Have saxophone, will travel. With apologies to Paladin, that sums up the career of reed player Greg Abate. Since the early 1990s, he’s been a true-blue ambassador for bebop, at home in southern New England and at venues all over the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Less frequent international forays have taken him as far as Moscow and Georgia—the former Soviet republic, not the southern state associated with his early musical boss Ray Charles.
Abate, who turns 75 on May 31, estimates that in a normal year, he averages 225 days on the road. After the extended pandemic lull that kept him at home in Rhode Island composing, practicing, and Zoom teaching, he resumed traveling last fall. That itinerary included 19 gigs in England between October 28 and November 23, working with 17 different rhythm sections.
Studio time is also fairly regular. Abate’s most recent album, last year’s Magic Dance: The Music of Kenny Barron (Whaling City Sound), spent seven straight weeks at No. 1 on the JazzWeek radio charts and was a JazzTimes Editor’s Pick (in the July 2021 issue). This kind of success, in his mind, has been a long time coming. Abate says he’s only felt confident about his direction for the past 10 years. A major turning point came when he received a stamp of approval from one of his mentors, the late alto saxophonist Phil Woods.
“Having someone validate you helps,” he says. In 2013, I was playing with Phil, who was my guest on some gigs and a few workshops at colleges. At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he’s talking to the students about saxophone players. He comes over, puts his arm around me and says: ‘And I like Greg Abate because he plays from the heart and he’s not just playing a lot of bullshit.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Holy shit, man, there it is!”
Quicksilver shifts in melodic ideas are key to Abate’s vigorous sound. With just one listen, it’s clear that he was most influenced by Woods and Richie Cole. He recorded with both alto players on different sessions in his extensive discography, and his sound, much like theirs, is rooted in the bebop foundation set by Charlie Parker. Although alto sax is his primary instrument, Magic Dance enabled him to show his chops on the rest of his arsenal as well: soprano, tenor, and baritone saxes and flute, with overdubbing creating a full sax section on two tracks.
It took a musical journey of nearly 20 years, coursing through R&B, jazz-rock fusion, and swing, before Abate fully emerged as a bop stylist in the early ’90s. Born in Fall River, Massachusetts and raised in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, he didn’t hail from a musical family. When he was 10, a salesman asked his mother if she wanted to rent an instrument for her son to play in school. “He had a clarinet, a trombone, and a trumpet. He demonstrated all three,” Abate recalls. “I told my mother I wanted to play the trombone. She said, ‘No, you’re not playing that. You can play the black one.’ So I started playing clarinet in fifth grade. I had no idea what it was. I even had the mouthpiece on wrong.”
But it was a start. By ninth grade, he chinstrumental equipment. “Dave Brubeck came out”. ‘Take Five’ happened. I heard Paul Desmond and alto sax became more important to me. I was listening to the Billy Vaughn big band on the radio. I heard the sound of all these saxophones. I thought it was a really cool sound.” Soon he was playing in Rhode Island’s all-state high-school jazz band. At Berklee College of Music in Boston, he studied with Joe Viola, Alf Clausen, Roger Neumann, Charlie Mariano, and Herb Pomeroy before graduating in 1971. “I had all those great teachers,” Abate says. “I was just having fun learning about music. I had no idea that I could make a living playing music. I just liked doing it. I really didn’t know the basic things to get out of the chute yet.”
After Berklee, he headed west with three musician friends. He worked in two Los Angeles R&B cover bands until those gigs ran out. Living in Santa Monica and looking for work in 1973, Abate spotted a musicians’ union notice for audits at Ray Charles Enterprises. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he recalls. After four days of auditioning, Charles hired him to succeed Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis as the band’s lead alto player. The lengthy process featured moments that sound funny when Abate relates them now.
“I was hired to play alto and flute, but I never played flute before. I had to buy a flute for the audition. I couldn’t play the freaking thing,” he says. “James Clay, who was playing tenor, was always so nice to me. The piano player did the intro to ‘Georgia’ and there were some flute things in there, but James played them for me. It was perfect, because Ray couldn’t see who was playing. Ray never commented, but he never complained.”
Abate spent two years with the Charles band, touring primarily in the US and Europe. “I was a fair reader but soloing-wise, I still had a lot to learn. Ray gave me an alto feature to play on ‘The Shadow of Your Smile.’ I wish I had played it then as I can play it today, but I couldn’t play on the changes. I thought I was, but not well enough. Ray didn’t fire me, but he gave the solo to James Clay. At least I could pay him back a solo for playing flute for me.”
“If a surgeon operating on someone puts that knife in the wrong place, it might cause a lot of harm. If you put a note in the wrong place, you’re not going to kill anybody but it is not right.”
He returned home in 1975, soon working in a busy Top 40 band. A friend told him to check out the scene at Allary, a Providence jazz mecca from the late ’60s to the late ’70s. Abate started sitting in with Thursday-night regulars, which led to form his own jazz-fusion sextet Channel One in 1978. It released one record, Without Boundaries (World, 1980), before disbanding. Abate also was playing swing with the long-running Duke Belaire Jazz Orchestra and the revived Artie Shaw Orchestra led by reed player Dick Johnson. These experiences prompted him by the late 1980s to focus on becoming a hard-bop specialist; He still loves the challenges of playing and composing in that style.
“You have a lot of choices,” Abate says. “There are infinite possibilities with the chords going on. It never ceases to amaze me what a challenge it is. To play in that tradition, I’m doing things that are from the past. Other people don’t hear it, but I love it so much. I also like the rhythms of bossa nova and samba, which lets me play bop on top of Latin. So many sounds are ugly now. There are no harmonics, no chords. What do people hear these days? Why do things have to change from that good music?”
In tandem with his live performance work with jazz notables (Barron, Cole, Woods, Nick Brignola, James Moody, Claudio Roditi, Hilton Ruiz, Lew Tabackin, and James Williams, among others), Abate began recording steadily. Starting with his bop debut, Bop City – Live at Birdland (Candid, 1991), he has 18 recordings as a leader, three as co-leader, and three as featured artist. “I can’t believe the guys I’ve played with who are total name guys,” he says. “That was my education. I look at it as the School of Berklee, the School of Charlie Mariano, the School of Ray Charles, the School of Phil Woods. It is such a wonderful thing. Each was a school of music. But at the time, I didn’t think I was in school, I was just getting bumped around.”
Abate says he now thinks of the music he makes, the solos he takes, as “surgical playing. Improvising is not just playing a lot of notes. You can do that, but it’s not making a story. If a surgeon operating on someone puts that knife in the wrong place, it might cause a lot of harm. If you put a note in the wrong place, you’re not going to kill anybody but it is not right. It has to be in the right place. You have to be in the moment. I never get tired of it. It is such a great feeling to put the air in there.”
Greg Abate Quintet featuring Richie Cole: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Candid, 1995)
Greg Abate: Pop Lives! (Blue Chip Jazz, 1996)
Greg Abate and Gary Smulyan: First Encounter (Blue Chip Jazz, 2012)
Greg Abate: Motif (Whaling City Sound, 2014)
Greg Abate and Phil Woods: Kindred Spirits, Live at Chan’s (Whaling City Sound, 2016)
Greg Abate: Magic Dance: The Music of Kenny Barron (Whaling City Sound, 2021)