Rhode Island’s music scene has its fair share of legit legends and Greg Abate is definitely one of them. He got a gig playing lead alto sax in Ray Charles’ orchestra for a couple of years during the ‘70s after finishing up a four year program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He’s performed all over the United States while also gracing numerous stages in Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia and other parts of Europe. He’s also an adjunct professor of jazz studies at Rhode Island College in Providence and in 2016 he was inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall Of Fame. On Saturday, Abate will be performing at the Courthouse Center For The Arts with his quartet featuring Dave Zinno on bass, Matt DeChamplain on piano and Gary Johnson on drums.
Abate recently put out a new album earlier this year called “Gratitude” with the Tim Ray Trio that’s been creating quite a buzz in the jazz community. Following its release via the New Bedford, Massachusetts record label Whaling City Sound on July 1, the record was floating around the top 10 of the JazzWeek charts for 17 weeks. On top of that, jazz radio stations around the country have been giving it some airplay. It promises to be one of the top albums of 2019 by year’s end. Ahead of the show, Abate is excited to perform some of the songs off of it.
The album was recorded at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford as part of the venue’s Stage Door Live! Series. Abate gravitated to the idea of recording a set of new material there and that’s how “Gratitude” came to be. “Neal Weiss, who runs Whaling City Sound, has recorded me four times,” he said on the making of the record. “One was actually done live at Chan’s in Woonsocket with Phil Wood back in 2015. He was thinking that he was doing recordings for other artists during Stage Door, he suggested that he’d have my band and I perform on one. I liked the idea, so that’s how that happened.”
“I like the vibe of the Courthouse Center For The Arts,” Abate mentions on Saturday’s festivities. “Working with Mariann Almonte there is always a pleasure. I’ll be doing some tracks from Gratitude and of course, my group will deliver the goods. The audience should expect a high energy performance with passion and originality. We also encourage communication whether it’s verbal or non-verbal.”
We also had a talk about him starting out with Ray Charles, teaching music and the current state of jazz.
Rob Duguay: In the ‘70s after you graduated from a four year program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, you jumped right into being the sax player for Ray Charles’ band. How was that experience?
Greg Abate: I was living in Los Angeles and a few years before that all happened I was playing with rhythm & blues bands. We played like five or six nights a week in the city there and also in Las Vegas, these were late night gigs. Back home in Santa Monica, where I lived, I went to the Local 47 union and I saw a flyer that said Ray Charles was forming a new orchestra and he was holding auditions on Washington Boulevard. So I went there and I saw a couple of my teachers from Berklee who were writing for Ray. They were happy to see me so I sat in with my sax and the band was a 17 piece, I auditioned and Ray liked my sound and I got the gig.
RD: You also teach at Rhode Island College in Providence. What do you like most about teaching?
GA: I take great pride and enjoyment out of giving that information, which is a traditional art form at this point. It’s not the norm in the music world today. What I’m teaching are things that I’ve learned from great master players. I’ve played with so many that the list goes on and on. When I was at Berklee, it was a lot of book learning but you get to really know it and you have to do it. I’ve doing it for a long time and side by side with some master players.
What I’m giving these students, they have no idea where it came from. I’m giving them information they don’t know what to do with yet. I’m keeping jazz alive and I’m giving them information that’s going to make them excited about making music. It’s quite a thrill. I also go all over the country to different schools and universities and I’ll conduct a masterclass about different aspects of jazz.
RD: Have you been paying attention to any new jazz musicians lately? A lot of them tend to work with hip hop artists these days. Do you think that’s where the future of jazz lies?
GA: Jazz today is melody, harmony, rhythm, time and pulse. I don’t think hip hop music has that, I don’t hear any harmonic things that draw me to that. I’m a traditional bebop kind of guy that has embraced guys like Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. Stuff that burns and has a real energy and a consequence.