Jimmy Greene, the great jazz saxophonist whose life was shattered by the murder of his beloved six-year-old daughter, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, a victim of the Sandy Hook school shooting, has created much triumphant, life-affirming beauty out of that agonizing loss by celebrating Ana’s life in a new album titled, Beautiful Life. A deeply moving, eloquently expressive and light-filled homage, the aptly named CD will be released November 25 on Mack Avenue Records.
When Ana, a first-grader, was killed, along with 19 other children and six educators on December 14, 2012, at the Newtown elementary school, it was in many ways the day the music died for Greene, 39, the brilliant saxophonist/composer and prolific recording artist. Or so it might well have seemed to him, his wife, Nelba Marquez-Greene, and their young son, Isaiah, as they were utterly consumed by the inconsolable, inexplicable loss of their loved one, an innocent, precious, angelic-looking, sweet-voiced, gifted little girl who loved to sing, dance, and make people happy.
“In the days after my daughter was killed, playing and writing music wasn’t even a thought,” Greene said in an announcement for Beautiful Life. “I was very much in shock, grieving deeply and trying to just function coherently. Family and friends surrounded us and held us up, and we received 10,000 communications -- emails, Facebook messages, voice calls, letters from people around the world. The community of musicians was front and center for that support. When I called, they responded, ‘Whatever you need, just say the word, and I’ll be there.’”
The instant, heart-felt outpouring of sympathy and support for Greene and his family was little surprise to anyone. It wasn’t merely because of his renown as a formidable musician who’s toured extensively and recorded with top names from Horace Silver to Harry Connick, Jr., and has a distinguished discography all his own.
Aside from his oversize talent, the empathetic response was real, deep, and immediate. Anyone who’s ever worked with Green -- from his teenage apprentice days in Hartford to his triumphs on the national and international scene -- likes and respects him as a genuinely decent, gentle giant, devoted family man, loyal friend, and wise, compassionate role model of deep, abiding faith, and ethics who -- and this is no exaggeration -- always opts for doing the right thing.
Eventually, the power of music and the act of creation would bring some light into the dark despair, culminating with Beautiful Life. The album is Greene's artistic reflection not just on the profound loss of his daughter, but also on the indelibly joyful way that Ana lived so vibrantly and lovingly in her few short years. With an array of friends appearing as special guests, including a 13-piece string ensemble from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and such jazz worthies as Kenny Barron, Pat Metheny, Christian McBride, Cyrus Chestnut, Renee Rosnes, Kurt Elling, and Jonathan DuBose, Jr., among others, Greene has created a deeply personal, moving, and artful tribute with universal themes of life, love, and mortality.
Greene related how he slowly worked his way back into music and to the Beautiful Life project itself. By late January 2013, feeling that he “needed to get back to some sense of routine,” Greene resumed practicing and composing. About that time, Greene said, Norman Chesky, the co-owner of Chesky Records and HD Tracks, reached out to him with what he calls “an extraordinary offer.”
“An intense amount of media attention was focused on my family and all of us in Newtown,” Greene said. “I was fairly guarded whenever communicating with someone for the first time. Norman offered to donate the production of a recording studio that I could do whenever I was ready, and to give me complete ownership. I was humbled and honored by his generosity, and began to devote my energies to the project.”
Greene, a summa cum laude graduate of the Hartt School of Music who was born in Hartford and raised in Bloomfield, has lovingly created an emotionally intense suite of inner-connected works. Employing his consummate skills as a jazz master, he expresses himself in various genres, including traditional spirituals, contemporary Christian music, ballads and three original pieces which feature his own lyrics.
Because Ana loved to sing and listen to singers, Greene, for the first time on any of his acclaimed recordings made under his own name, decided to bring lyrics and singers into play by featuring “singers and songs that were important to Ana and me and my family.”
Beautiful Life opens on a powerful emotional note with a home recording of Ana singing the traditional “Saludos (Greetings)” at a Christmas celebration (parranda) in Puerto Rico with her mother Nelba Marquez-Greene’s family, with her father playing in the background. This was just one year before Ana’s death. This segues into Greene and Metheny playing “Come Thou Almighty King,” which transitions into another family recording of Ana singing the 18th-century hymn, accompanied on the family piano by her brother Isaiah, only months before she was killed.
In another powerful personal note, Greene’s original composition, “Last Summer,” a quartet piece, is inspired by his reflections on a family photograph of Ana and Isaiah, their backs turned to the camera, gazing off into a distant, idyllic vista with their arms wrapped lovingly around each other’s shoulders. The photo captures a priceless moment shared in the family’s backyard on an ideal summer day when the Greenes were living in Winnipeg, Canada, prior to their move to Newtown.
Greene taught in Canada at the University of Manitoba between 2009 and 2012, just before the family relocated to its new home in Connecticut to be near his relatives and friends in Bloomfield, and to begin an exciting new job as assistant professor of music and co-coordinator of jazz studies at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. The dreamy, evocative photo appears on the cover of Beautiful Life.
Pieces in the homage reflect a variety of personal connections, ties and memories that bind.
