Following up 2019’s PlaySPACE, the tenor/soprano saxophonist fronts longtime working group captured live at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois
Inventive originals, arrangements of Ellington/Tizol, George Duke and Hank Williams, in performances marked by improvisational depth and energized groove
There are only so many bands that can say it, but the Chris Greene Quartet, led by Evanston, IL-based tenor and soprano saxophonist Chris Greene, has been at it for over 15 years, with just one personnel change and 10 albums to its credit. PlaySPACE 2: P
lay Harder, the new CGQ live album, finds Greene and colleagues on their home turf, the Evanston venue SPACE, picking up where their previous effort PlaySPACE left off. The music is both intense and refined, the sound of a band that stretches out at every opportunity while still playing the room and maintaining an overall accessibility. “I like to think of a show as a
story arc,” Greene says, and that’s what PlaySPACE 2 delivers thanks to the talents of his loyal bandmates Damian Espinosa (piano & keyboards), Marc Piane (acoustic & electric bass) and Steve Corley (drums & percussion).
You can hear the band’s jocular rapport from the start, in the spoken intro to Piane’s hard-driving original “Divers.” Greene begins relating the tune’s inspiration to the audience, but suddenly decides Piane would explain it better, and so hands him the mic. In a word, Greene is eager to share the spotlight, a generosity of spirit that comes through in the music. By the time Corley kicks off the crushing intro to “Divers” we’ve already gotten to know the band a bit. After they tear it up for the next 13-plus minutes, taking the tune many places in strong solos from Greene and Espinosa, we’re even better acquainted with the group’s rhythmic energy and its inventive harmonic and melodic approach.
“Steve is a rock-solid drummer, really responsive and really musical,” Greene comments. “He’ll take what you suggest and spit it back at you better than you ever could have imagined. Marc is so disciplined and has the chops, knows when to step out and when to keep it simple and grooving. Damian been my right-hand man for a long time, he plays behind me better than anyone I’ve played with. He vibes off you but also feeds you information so it forces you to make different choices. They all do. That’s the way we keep ourselves sharp, it’s a constant conversation. That keeps the audience engaged too. No one is phoning it in on any of our shows, it’s always at the service of the conversation.”
The venue, too, shapes the music, and at SPACE the CGQ eases right into that ideal space between a concert and a club environment. Helpfully, for Greene it’s also right nearby. “It happens to be one of the best venues around, a really intimate room where I’ve seen everybody from Victor Wooten, Bebel Gilberto, Marcus Roberts and Béla Fleck to Maceo Parker. It’s a great place to see a show. The audience is relaxed and open. Every seat is a good seat.”
From that advantageous position, Greene and friends can take their time and develop and explore together, stretching out on material from different eras and sources. “Caravan,” the Ellington/Tizol standard, was an uptempo Afro-Cuban-influenced tenor feature for Greene on the first CGQ release, Soul and Science, Volume 1 from 2007. On PlaySPACE 2 he takes it on soprano, slower, every phrase elongated. In the CGQ, repertoire is not static; songs can change over time.
The same is true of the finale, a slow-simmering Ray Charles-influenced gospel rendering of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.” The band first documented it on Soul and Science 2: Electric Boogaloo from 2008, but to Greene this new version is definitive. “Every time we played it live we brought the house down, but it was hard to pull that off in a studio. So this was a happy accident — I called it that night and when I heard it back, I finally heard it the way we intended to play it.” Greene’s solo melds greasy blues licks and bop-inflected passagework, leading into the uproarious double-time coda (Greene calls it the Holy Ghost section) and a departing voiceover from the late Maya Angelou.
“Omi” is one of those hidden gems of the late ’70s, a niche that Greene enjoys rummaging through and coming up with gold. It’s by the late keyboard legend George Duke, specifically his 1977 release Reach for It, and it offers Greene and the band the perfect vehicle for extended freewheeling expression. Corley leads off with a potent drum prelude, setting the band up for a cathartic entrance and eventually a full-band percussion break and collective solo like nothing else on the album. Greene, on soprano, takes commanding flight in his solo, followed by a technically prodigious Espinosa as the sunny, exuberant groove churns away.
Greene’s new original, “Samba Fu Maga,” is the one track not recorded at SPACE, but rather at The Laundry Room in September 2021. Without getting derailed by politics, suffice it to say that the title “Samba Fu Maga” is not Portuguese. It is, however, a samba (partly) in 7/8, with a minor blues form, a funky outro and a certain throaty intensity evident in Greene’s urgent tenor solo.
From the vibrancy of PlaySPACE 2: Play Harder it’s easy to see why the Chris Greene Quartet has kept at it, building on a strong foundation as it continues to work four to six times every month, even in relatively lean times. “My guys have been really loyal to me because I’m loyal to them,” Greene concludes. “I want to put my best foot forward, and I know it’ll be best with these three guys. They know I’m going to bat for them, so they give me first dibs on their busy schedules.” And on the bandstand, one can add, they give even more. PlaySPACE 2 makes it abundantly clear at every step.
Album release Friday, May 6.