This full Q&A is supplemental to the Fringe’s “Watchman on a Mission” feature on Greg Bryant, following the bassist and DJ’s radio work, tracking how his education helped guide his musical path, leading him to and through Chicago and D.C. before returning to Nashville.
You’ve said you were introduced to music through your parents’ record collection, and from there you began learning piano as a child. Did you start playing bass after you began attending MTSU?
Yes. I started playing bass when I was 19. Pretty late in the game, but as I’m learning, everyone has a natural pace or natural rhythm. The older you get I think it’s more important to be in touch with that that to match up with anyone’s timeline. As you stated I had very limited “formal musical training” as a child on piano for a couple of years. So, my education has been [through] listening to a lot of records. And, I mean a lot of them. Learning on the bandstand has been the other way that I’ve grown. It’s kind of an old-school approach, but I still feel it’s relevant.
How do you think your relationship with instruments evolved through those early years?
That’s an interesting question. When your first pianists that you take in are Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Stevie Wonder, and your first trumpeters that you hear are Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, and your first saxophonists that you remember hearing are Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin & Joe Henderson and your first guitar players that you hear are Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Grant Green — you relate to music as joyful, you begin to ask questions about rhythm and “how can you tell a story through music.” You also understand the importance of having a good sound and manipulating sound in creative ways. Simply put — music is about vibrations and to allow them to pass through you creatively and instinctively is a big responsibility. It’s not a job, but more like a calling or a mission.
At age 15, while in high school, you began working at a college radio station — where was that and what drew you to broadcasting?
Turning people on to the great masters of the music is a special responsibility I feel I’ve been given. So doing broadcasts and getting involved with radio was a natural step. I met a lot of cool people — and still do — who remember me and listened to me on broadcast radio. Having access to all the “new” music that was coming out then in jazz and improvisational music also allowed me to grow as a listener. As I stated before, I didn’t start really playing until I was 19, but I feel that as I was around the music more and more it forced me to want — or created the need — to participate and make music. There was a period of about five years (1998-2003) when I first became old enough to go out and hear some great musicians. A few of them have now passed on. But to hear them play/talk to them/and sometimes meet them actually made me play better. It’s like some type of osmosis. It sounds strange, but I truly believe that. Some of those musicians were Sam Rivers, Kenny Garrett, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lou Donaldson, Fred anderson, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Nicholas Payton, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, Charlie Hunter, T.S. Monk, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Sonny Fortune, Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Barron, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, Matt Wilson, Stanley Jordan, Joshua Redman, Ahmad Jamal, George Coleman, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Roy Haynes and many more.
How did you get connected with Middle Tennessee Public Radio and what was your role there?
I was a radio personality back when it was JAZZ89. Those were great times [and] as I mentioned I learned a lot.
Somewhere along the way you left Nashville for D.C. — what led to the relocation (and when)?
When I graduated from MTSU I moved to Chicago in 2002 to continue my journalism studies. Although I finished my degree, the more I think about it, it was really a bit of a smokescreen to get to a bigger city and see/learn more about great music. Over half of the artists that I mentioned, I heard them in Chicago. Strangely enough, aside from a few jam sessions, I didn’t play much in Chicago. I’ve gotten to return a few times with some other groups recently (Dara Tucker, The Dynamites) and play there and it’s been great. I had to do this mandatory internship in D.C. in 2003 before I graduated. It was out there that I jammed some at this club HR-57.
The players were way better [than] I was and played with more fire than I had been accustomed to but it kind of “baptized” me in a way. The way the drummers swing on the east coast continues to be intense and playing with that rhythm changed me. I seek out drummers here who do that. Whether its a groove or some swing. The rhythm must be intense. I miss it when it’s not there. Basically after I finished the internship out there, I moved back to Chicago to find a journalism job. But, that’s the number three market in the country and I wasn’t financially able to go to market #125 to scuffle, so I found a day gig back in Nashville and began to pursue the music.
Almost right away I formed my first band in 2004 (Greg Bryant Quintet) that had a lot of my friends in it saxophonists Reagan Mitchell (now in Baton Rouge), Chris West (a great Nashville composer and player), guitarist Brian Mesko (now in Virginia) and drummer Jason Hoffheins (now in Pennsylvania). We had a weekly thing at the old Guido’s Pizza that was a chance for us to play some tunes as well as original compositions. After that band dissolved I went though many configurations. [All] the while, I never liked how “jazz” was marketed or pushed. It’s got this reputation for being difficult to understand with the musicians being perpetually frustrated and not getting their due. I like to groove as well as swing — and while I don’t like the connotations of ‘jam band’ either — I wanted to make music and play before a diverse audience, definitely including younger folks and people in my generation (20s-40s). I came up with the name “Greg Bryant Expansion” as a way to allow myself the freedom to have a group a varying sizes that can improvise and groove as well as swing. So that’s the concept. Over the last five years, we’ve had such musicians as guitarist Adam Agati (now with Marcus Miller), saxophonist Cord Martin, drummer Derrek Phillips (formerly with Charlie Hunter) and keyboardist Paul Horton has been involved. The current edition is the great guitarist James DaSilva, keyboardist Paul Horton and either drummer Josh Hunt or D.D. Holt, plus myself.
When did you get involved with The Human Sound and the Cornerstone Jazz Trio and who were the players involved there?
I’m thankful for both of those groups. The trio was with pianist Tomoki Takahashi, now living in Japan, and also drummer Andy Ray. The Human Sound was a collective co-led by Andy Ray and I. Those groups were earlier efforts during college. We investigated a lot of the classic jazz repertoire but not always in the classic way. I think a few of the ideas we visited there have shown up and taken new life in the Expansion.
Could you tell me a little about how improv has shaped your musical tastes and how Concurrence developed?
Concurrence is a duo project started in 2004 with Paul Horton and I. We play mostly original music and also do free improvising. Paul is my musical soul mate. We can just show up on the stage and start playing. No tunes or anything. And it will end up in places that inspire us both. We had a great time playing for Metro Park’s Black Box series and in bringing in legendary drummer Nasheet Waits from NYC to play with us a Cafe Coco last year.