Danny Green knows that music should tell a story. A rising creative force on the Southern California jazz scene, the San Diego pianist/composer has distinguished himself with his beautifully articulated touch and deep affinity for Brazilian music. On his fourth album Altered Narratives, which is slated for a March 18, 2016 release on OA2 Records, Green's stellar trio explores a panoply of moods and grooves, sublimating Brazilian influences in favor of blues, swing and European classical influences. It's the work of a manifestly gifted composer who has honed a bespoke group sound ideally suited for his melodically charged sensibility.
Featuring bassist Justin Grinnell and drummer Julien Cantelm, Green's ensemble is one of the most lyrical trios working on the West Coast, and the pianist's program of original tunes provides an ideal forum for their exquisite interplay. The album opens with the bouncy blues "Chatter From All Sides," a piece composed amidst the tumult of Green's kids playing around him. It's an affectionately buoyant 16-bar theme that never wears out its welcome. "The Merge" is an episodic broken-field sprint that flowed out of a bit of spontaneous interplay on a gig with Cantelm. Listen to the way Cantelm's finely textured cymbal work shapes the piece. The brooding "October Ballad" embodies Green's gift for crafting emotionally evocative motifs, while "6 A.M." dawns with a dreamy passage before accelerating into a joyful baião feel, one of Northeastern Brazil's most infectious grooves.
Inspiration can come from just about any direction, and it's not surprising that Green has found fertile creative ground amidst the brothers Sprague, guitarist Peter and saxophonist Tripp, essential members of the Southern California jazz scene for some four decades. Several Altered Narrative pieces, including "6 A.M.", came from a concert with the Spragues where everyone agreed to bring in tunes pertaining to the theme "Things I Love That I Used to Hate." Not surprisingly, the late-night gin joint reverie "I Used to Hate the Blues" also came out of that concert. Clearly, the blues and Green now keep close company.
While not composed as a suite, the three tunes at the center of the album feature the trio with a string quartet led by violinist Antoine Silverman, a widely admired New York jazz and studio player. Green wrote "Second Chance" as part of the concert with the Spragues, and its gracefully flowing lines evidence his deep love of 19th century European classical music. The album's most intricate and beautifully unsettling tune, "Katabasis," takes its name from a Greek literary term that can refer to visiting the underworld. Keying on sumptuous cello work by Anja Wood, it's a sojourn deep into murky realms that moves from a plaintive minor blues to translucent chords offering a glimpse of light.
"I've loved classical music since college, and I listen to it as much as jazz and Brazilian music," Green says. "Some of my favorite classical composers who have had a profound influence on me are Wagner, Mahler, and Ravel. Writing for string quartet was a new undertaking for me, and one that I was extremely excited about. The string parts were going through my head for weeks before the session, and it was quite an emotional experience hearing it performed for the first time in the studio."
The album closes with "Serious Fun," a rambunctious blues that embodies everything that's appealing about Green's trio. Working with a familiar form, they make it their own without affectation or pretension. More than the sum of its considerable players, the band has honed a book of tunes unlike any other trio on the scene.
Justin Grinnell is one of the most sought after bassists in San Diego. In addition to anchoring Green's trio he leads his own quartet featuring the brilliant LA pianist Josh Nelson (the band released a widely hailed 2013 debut album Without You). Julien Cantelm is a highly versatile accompanist who's performed extensively with San Diego heavyweights such as pianist Geoffrey Keezer, guitarist Peter Sprague, vocalist Allison Adams Tucker, and pianist Joshua White. He and nylon-string guitarist Dusty Brough also perform in the duo Vimana. Green introduced his trio with Grinnell on 2009's With You In Mind, which won the San Diego Music Award for Best Jazz Album. Cantelm joined the fold on Green's second release, 2012's A Thousand Ways Home, a quartet session with Tripp Sprague featuring Brazilian stars Claudia Villela (vocals) and Chico Pinheiro (guitar) as special guests. His third release, 2014's After The Calm earned him another San Diego Music Award for Best Jazz Album.
Born in San Diego in 1981, Green grew up in an academic family. Now retired, his mother was a longtime ESL teacher and his father was a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego. He started piano lessons as a child and kept at it until 12, when he came under the sway of grunge rock. After two years teaching himself Nirvana tunes, he got interested in ska and joined a band with some fellow students. "Ska was the first style of music that I got into that featured improvisation, and I remember being so excited listening to the solos," Green recalls. "My first experience improvising was in my ska band. I had no clue what I was doing, but I just followed my intuitions and went for it."
Green experienced something of an epiphany around the turn of the century when he caught The Buena Vista Social Club documentary, which sparked a passion for Cuban son. He delved into Latin music working in local salsa bands, while writing in the Latin jazz idiom. Green earned a B.A. in Piano Performance from UCSD, where he studied jazz piano with Grammy-winning producer Kamau Kenyatta. A class on Brazilian music at UCSD turned his passion southwards. Looking for direct experience with Brazilian masters, he started attending California Brazil Camp in the redwoods of Cazadero in western Sonoma County. He credits legendary guitarist/composer Guinga, pianist Marcos Silva, guitarist/composer Chico Pinheiro, and drummers Edu Ribeiro and Marcio Bahia as particularly important influences. Green later went on to earn a Master's Degree in Jazz Studies at San Diego State University, where he studied under Rick Helzer. He was awarded "Outstanding Graduate," and several years later, "Alumni to Watch."
"I have always been the type to immerse myself in one genre of music, artist, or composer or months to years at a time. From Nirvana, ska, and Latin jazz, to Brazilian music, straight ahead jazz and Wagner operas, all these different musical phases that I went through helped shape who I am as a pianist and composer."
Green's singular journey has led to a strikingly beautiful body of music. Altered Narratives is the latest dispatch from a trio that still delights in the process of discovery.