I have been a fan of saxophonist Gregory Tardy’s music for over two decades and am thrilled to have the opportunity (on 10/28/23) to join him on the proverbial bandstand for the first time, presenting a program of his compositions and personal reflections to wrap up the 2023 Jazz Up Close series. Though he’s only a few years older than I am, my own transition from student to professional coincided with his emergence as a major force in the jazz scene, so it feels as if I have always looked up to him and his artistry. He would be an important figure if only for his robust tenor saxophone playing and his adaptability to a wide variety of musical environments. Above and beyond that, I have always found his steadfast and pious integration of his faith into his music to be particularly inspiring. Though I am not a Christian myself, the universality of his passion and humility come through meaningfully in his music, as does the clarity of purpose behind his determination to express himself with sincerity.
In chronological order, here are ten among the many tracks by or featuring him that have particularly impacted me through the years.
1 ) “Blues to Professor Pickens” from Serendipity (1997)
When this record came out, friends told me to check it out in large part due to the presence of other musicians (particularly pianists Mulgrew Miller, heard on this track, and Aaron Goldberg) but once I heard the original compositions and the saxophone work. This track also features some powerful trumpet work by Russell Gunn, with some fine trumpet work elsewhere on the record by one of his important early employers, Tom Harrell.
2 ) “Blue Heaven” from Soul on Soul by Dave Douglas (1999)
This funky tune features great solo work by the frontline of Greg, trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas, and trombonist Josh Roseman, all forward-thinking and eclectic soloists who can thrive with experimental music or in straight-ahead settings like this.
3 ) “Warring Spirits” from Abundance (2001)
While this song is not directly imitative of John Coltrane, it is a wonderful evocation of his spirit and legacy, with open harmonies and a fluid, morphing sense of groove and meter facilitating a powerful and potent journey. Pianist George Colligan also shines on this one alongside the soulful tenor playing.
4 ) “Malachi” from Time Lines by Andrew Hill (2005)
I could not make a list like this without including examples of a) his important work on Andrew Hill’s last several albums or b) his gorgeous work on the clarinet, the instrument with which he began prior to switching to focusing primarily on the saxophone in his twenties. While possessing the edge one would expect, this track represents some of Hill’s most lyrical playing on record, and Tardy and trumpeter Charles Tolliver are both featured with comparably melodic spots amidst the invitingly amorphous tempo and characteristically evocative harmonies.
5 ) “Descarga #7” from Sympatico by the Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project (2005)
I also needed to make sure to include something demonstrating Greg’s capacity to bring his sensibility to “ethnic” music outside of his own cultural origins, as represented by his important place in groups through the years like those of Elio Villafranca and Omer Avital. On this modern classic in the world of Latin jazz, Tardy gets an extended solo and leans in hard to the rhythmic drive.
6 ) “A Change Is Gonna Come” from History, Mystery by Bill Frisell (2006 or 2007)
Tardy has been an important part of realizing multiple projects by guitarist and visionary Bill Frisell, including his most recent quartet album. This track is all about Tardy and his ability to play deep soul music, in this case quite literally as they take on perhaps Sam Cooke’s most iconic tune.
7 ) “A Tree and Its Fruit” from Hope (2013)
This hard-driving song, which he recorded again on his most recent album (Sufficient Grace), is a great example of Tardy’s capacity to do one of the things I personally find most meaningful in modern jazz: taking challenging musical components (in this case including an asymmetrical song form and advanced harmonies) and present them in a manner that still ties audibly and emotionally to the blues. Pianist Helen Sung and drummer Jaimeo Brown are also featured with wonderful solos.
8 ) “Ancient of Days” from With Songs of Joy (2014)
Musicians of my generation are often particularly fond of a certain breed of “straight 8th note tune” that isn’t entirely Latin nor funk, often evoking the modern harmonies of composers like Wayne Shorter. This is perhaps my favorite among numerous infectious Gregory Tardy tunes in that vein. Trumpeter Philip Dizack and pianist John Chin deftly and soulfully navigate the song’s twists and turns as soloists before Tardy steps into the spotlight on a rousing vamp at the end.
9 ) “Message In the Miracle” from If Time Could Stand Still (2019)
This song is another great example of a tune that is simultaneously super-hip and deeply rooted in the blues. It begins and ends with a gnarly Afro-Latin 12/8 groove (over which Tardy wails) and in between it swings like crazy for solos by trumpeter Alex Norris and pianist Keith Brown.
10 ) “Janel’s Love Song” from Sufficient Grace (2022)
In the end, I often hear Greg’s playing as akin to the work of a highly nuanced vocalist. Often this involves him “singing” the blues, but his lyrical approach to ballads is a major part of this expressive voice. His rendering of this ballad, composed for his wife, is a particularly lovely example, and it also features sensitive solo work by Keith Brown and by the brilliant bassist Sean Conly, who is perhaps the “secret weapon” underpinning most of Greg’s albums as a bandleader.