Mike Allen on Sonny Greenwich

Vancouver-based saxophonist Mike Allen shared some thoughts about Sonny Greenwich and the recent biography by Mark Miller Of Stars and Strings on Facebook and gave me permission to reproduce his comments here:

Just finished reading Mark Miller’s new biography of Sonny Greenwich, Of Stars And Strings, and felt compelled to post this incredible 1974 recording Peace Chant. I wish I could say that I loved the book. Yes, it is incredibly well-written and researched. It’s a seriously well-done, entertaining and factual account of a Canadian musical icon and his career in music, and it’s a beautiful thing that Mark dedicated months and years of his life to bringing attention and clarity to the details and breadth of Sonny’s contributions. So thank you Mark and everyone else who contributed to the creation of Of Stars And Strings.

What I’ll say is that the book left me with the impression that Sonny’s career and life either missed the mark in terms of expectation, or was, at minimum, fairly spotty in that regard. It paints a slightly depressing picture of Sonny’s life. As someone who walks a similar path to Sonny, with parallel passions, concerns, triumphs and disappointments, I can only implore people to just listen to Peace Chant, and tell me that Sonny’s sound and approach isn’t beautiful, powerful, searching, elegant and as perfectly formed as it could be. This doesn’t happen, but exceedingly rarely. Better playing does not exist. Comparing Sonny to any other guitarist, past or present, stains the purity of Sonny’s gift. There are no parallels, he has no “competitors”, as was implied in Mark’s book. This one piece (Peace Chant) is but one of many Sonny recordings that is up there with the most uplifting, transporting recordings of John Coltrane’s classic quartet. All I can say is that unless you really “hear” Sonny in your heart, his story is untellable. He is not a generational talent, he is an all-time gift. You can hear it in his sound. It’s all about the sound. His story is not one to be measured by the same metrics used for others. That is all I’ll say.

Sonny is one-of-a-kind special.

On one hand, he is just a guy, an imperfect human being who does and says things imperfectly. At a 2004 CBC JazzBeat recording in Montreal which I invited Sonny to do with me and drummer Julian MacDonough, he entered the studio as Julian and I were getting prepared to record, and in no uncertain terms, requested that I stop playing the piano, which I was doing to refresh my memory of a tune that I wrote called The Man. We would be recording it that day on the session. I suspected 1) that he had prepared a sound for that tune in his head and didn’t want to lose it 2) he didn’t like the way I was playing it (the composition I had composed and dedicated to him). Feeling dejected, I stopped playing immediately. Granted my piano playing was not of the style or at the level he would be accustomed to on a gig, neither apparently was it appreciated nor respected enough to at least be informative of how I might want the song to go on the recording. I thought he acted without inconsideration. Not exactly a moment I’ll cherish from our 30 year friendship.

Now on the other hand, Sonny has no equal in Canadian jazz guitar, nor international jazz guitar, it’s easy for me to say and I don’t need to put anyone else down to assert, Sonny is without peer. So one puts up with certain eccentricities (not like I don’t have some of my own).

Funny story, I quit his band in 1994, during a time in which he was building up to some of his most productive years of music-making. My reasons for leaving were 1) I didn’t know what he wanted from me musically during performances, I asked but he didn’t/couldn’t elucidate 2) the rhythm section in the band didn’t listen to me when I played (they scarcely listened to Sonny either) and I wasn’t capable of independently generating the level of musical energy (or volume) that Sonny could, so I was left alone out there, red-faced, blasting away over a rhythm section that was on autopilot. So I left for musical reasons and I’ve always wished I had found a way to stay on, but I respected Sonny’s music and myself too much to just stand up there and “wank” when it was my turn.

There are good, strong, gifted players in every city in the world now. I know because they visit Vancouver and I get to host them at the jazz festival jam sessions every summer. There are a very, very few truly great musicians. There is only one Sonny Greenwich.

Of Stars And Strings: A Biography of Sonny Greenwich by Mark Miller is available through on-line bookstores Amazon, Barnes & Noble, kobo edition at Indigo.

Mike Allen‘s most recent release is Celebrating Sonny Greenwich and is available at https://mikeallenjazz.bandcamp.com/

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