Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bunky Green - Tranformations

Vernice "Bunky" Green is a perfect example of a "musicians' musician." Little known by the jazz public at large, he is revered by his fellow saxophonists, and he has deeply influenced younger men like Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Mahanthappa in particular has championed his mentor, has frequently performed with him, and co-led an album called Apex with Green.

Why all the adulation? First of all, Green has an impressive command of his instrument, but more importantly, he has his own story to tell, as Lester Young might have put it. His approach to harmony and melody is unique and instantly recognizable. His playing is off-center and logical at the same time, and it's tremendously exciting.

Green recorded for Vee-Jay and the Chess family of labels (Chess, Argo, Cadet) when he lived in Chicago in the 1960s. Those are fine hard bop/soul jazz albums, but they give few clues of the original approach Bunky would develop later. He withdrew somewhat from the jazz scene to study and work out his new approach, and made no issued recordings between 1967 and 1974. 

In 1977 he was signed by Vanguard Records, who wanted to turn him into a pop-jazz saxophonist in the Grover Washington vein. Green was reluctant to pursue this path, and only agreed to record for Vanguard under the condition that for every two records shaped by the label's ideas, he could record one for himself, playing his music however he wanted. Vanguard agreed.

Transformations was the first of his Vanguard albums, and it shows pretty clearly why Green was destined to fail as a pop-jazz player, and why his contract was not renewed after the obligatory three albums. The arrangements here are insipid, as are some of the tunes, but Green can't rein in his playing - it's way too interesting, and sometime weird, to be easy listening music. A case in point is "Feelings," as awful a song as ever has been written. But listen to Bunky's polytonal cadenza at the beginning!

Transformations was followed by Visions, a similarly unsuccessful smooth jazz album. But the third Vanguard album is something else. Places I've Never Been is totally uncompromising, and one of Green's finest albums. Vanguard didn't promote it at all, and it barely sold at all.

So why am I featuring the flawed Transformations instead of Places I've Never Been in my first post about Bunky Green? Because of the wonderfully weird version of "Feelings."


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