What's Hot With Jazz Guitar: Sonny Greenwich

This week we feature Canadian guitarist Sonny Greenwich.

Online Bio

In jazz circles Sonny Greenwich is a legend. He is a demanding performer totally dedicated to his art and uncompromising in his standards. An innovator, who has created his own distinct style for the guitar, he has many proteges, both in jazz and rock music. Rock bands such as 'Pink Floyd' and 'Genesis' have been influenced at some level by his music.

Born in Hamilton Ontario, Greenwich called Toronto home until the late '60s. He has resided exclusively in Montreal since l974.

The press describes Greenwich's musical command as absolute, his combination of serenity and power bring beauty and clarity to every note he plays, which leaves his audiences enthralled in reverent silence. Ultimately, it is the open expression and caring in his music that people completely relate to. His network of fans is as far reaching as the former Soviet Union.

This world-renowned jazz guitarist has played in major Canadian and American cities including a concert at Carnegie Hall and with such 'greats' as Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Wayne Shorter, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, saxophonist John Handy and Sun-Ra.

'Some critics regard (Greenwich) as the most important Canadian jazzman' states the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, New York, l988. He has the distinction of being the only Canadian in Francis Wolff's book of jazz photography, The Blue Note Years, 1995, featuring legendary jazz artists from the Blue Note label. He is listed as one of the '10 Best Canadian Jazz Musicians of All Time' in the Canadian Book of Lists, l979. 'There is a deep emotion and sincerity in Sonny's music ... and I consider him a really rare kind of talent' writes Barney Kessel in The History of the Guitar in Jazz, l983. Greenwich's prominence has him written up in -- the Canadian Encyclopedia; Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives, Mark Miller, 1982; Who's Who of Jazz in Montreal, John Gilmore 1989; Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, Gene Lees, photographs by John Reeves, l992 and featured in countless jazz magazines and articles.

Greenwich first drew notice for his jazz style in the early sixties, when both Horace Silver and Lee Morgan independently brought Greenwich's name to the attention of Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records. 1965 saw him in New York at the Village Vanguard with saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Greenwich's reputation brought him to the attention of saxophonist John Handy, with whom he played from December l966 through March l967, in Seattle, San Francisco and New York. Their concert appearance at Carnegie Hall, January 15th l967 was released on Columbia, 'Spirituals to Swing'. Also in New York that year, Greenwich recorded with Lee Morgan and saxophonist Hank Mobley on Mobley's album 'Third Season' for Blue Note Records and was preparing to record for Milestone's Orrin Keepnews when problems with his green card forced him to return to Canada.

In l968 Greenwich led his own quartet composed of pianist Teddy Saunders, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Jack DeJohnette, at the Village Vanguard in New York. December l969 he played with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, David Holland and Tony Williams at the Colonial Tavern, Toronto and the following year played downbill to Miles Davis at Massey Hall. That year Greenwich recorded his first album, with the CBC, 'The Old Man and the Child". Greenwich made his second album, again with the CBC, 'Sun Song' in l974, with his quintet of Don Thompson, Richard Homme, Terry Clarke and Clayton Johnston. In l978 he recorded 'EVOL-UTION, Love's Reverse' at Yellowfingers, Toronto, on PM Records with Don Thompson, Gene Perla and Claude Ranger.

From l983 through l988, Greenwich with his quartet - Fred Henke, Ron Seguin and Andre White, performed at jazz festivals and in clubs in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and New York as well as recording two albums on the Justin Time label. The first 'Bird of Paradise' was released in l987 and the second 'Live at Sweet Basil' released in l988, was recorded during a performance at the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival in New York City. 'Live at Sweet Basil' was nominated in 1989 for a FELIX in the Jazz Album of the Year category, at the ADISQ Awards in Montreal.

In June 1989 Greenwich, with Margie Gillis, one of Canada's premiere solo dance artists, were the star performers at a benefit concert. Each artist performed independently with the finale being a collaborative work for which Greenwich composed and arranged the music.

