REVIEW: Burton Greene at Cafe Oto

Burton Greene at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights reserved.
Burton Greene
(Cafe Oto, 11 June 2018 (night one of two-day residency). Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

In 1966, improvising pianist and composer, Burton Greene, hit the ground running with his headline debut for ESP with a quartet that included bassist Henry Grimes and Marion Brown on alto sax. The group's dynamic playing had its roots in the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble of which Greene was a founder member with Alan Silva, and his subsequent involvement in the Jazz Composers Guild which Bill Dixon formed before it morphed in to the higher profile Jazz Composers Orchestra. Greene went on to record with Patty Waters, notably on her groundbreaking track Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair, on her ESP debut, also from 1966.

Greene, originally from Chicago, settled, via New York, in Amsterdam (on a houseboat) in the early 70s and six months ago made an impact with his energy and invention performing with Patty Waters at Cafe Oto (LINK), on the strength of which he was invited to return for this two-day solo residency.

About to celebrate his 81st birthday (14 June, he made the point that he was a Gemini, along with Miles…), on his first night he demonstrated that there was no dimming of his curiosity and invention, far from it! A highly accomplished pianist ('a professional improvising musician' as he puts it), in several engaging reflections and anecdotes he built up a sense of how immersed he was in the avant-garde jazz scene in New York, mentioning Cecil Taylor and Ornette as torch-bearers. To this day he is a continuing advocate of its ethos and also explained how the Afro American musicians at the time actively encouraged his adventurous approach as a young musician. "Keeping the form is not that important, " they would say, "what is important is being personal."

A long-term collaborator with Cologne-based singer Silke Röllig, and also with flautist Tilo Baumeier, Greene delved in to several of their compositions, as well as his own, visiting Baumeier's Lost Monk Songbook, to put his emphatic spin on these idiosyncratic reflections on Monk. As with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, Monk sits highest in the firmament. "The greatest musicians of the 20th century are Béla Bartok and Thelonious Monk," Greene said, as he introduced his second set, following up by saying that the piano is his favourite teacher, telling him "there's something nice here, what will it sound like there? You just have to get your ego out of the way!"

Bon mots, humour and wise words abounded, but not to detract from Greene's powerful keyboard work, which had left hand leaping over his right, stretching and striding, as he mixed walking bass lines with quirky discord and even had left and right doing a call-and-response sequence. Touches of ragtime rhythm fell in with sprightly spontaneity, and space was cleared among dense cords in his unique interpretations of each piece. If he was not reading the scores his eyes were firmly fixed on the keys, as he brought the best out of Cafe Oto's Yamaha/Markson grand.

His final piece was his own richly textured Atomic Balm. "We've all got atomic energy, we might as well use it in a good way," as he added to his reflections on the state of the world, before an encore, Röllig's optimistic Say Yes and then an unscheduled twenty minutes of illuminating chat to the audience.

Burton Greene is back this evening (12 June) at Cafe Oto for what will undoubtedly be another excellent and engaging solo session.

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