Saxophonist Tim Green does not have a new record out. In fact, he doesn’t even lead a band, so you’re not likely to find his name in the monthly music calendar. He is a prodigious artist, however, a sideman extraordinaire whose ear-opening sound — emanating from numerous live settings and recording sessions — is seminal to the New Orleans scene.
These days, he’s best known for his blistering tenor work in several of the more outward-bound groups in town, such as Michael Ray & The Cosmic Krewe, The Naked on the Floor Quartet and Three Now Four. But the 43 year-old Green has also explored blues, rock, funk, R&B, zydeco, reggae and Brazilian, and traversed realms ranging from Peter Gabriel recording sessions to the tourist traps of Bourbon street.
It may seem difficult to imagine this avant-garde avatar working a steady gig with the Thunder Blues Review at Rhythms on Bourbon, but that’s exactly what happened from 1991 to 1996. “I played this gig for five and a half years that most locals didn’t even know about,” he said during a recent interview. “The locals and musicians that did come to that place, they couldn’t believe it, because I was down there playing Coltrane tunes and I would pick a lot of pop tunes that we’d turn into instrumentals and then play 15 minute versions of them. They were like, ‘Man, how are you getting away with this?’ But I don’t believe that the average music listener is as ignorant or as disinterested as some people may think. I think people go out to hear music and they want to be touched somehow, they want to be moved. I played a couple of times with Medeski, Martin and Wood, and I saw these young kids out there going crazy over the stuff. And there was no pandering. It was serious, intense improvisation, and they were eating it up. I see that with Michael Ray and other groups that I play with also.”
Remarkably, Green didn’t start playing music until he was 19 years-old. It was always in his blood, he says, but the Bridgeport, Connecticut native was discouraged by his parents. “Which was an irony,” he said, “because my mother was a musician. She played piano and was classically trained. But they didn’t want me to be involved in music. The piano was locked so I couldn’t get to it. My father died when I was 16 and one of the last things he told me was, ‘Stay away from music.’ He told me to get a job with good benefits like the post office.
“A few years went by before I decided that I could no longer resist what I felt was what I was supposed to do. Whenever I had any time off, I was at a concert or I was in a club in New York, or I’d drive up to Boston, and I finally said, ‘This is crazy. I’ve got to go for this.’”
But the event that finally pushed him into getting a sax occurred on a summer day in 1976, at a two day jazz festival in Central Park. “It sounds like a fairy tale or a fiction, but it’s absolutely true. I was sitting in the grass under some trees eating lunch. I had the book Chasin’ the Trane with me. This little beat-up red Toyota comes driving up the sidewalk and stops in front of me. It’s Hank Crawford and Grover Washington, Jr., and Grover asks where the stage is. They must have assumed that I was on staff. I said, ‘Let me get in the car with you and I’ll direct you to the stage.’ And I just kind of, in a nice way, worked my way into hanging out with those guys for the next two days. Grover was so gracious and such a beautiful person. I told him I was thinking about studying music and playing sax, and asked if he gave lessons. He said, ‘No, I don’t give lessons, but if you get a horn, I’ll help you the best way I can. I’ll write you and tell you some things you need to do.’”
“That was it. I started hunting in the pawn shops in New York, and I bought a saxophone. I sent a note to Grover saying I got the horn, and a month later he sent me a letter back, telling me what books to get, stuff to listen to and practice things to work with. He followed up on his promise to me. That’s something I haven’t thought about much until he died recently. I was absolutely floored when I heard. I was on a gig in front of an audience when somebody whispered, ‘Did you hear Grover Washington died? Why don’t you play ‘Mr. Magic?’ And I’m like, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
After moving to New Orleans in ‘78, Green started playing soprano sax in Walter Washington’s band, then switched to tenor and over the years formed various associations with Cyril Neville, Tommy Ridgley, Mem Shannon, Terrance Simien, Gatemouth Brown, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Hornsby, The Indigo Girls, Maceo Parker and many others. He also got involved with WWOZ radio in the ’80s, and eventually rose to the General Manager position for a brief period in ’88. This was followed by an eight year stint as the General Manager of WRBH Radio for the Blind and Print Handicapped, during which time he also became an influential community activist for the disabled. In 1996, Green minimized these obligations, and he’s now enjoying a long overdue period in which he can focus on music and play with an even wider range of artists.
But why has he never felt the itch to lead his own band? “I don’t really have that ambition,” he said. “I really enjoy my role in the bands that I play with that allow me to be free with their music, to do something with their music. And I’ve had several near misses with record labels that just about signed me and then didn’t. After the third time it happened I kind of settled into what I think is the right place for me, which is to be a contributor to what’s going on around me. And I get a lot of calls so I’m not at all disappointed with the way things are.”
When I interviewed him, Green had just emerged from a studio session with Quintology, who asked him to function as a non-player/producer on their forthcoming record. He’s also been busy working on records due out for Jazz Fest with various artists he currently gigs with, such as Funky Meters drummer Russell Batiste and Brazilian-influenced singer/songwriter Blake Amos.
The progress of the The Naked on the Floor Quartet, which is led by guitarist Jonathan Freilich and includes drummer Mark Diflorio and bassist James Singleton, has him especially excited. “We’re so compatible. We’re so absolutely uninhibited when we get together to perform,” he said. “Jonathan is one of those people who’s very much an individual. His way of playing his instrument, the way he hears things as he writes, his willingness to let the music go where it’s going. Frankly, I’m very fortunate that I’m in a number of groups right now that all feel that way, and it allows me as a saxophonist to guide the music in different directions. I mean, like Michael Ray, who I’m very involved with, and, of course, Three Now Four, and even Anders Osborne for that matter. I’m doing a lot of performing with Anders, and his way of performing is the same as a jazz group, in that he allows the music to go wherever it’s going based on what’s happening with the musicians and the environment we’re playing in. We’ve had some great excursions.”
Green and Freilich are producing a Naked on the Floor CD due out for Jazz Fest (to coincide with the Fest debut of The Naked Orchestra, an avant-garde, all-star big band that mushrooms out of the quartet), which they hope will provide a true representation of the group’s unique sound. “It’s all live,” Green said, “which I think is the best way to capture what we do, taking chances and risks, and coming up with some very interesting things, I think.”
Green is also looking forward to the release later this year of a new Yockamo All-Stars record — a unique collaboration between the Cuban group Cubanismo and many of the A-list New Orleans players featured on the first Yockamo disk, such as Clarence Johnson III, Walter Payton, Glenn Patscha, and Leroy Jones, plus vocals by John Boutte — which has all the makings of a cross-cultural, danceable jazz extravaganza with wide appeal.
This project, like so many Green has been involved with, draws on his ability to adapt to new and different musical situations, but Green says that whatever context he’s in, he feels his role is mostly the same. “People know I’m going to take the music out somewhere, but they also know that I won’t take it any further than what taste dictates. I really try to be careful with peoples’ music, because they usually give me so much freedom, and I try not to abuse that. But at the same time, I feel it’s my task to elevate the music, to give it a push or a lift. I want to extend a good feeling, something that stimulates you intellectually, or that leaves you with an impression of, and I’ve heard this a lot in my life, ‘Man, I’m not quite sure what you played, but it got me somehow.’”