Greg Abate, Houston Person
January 1, 1970
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Greg Abate scares up some attention
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Staff | August 18, 2006
He recorded songs called "Dracula," "Frankenstein," and "Igor's Revenge," but Greg Abate didn't include any tunes named for ghosts on his new album, "Monsters in the Night."
Maybe he should have. He shares a couple of characteristics with them, after all, as a frighteningly invisible minor master of bebop alto saxophone.
It's not like he's unknown everywhere. For five years now Abate has headlined a tiny jazz festival annually in Lubec, Maine, and he is regularly booked to front pick up bands all across the country. He's a little better known in Europe, where he tours heavily each summer. But then, musicians often note that jazz is more appreciated overseas than it is stateside.
At a tribute to Charlie Parker with different alto players in Vienne, France, last summer, he was impressed by the dedication of fans gathered in a Roman amphitheater.
"I remember doing `Donna Lee' and `Lover Man,'" says Abate, "and I started a little cadenza, and you look out there and you see thousands of people, just their heads, and beautiful lighting — and you cannot hear one sound from all those people."
Abate got a similar response from a smaller crowd at Marblehead Summer Jazz earlier this summer, he says. But he doesn't often get booked for high-profile gigs in Boston like the one he has coming up Tuesday at Scullers. That one will show off the monster-monikered tunes on the new disc, a project Abate conceived while watching a werewolf movie with a band mate after a gig in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
The musicians backing Abate Tuesday will be the local guys on the new album: trombonist Artie Montanaro, pianist Paul Nagel, bassist Bill Miele, and drummer Vinny Pagano.
"The live version of this band," says Abate, "is very high-energy — more so than the CD."
Abate has recorded with bigger names in the past, Kenny Barron, Hilton Ruiz, James Williams, and Billy Hart among them. But for this album he stuck closer to home, which for him has been Rhode Island nearly all his life. He grew up in Woonsocket, and played music throughout junior high and high school.
"I didn't really know what I was getting into," he recalls, "but I loved the music. When I heard Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck with 'Take Five' I was in the 9th or 10th grade, and I started to migrate toward that sort of alto sound."
His jazz education didn't get much beyond Brubeck, however, until he got out of high school. "The band director was a New England Conservatory classical pianist," Abate explains, "and he didn't say, `Hey, you should listen to Bird or Cannonball Adderley or Sonny Stitt or Dexter Gordon or John Coltrane.' I never heard those names until I got to Berklee."
After beginning his studies there, Abate moved to California and began supporting himself working R&B gigs. He returned to Berklee in 1972 to finish his degree, doubled back to California afterward, and at 28 was hired to play lead alto in Ray Charles's band.
In 1974, he got homesick and returned to Rhode Island, where he found steady work at a local club and eventually launched a fusion band called Channel One.
Abate's focus on bebop began when Dick Johnson hired him in 1986 to play tenor sax with the Artie Shaw Orchestra. The Shaw band is known for swing, of course, but playing with it gave Abate a better feel for playing standards and for soloing with a strong sense of a song's harmonic structure.
"That helped me become a better bebop player," he says, "because to play bop you really have to concentrate on the elements of being your own timekeeper and having the technique to play the ideas that you have coming through your head."
Abate has long since established himself as a top-notch bebop player. If the general public hasn't quite caught up with that fact yet, his fellow musicians have. Pianist Mark Soskin played with Abate in Marblehead a few weeks ago, and the two will play together for a week this fall at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in Lincoln Center.
Soskin knows a thing or two about quality saxophone players, having worked alongside Sonny Rollins for 15 years, and he's among those who believe Abate deserves wider recognition.
"As far as being underrated, this business works in mysterious ways," Soskin says. "In Greg's case, I really don't know why. But he definitely should be out there more, and I hope that he gets there."
The Greg Abate Quintet performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Tuesday at Scullers. Tickets $16. Call 617-562-4111 or visit www.scullersjazz.com.
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Marblehead Summer Jazz, Unitarian-Universalist Church, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead. 781-631-128. 8 p.m. $27, $25 advance.
Tenor saxophonist Houston Person (above), some believe, is scandalously undervalued. A big-toned, soulful blower who turns convincingly tender on ballads, Person, 71, spent three decades backing vocalist Etta Jones. But he also made arty duo albums with Ron Carter, Ran Blake, and, most recently, Bill Charlap — their exquisite "You Taught My Heart to Sing" (HighNote) is already among this year's best albums. He'll have his usual quartet with him in Marblehead (including pianist Stan Hope, bassist Phil Flanagan, and drummer Chip White), joined by Berklee violin phenomenon Aaron Weinstein. Person played on Weinstein's debut album, "A Handful of Stars," and the 20-year-old came away from the experience much impressed by the saxophonist's reverence for melody. Person, he told Nat Hentoff in the Wall Street Journal, "constantly seeks out interesting songs from the depths of the American songbook and is always eager to share his finds."
Fri 8-18 Tania Maria This fiery, well-traveled Brazilian singer-pianist rolls into town for two nights of celebrating the release of her splendid new album for Blue Note Records, "Intimidade." Then she's off to New York for a six-night run doing likewise at the Blue Note club. Joining her in Cambridge are Rick Sebastian on drums, Sergio Brandao on bass, and Mestre Carneiro on percussion. Regattabar, Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-395-7757. 7:30 & 10 p.m. $25. Repeats Sat.
Fri 8-18 Jon De Lucia Group Saxophonist-composer De Lucia, a Quincy native, celebrates the release of his debut album, "Face No Face," a well-conceived disc of ambitious originals recorded with a band of fellow, fast-rising Berklee-ites since relocated to New York. Joining him tonight is a somewhat different group made up of guitarist Nir Felder, pianist Pete Rende, bassist John Lockwood, and drummer Mark Ferber. Ryles, 212 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge. 617-876-9330. 9 p.m. $10.