On the deeply felt “Ana’s Way,” for example, Kurt Elling’s expressive reading is accompanied by the Linden Christian School Early Years Choir, made up of Ana’s and Isaiah’s classmates from their days in Winnipeg. “It was brutal seeing Ana’s friends again, without Ana there amongst them,” Greene said. “But we got through it somehow, and I think the results are very touching.”
There are numerous sentimental links with Greene’s professional career. Singer Javier Colon, who skyrocketed to fame as a 2011 winner on NBC’s “The Voice,” for example, is one of Greene’s former classmates at the Hartt School. Colon sings Greene’s lyric for “When I Come Home,” backed by the jazz quartet and symphonic strings. Tony Award-winning singer/actress Anika Noni Rose was a classmate at Bloomfield High School, and became one of Ana’s favorites after the musically gifted child first heard her in the role of Princess Tiana in the animated children’s film, “The Princess and the Frog.” Rose recites Greene’s inspiring soliloquy, “Little Voices.”
Greene met Latanya Farrell, a popular Hartford-based singer, while attending Hartt. Ana loved the sound of Farrell’s contralto, which shines through on "Prayer," Greene’s musical setting of the text of the Lord’s Prayer, graced with Cyrus Chestnut’s churchly accompaniment of the maestro’s sanctified tenor saxophone solo. In a historic note, Kenny Barron, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash, extra special guests on Beautiful Life, made up the rhythm section that accompanied Greene when he performed in the 1996 Thelonious Monk Competition, a significant career-turning point where he was named first runner-up. Barron and Greene hook up in inspired musical conversations on the Broadway songs "Where Is Love?" from "Oliver," and "Maybe" from "Annie," one of Ana’s favorite songs that she’d sing a cappella from the back seat of the car on family trips.
Of his three old friends in the rhythm section, Greene said, “They made me feel welcome and comfortable, that I could do this for my life, and so I wanted them involved.”
A portion of the proceeds from Beautiful Life will be donated to the following charities in Ana Grace’s name:
The Ana Grace Project of Klingberg Family Centers, initiated by Greene’s wife, Nelba, a licensed marriage and family therapist, to promote love, community and connection for every child and family through partnerships with schools, mental health providers, community organizations and faith leaders.
The Artists Collective, the nationally celebrated community cultural and educational center in Hartford where Greene first connected with his mentor and close friend, Jackie McLean (1931 to 2006), the legendary alto saxophonist, educator, and founder of the Collective.
On Beautiful Life, Greene pays homage to McLean with an interpretation of "Where Is Love?," a melody that McLean taught him in their very first meeting at The Artists Collective when the then young, budding prodigy from Bloomfield was just 15. For more information: jimmygreene.com.
Valera Trio Plays Firehouse 12
Manuel Valera, a Cuban piano virtuoso with fresh ideas on how to marry jazz and Afro-Cuban elements, leads his trio at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, October 10, at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 at 45 Crown Street. Valera is joined by Austrian-born bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer EJ Strickland.
Valera’s band, New Cuban Express, released its seventh album in 2012, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 in the Best Latin Jazz Album category. His new album, In Motion, was released in September, and marks his debut as a leader on Criss Cross Jazz. Tickets: $20.00 first set; $15.00 second set. Available at firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.
Vijay Iyer’s Trio with Brio
If you’re in the mood for another piano trio with brio, you can catch the Grammy-nominated pianist/composer Vijay Iyer leading his awesome threesome at 8:00 pm on Saturday, October 11, at Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall on the Middletown campus. Joining the 2013 MacArthur genius award-winner are two simpatico collaborators, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.
Iyer, a Yale graduate who has received an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music from the University of California, Berkeley, began a permanent appointment earlier this year at Harvard University’s Department of Music as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.
As an undergraduate at Yale, the piano playing polymath studied math and physics. Aside from vacuuming up an array of awards in the 2012 Downbeat International Critics Poll, recent honors for the musical maven include a 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.
Along with the cerebral, there’s no shortage of Iyer fire in the art and science of his keyboard mastery. Tickets: $25.00 general public; $22.00 senior citizens, faculty/staff/alumni, non-Wesleyan students; $6.00 Wesleyan students. Box office: (860) 685-3355.
Carter’s Soulful Southern Comfort
The dazzling, versatile violinist Regina Carter, who’s also a winner of a MacArthur genius award, digs deep into Southern roots music at 7:30 pm on Thursday, October 9, at the University of Massachusetts’ Bowker Auditorium on the Amherst campus.
Carter celebrates the music her paternal grandfather might well have heard in the South in her spirited, soulful presentation called Southern Comfort, an intoxicating concoction of Cajun fiddle music, early gospel, and coal miners’ work songs spiced with contemporary flavors. It’s a taste of the varied music that infused her childhood. Tickets: $30.00/$15.00. Call: (413) 545-2511.
Nicki Mathis at 226Jazz
Hartford jazz diva Nicki Mathis leads her Afrikan Amerikan Jazz Quartet through wide-ranging fare -- anything from blues and ballads to show tunes and spirituals -- at 7:00 pm on Saturday, October 11, at 226Jazz, 226 Broad Street, Windsor. Among other genres, Mathis’s mega-repertoire embraces Latin, Brazilian, and for good measure, reggae. Admission: $15.00. Information: 226jazz.org and (860) 219-1947.
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