsibility of picking one of those tracks above the others. I have also omitted Jimmy’s tremendous contributions to my own records, though for those interested, he is prominently featured on “Happy Birthday” (in a “tenor battle” with fellow “twin tower” Wayne Escoffery) and “Washington, 1963” from Soul Force and “Motherless” and “Lester” from Ripples. Finally I have omitted some great and significant recordings from Tom Harrell, Horace Silver, Ben Riley, the New Jazz Composers Octet, Myron Walden and others, not to mention many wonderful tracks from Jimmy’s own albums as a bandleader. Ten is a small number, and I went with personal highlights.
1 ) “Love In Action” (from Mission Statement)
Jimmy’s longtime quartet of Xavier Davis, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland is augmented here by guitarist Lage Lund on a sweeping, extended rubato tune. The soulful, sophisticated music and the important message are both perfect representations of what JG is about.
2 ) “Song for Isaiah” (from True Life Stories)
The older I get, the fewer life-altering musical experiences I have, just the nature of the aging and learning processes. One notable exception came a little less than a decade ago when I went with my wife and oldest daughter to hear Jimmy premiere his extended work The Overcomer’s Suite at the Village Vanguard with his quartet, a moment in which I felt both my ears and heart expand. One of the movements in that suite was recorded on this Criss Cross release with the addition of Jeremy Pelt’s trumpet.
3 ) “Heavy” by Avishai Cohen (from Colors)
This infectious track documents Jimmy’s long, fruitful relationship with bassist/composer/bandleader Cohen. Jimmy’s beautiful flute playing is on display alongside trombonist Avi Lebovich and pianist Jason Lindner, another frequent collaborator.
4 ) “He Is Lord” (from Forever)
This duet with Xavier Davis shows a number of things: Jimmy’s immense lyricism (especially on ballads), his sensitive interplay, his gorgeous tone on soprano saxophone and the role of faith in his music. The absence of a full band or musical pyrotechnics doesn’t keep this from being seriously intense.
5 ) “Art of War” by Ralph Peterson (from The Art of War)
When I heard that Jimmy was playing in Ralph Peterson’s Quintet (alongside Jeremy Pelt, Eric Revis and my onetime Rutgers classmate Orrin Evans) I got pretty excited. I chose this track because it was the first track from the first of their 3 records together and I still remember where I was sitting when I rocked back in my chair from the onslaught of sound. As sensitive a player as Jimmy can be, he can also blow the roof off with his tenor, and he does just that here.
6 ) “Word! Dr. Byrd” by Darren Barrett (from First One Up)
While still in graduate school, I had the mind-blowing experience of travelling up to Boston one weekend to hear Jimmy play at Wally’s in a quintet with trumpeter Darren Barrett, pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer John Lamkin. I’m glad that group is represented on record, and this hard-swinging tribute to a major mentor of Barrett’s is just one among the highlights.
7 ) “Arioso” by Lewis Nash (from The Highest Mountain)
The blend of Jimmy’s soprano and Jeremy Pelt’s trumpet is on display again here in Nash’s wonderful quintet. I have a soft spot for this 30+ year old waltz by the late, great James Williams. Nash’s group has a perfect balance of fire and sensitivity all around, aided tremendously by the comping and soloing of another frequent JG collaborator, pianist Renee Rosnes.
8 ) “Brand New World” (from Brand New World)
I would be remiss if I didn’t include some of the important figures from Jimmy’s time at the Hartt School of Music. In addition to Goldberg, Barrett and the late Dwayne Burno, this track from Jimmy’s RCA Victor Records debut prominently features fellow Jackie McLean disciples Stevie-D and E-Mac (trombonist Steve Davis and drummer Eric McPherson). And the baby niece for whom he wrote this tune is now in high school – Jimmy, we’re getting old, dude . . .
9 ) “Arc for Puppy” by Mario Pavone (from Ancestors)
Though JG is best known for more “straight-ahead” contexts, he is quite versatile, as displayed through his multiple collaborations with progressive bassist/composer Mario Pavone. In this group his saxophone (tenor, on this track) is juxtaposed seamlessly with the generally more experimental sounds of Tony Malaby as well as pianist Peter Madsen and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
10 ) “242 E. 3rd“ by Lamont Johnson (from 242 E. 3rd)
This is the oldest track on this list (though far from his first record date). This Latin-inflected tune, also featuring some great Howard Johnson tuba, has some searing JG tenor work alongside the piano and writing of Johnson, an important and underappreciated Jackie McLean sideman. Jimmy, I forgive you for missing my wedding rehearsal for this and am glad you made the ceremony