Describing his influences and early approach to music Greenwich says: 'It started with Sonny Rollins. The way he played his tenor sax. When I heard his big sound, I said to myself, this is what I want to get on the guitar, this sound, this kind of feeling! I went from there to Miles Davis and John Coltrane ... they led me to start playing my instrument more like a horn than a guitar. I was always searching into style back then. After reading, in my late teens, statements made by Charlie Parker, that he listened primarily to classical music, I was moved to do the same. A practice I have continued to this day. ... The solo structures of my playing were based on an interpretation of the work of cubist artist Paul Klee, where I saw the fretboard in diagrams, while my chordal approach was based on the music of Ravel, Debussy, Hindemith, Red Garland and Bill Evans. I was also interested in the control and timbre of the human voice, and listened carefully to such singers as Maria Callas, and have made studies on sound itself.'

Greenwich on his music states, 'I play a wide range, from ballads to very fiery, very free pieces. It's like an ocean -- you have to have the two things, the storm and the calm that comes after, and the one thing helps the other express itself. It's music that has a spiritual basis to it, which is trying to make people feel good. Not some kind of a preaching but a feeling of beauty I have, that I express so that some one else can feel it -- trying to uplift them somehow.'

Beginning in late 1991 Greenwich decided to spend more time on composition. In this vein he put together a quintet and sextet, featuring saxophone and trumpet, as well as a nine-piece band, with added trombone and percussion, for a series of productions for CBC, 'Jazz Beat'. These productions, Greenwich's self proclaimed foray into the 'mainstream', were released on CD in 1993, entitled 'Standard Idioms', resulting in both a JUNO & FELIX Nomination: Best Mainstream Jazz Album.

In 1993 he participated in the Toronto Jazz Festival, in a collaboration with Kenny Wheeler; as well as the Montreal Jazz Festival, leading his own nine-piece band.

Late 1993 again marked a stylistic change, resulting in the SONNY GREENWICH UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE BAND which he referred to as 'HEAVENLY FLIGHTS OVER EARTHY RHYTHMS'. Greenwich foresaw this band evolving to include changing band members and instrumentation, intending to use it as the base from which stylistically varied music projects would result. The JUNO nominated CD 'Hymn to the Earth' marked the first recording of this concept.

1995 saw the re-emergence of Greenwich into the public arena in a way not seen since the early '70s. He was busy with concert dates (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, the Maritimes), recording sessions (one as co-leader in a collaboration with his son, Sonny Greenwich Jr. - lead guitarist of the funk-rock band Bootsauce - entitled 'Welcome: Mother Earth', a second as guest with Jane Bunnett and Alain Caron on a session for the Cuban, Hilario Duran; a third, this time as leader entitled 'Spirit in the Air' and a documentary dealing in part with his unique career, 'It Ain't All Jazz', by Sussex Productions, aired on Bravo in 1996 and CFCF in 1997.

1996, Greenwich formed within the same band, a smaller group called 'Concepts' (an offshoot of the Universal Language Band) performing with a free-er approach to standards and compositions or solos, similar but not related to Miles Davis in the 70's with Wayne, Herbie, Ron, etc., where each musician is free to follow his own concept of what is taking place in the song form. More of a collective improvisation. The composition 'Free Form' on the new CD 'Spirit in the Air' is an example of this approach.

'Spirit in the Air' was nominated for a JUNO, 1997.

Greenwich performed with Kenny Wheeler at the Montreal Bistro in Toronto in April 1997, and Jane Bunnett performed with him during his concert at the Toronto Jazz Festival.

Sonny Greenwich's website: http://www.kleo-records.com/bio.html

Doc Dosco is a jazz guitarist, composer and audio consultant living in Los Angeles, CA. His website is located at http://www.docdosco.com, where you can find more information on the 'What's Hot in Jazz Guitar' columns, audio clips of Doc's playing, and many additional features. Doc endorse Heritage Guitars and is a featured artist on their website. He also endorses the new Pignose Valve Tube Amps, great for jazz (and anything else!)

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