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Bunky Green

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Apex is a blazing collaboration between alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green that puts on display a fifty-year continuum of state-of-the-art saxophone playing. Featuring the all-star band of Jason Moran on piano, François Moutin on bass and switching off on drums, the dynamic Damion Reid and the legendary Jack DeJohnette, Apex shines a much-deserved spotlight on Bunky Green, a hugely influential but under-recognized original in jazz.

Rudresh Mahanthappa, a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, is widely recognized as one of the most important jazz musicians today. At 39 years old, he has perennially been on the Down Beat Critic’s Poll as alto saxophonist and composer and has been named Alto Saxophonist of the Year the last two years by the Jazz Journalist Association. His prior release Kinsmen (Pi 28), which masterfully combined jazz with South Indian music, was named the runner-up album of the year in the Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll in 2008 and hailed as one of the top jazz albums of the year by numerous publications.

75 year old Vernice “Bunky” Green, on the other hand, has had a much more under-sung career. Raised in Milwaukee, WI, he went to New York in his early 20s and soon was hired by Charles Mingus, at the recommendation of Lou Donaldson, as a replacement in his band for Jackie McLean. Green traveled with the Mingus band to California for a series of gigs but on the way back to New York he was dropped off in Chicago to attend to family matters. When it became apparent that Green would not be rejoining the band, Mingus hired John Handy for the saxophone seat and went on to record some of that band’s most successful albums. Green eventually settled in Chicago, where he performed regularly and recorded for the VeeJay and later the Chess record labels. In the early 1970s he took a job teaching at Chicago State University where he stayed until 1989 when he became the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville. He served for a time as the President of the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) and was voted into its Jazz Educators Hall of Fame in 1999. He recorded three records on Vanguard in the late 1970s and appeared on two records with Elvin Jones at the same time. Other than that, he has largely been off the scene for thirty years.

In the meantime, though, Green’s reputation grew steadily among a younger generation of saxophonists. Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman has called him a major influence and touted his playing to the likes of Greg Osby and Gary Thomas, both of whom are also heavily influenced by Green’s playing. Green’s sporadic recorded output, almost all of which is out-of-print and hard to find, became highly sought after by saxophonists, many of whom viewed him as a crucial missing link between the hard bop of the 1960s and today’s cutting-edge playing. In a 1997 DownBeat article, Joe Lovano said, “Bunky personifies what jazz is all about…taking into account the strengths of history and then moving beyond through individual expression.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa was one such saxophonist who was immediately drawn to Green’s playing. As he tells it, "I first heard about Bunky from the late great saxophone teacher Joe Viola when I was a student at Berklee in the early 90s. Joe heard me warming up once and recommended that I check Bunky out as he thought that my approach was on track to being something similar to his. He loaned me Bunky’s record Places We’ve Never Been (Vanguard) which totally knocked me out !" Rudresh Mahanthappa sought Green out and sent him a tape of his playing to which Green responded by providing some encouraging feedback, leading to a long friendship. Still, the two never got a chance to play together until 2008 during a jam session at the Jazz Baltica Festival. Inspired by that performance, Rudresh Mahanthappa featured Green in his appearance at the 2009 Made In Chicago Festival. Soon thereafter, Rudresh made plans to record with Bunky, enlisting his regular bassist François Moutin and the dynamic young drummer Damion Reid. Jason Moran, who had played on Green’s CD Another Place (Label Bleu), also quickly signed on. The lineup was set when Rudresh Mahanthappa told Jack DeJohnette – in whose band Rudresh plays – about the recording. DeJohnette, who had been a huge fan of Bunky’s from back when he was a young drummer coming up in Chicago, also clamored to play on the session.

One can immediately see why Rudresh Mahanthappa was drawn to Green’s playing : The two share a similar biting tone, harmonic sophistication, a well-articulated rapid fire attack, and a certain rhythmic elasticity. Perhaps what’s most amazing about Green is that such modern playing is coming from a 75 year old. The album features originals by both Rudresh Mahanthappa and Green specifically created for this collaboration. The compositions highlight a collective vision of using traditional forms as a launching point for contemporary improvisation and interaction at its highest level.

On Apex, Bunky Green and Rudresh Rudresh Mahanthappa look back over the last fifty years of jazz saxophone playing and together chart its course into the future.

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