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Allstar Break: Greyboy Allstars

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

When they first came together in 1993, the Greyboy Allstars had no inkling that the band would be a long-term project. In fact, the Greyboys – keyboardist Robert Walter, saxophonist Karl Denson, guitarist Elgin Park, drummer Zak Najor and bassist Chris Stillwell – had just one gig in mind at the band’s inception. It was a 1993 record-release party for “Freestylin,'” the new release by San Diego’s DJ Greyboy, and Greyboy wanted a live band to perform between spinning tracks from the new album. The band learned the tunes of sampled beats from “Freestylin,'” plus some old groove tunes DJ Greyboy had selected: Sly & the Family Stone’s “Let the Music Take Your Mind,” some Grant Green songs. The music did, indeed, take their minds.”We had such a good time and liked the music so much, we stayed together,” said Walter, who had played blues, punk and not much jazz, either straight-ahead or the funkier stuff, at that point. Neither did the band members know how their groove would catch on. The style of music – call it groove, funk-jazz or, as the Greyboys would eventually dub it, West Coast boogaloo – was generally seen as a relic of the ’60s. But when the Greyboy Allstars started playing a regular Wednesday night gig at San Diego’s Green Circle Bar, with DJ Greyboy spinning discs in between sets, the crowds came immediately. And with a steady gig, the band developed a sound and wrote their own material. Within a few years, not only had the Greyboys become a big draw, but groove music had made a major comeback.Perhaps because they hadn’t prepared for any of it, burnout came fairly quickly for the Greyboys. In 1997, after just three albums but countless live gigs, the band called it quits. The direct impetus for the breakup was the departure of drummer Najor, who wanted to quit the road in favor of bible school. The group did one tour with Alan Evans, from groove-band Soulive, taking over the drummer’s stool. “But it just didn’t work,” said Walter. “Zak is the sound of the group in a lot of ways. In a groove band, the drummer sets the pace for everyone else.”But Walter added that, even had Najor stuck with the group, the Greyboys’ future might not have been long. “To be truthful, it was headed in that direction anyway,” he said. “We’d toured a lot for five years and we were starting to come apart. You can definitely tour a band too much. You get tired of each other, tired of the music. You can forget why you’re doing it.”Over the last five years, the Greyboys recalled how grooving the music had been. When their schedules finally coordinated, they regrouped for a run of New Year’s shows this past winter: a show at the Belly Up Tavern in San Diego and two at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. The first show was rusty, but the magic returned for the next two nights.”The second night felt the same as it did before,” said Walter. “It fell into this eerie kind of thing, where we fell right back into it. I even felt my own playing snapping back to the way I used to play.”The Greyboys have taken another tentative step toward becoming a unit again by scheduling a small handful of road dates. The mini-tour brings them to Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, where they perform two shows on Friday, Aug. 29: opening for reggae singer Alpha Blondy on the main stage at 5 p.m. and headlining a late-night gig at the Snowmass Conference Center. On Sunday, the Greyboys play in Portland, Ore. After that, the Greyboys are an open question. An album and further touring are all dependent on what happens onstage these few dates.”It’s hard to say what will happen when we go for something bigger, like making new music,” said the 33-year-old Walter, who like the rest of the band is a longtime San Diegan. “That could work and that could not work. The future could depend on a new album – if it comes out.”As they learned from the tour without Najor, the Greyboys are best with all hands on board. “This band is really a unit,” said Walter. “It really depends on the chemistry of the players. If one person isn’t on it, you really feel that.”Heading in different directionsAnother factor in the breakup of the Greyboy Allstars was the differing musical directions. In the beginning, all of the members were coming from the same place, as neophytes learning the groove tradition. Eventually, however, the five started forming their own ideas about where to take the music.”Everyone got interested in other things,” said Walter. “Greyboy Allstars works best if we have a clear idea of what we want to do, combining some kind of improvisation with dance music. And if you get too many outside influences, it starts to come apart at the edges.”In Greyboy Allstars, there’s so much creative energy around you have to battle to get your ideas heard. I’m one of five guys who have a real clear idea of where I want it to go.”In the wake of the split, Karl Denson, the nominal leader of Greyboy Allstars, and Walter kept the highest profiles. And their subsequent careers show the different directions the Greyboys were being pulled. Denson, with his band Tiny Universe, played a smoother, dance-oriented style. Walter, in his band 20th Congress, went the more cutting-edge, electronic jazz route. Park, meanwhile, headed his own rock band. The relationships seemed to survive the differences: Walter sat in some with Denson and played in Najor’s band; Stillwell was part of 20th Congress for a while and worked with Denson and Park; Najor played on Denson’s albums.Back in the grooveThe Greyboys return to a different musical universe than they stumbled into a decade ago. Numerous bands are now influenced by the groove-jazz of the ’60s and ’70s, as played by Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, guitarist Grant Green and organ players Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff. To many musicians, the style is the perfect combination of the head and the soul: sophisticated enough to offer a technical challenge, rhythmic enough to shake the dance floor.”A lot of that music is looked down upon by jazz people as being too common, or a sellout,” said Walter, who has a new CD with 20th Congress, “Giving Up the Ghost.” “But for me, it combined all the stuff I was into – jazz, and dance music with a physical appeal.”The Greyboys can take a lot of credit for the resurgence of the style. Along with keyboard trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Greyboys were at the forefront of bringing the groove to a new level and taking it on the road.”In Europe, it started in the mid-’80s with acid jazz, and the James Taylor Quartet. People were getting into that old era of records that we got into,” said Walter. “In the States, there was a little scene when we started. But nobody toured like we did. We brought the music to a lot of people. It started as a worshiping-the-past thing. And then we started doing our own thing with it – like the British bands who started out with an interest in the American blues and then changed it into their own thing.”It’s been a short time and just a few dates, but Walter thinks the Greyboy Allstars are capable of doing more with the groove. “I think we’ve learned to step back from it and appreciate its qualities,” he said. “When you’re entrenched in it, it’s hard to see what’s good about it. Now when we play together again, it’s a surprise to see how easy it is, how easy it is to get everyone to follow you. There are little subtleties I didn’t appreciate at the time.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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