Greg Abate’s resume is as varied as one of the riffs he plays on his sax. He is an internationally known jazz musician who plays several kinds of saxophones as well as flute, clarinet and piano; he’s a composer, arranger and recording artist; and he’s an educator who takes great satisfaction in helping his students become accomplished musicians and music teachers.
Abate has served as an adjunct professor at RIC since 1999, teaching jazz improvisation and theory and coaching jazz combos. He enjoys sharing his expertise as one of the accomplished professionals teaching in the jazz studies minor program at the college.
“It is really neat to work with an ensemble and create jazz from what might be cacophony,” Abate said.
He finds it especially rewarding to provide insight into using different musical scales for jazz improvisation, and works with his students using his own compositions and those of the jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.
“It takes a lot of technical ability to play,” he said. “I teach the students a way to make a solo, and use the tools of the harmonic language.”
Abate believes that just as classical icons such as Mozart and Beethoven continue to be remembered and revered, so too should the American innovators of jazz.
In addition to Coltrane and Ellington, his lessons feature a host of jazz pioneers: Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Arte Shaw, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley and Phil Woods.
He generally works with students in small group ensembles to interact musically, Abate said. “It’s up to them to have the passion to develop their talent and individual voice.”
His teachings about styles and theories of jazz are based upon his own experiences, which span several decades.
Abate, who grew up in Woonsocket, completed a four-year program of study at Berklee College of Music in 1971 and quickly found his way into the jazz scene, relocating to Los Angeles and playing in many local groups there. He played lead alto sax and flute for the Ray Charles Orchestra in 1973 and 74.
In 1975, he moved back to Rhode Island and formed his own band, Channel One, which soon became highly regarded in the New England area. For several years, he was a member of the Providence-based Duke Belaire Jazz Orchestra, which he credits with being a big part of his musical development because of the knowledge and experience he drew from the band’s many outstanding players.
Abate also played tenor saxophone with the Artie Shaw Orchestra under the leadership of Dick Johnson from 1986-88.
He has performed all over Europe as well as in Canada and Japan, and is usually on the road about 150 days a year.
In July, he spent three weeks in England and Italy, performing in concert halls, churches, jazz societies, schools and festivals – 18 shows overall – before audiences that he said were appreciative and respectful of the jazz he plays.
This month he will play in Quebec, then return to England in November, and England and Italy again in February.
In addition to playing and teaching at RIC, Abate has shared his knowledge of jazz with students in workshops in the U.S. and abroad, including Russia, which he traveled to in 2000 and 2005 to perform and instruct.
Though he requires an interpreter for his workshops for non-English speaking students, the barrier is lessened by the fact that “music is a universal language,” he said.
Abate’s discography is as extensive as his performing schedule.
His first and only LP recording was Without Boundaries, a 1981 recording by Channel One. His first CD was Bop City: Live at Birdland (1991) with James Williams, Rufus Reid and Kenny Washington.
His 2002 recording Evolution, with James Williams, Harvie S and Billy Hart, was nominated for Grammy Awards in four categories in 2004.
Among his other recordings are Straight Ahead (1993); Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Richie Cole live at Chans (1994); It’s Christmas Time (1997);
My Buddy (1997); Bop Lives! with the Kenny Barron Trio (1998); Happy Samba (2000); Horace Is Here (2004); Monsters in the Night (2005); and Birds of a Feather with the Alan Barnes Quartet (2007); and Greg Abate…Live in Monterey (2009).
Abate makes it a point to give credit to the many accomplished jazz pros who have appeared on his albums, including Ben Riley, George Mraz, Hilton Ruiz, Mark Soskin, Ed Uribe, Chembo Corneil, Paul Nagle, Artie Cabral, Marshall Wood, Billy Miele and Vincent Pagano.
He’s also a guest performer on several albums, including Samba Manhattan Style with Claudio Roditi.
Yet to be released is Bird Lives with Red Rodney, which he recorded with Barry Harris, Bob Cranshaw, Mickey Roker and Jessie Davis.
While Abate’s recording and performing career continues to thrive, he always returns to the classroom, sharing his knowledge of musical theory and helping students express their creativity through jazz improvisation.
He knows, however, that unless you’re one of a select few performers, being a jazz musician alone isn’t usually a lucrative career choice. While some become instructors out of necessity only, Abate himself finds it a necessity that he has grown to embrace.
Though he’s a highly trained, technically skilled musician, Abate describes himself as a “self-taught” educator, who continues to learn and improve in that profession while working to have a good relationship with his students.
Certainly, it wouldn’t be a surprise that a class taught by Greg Abate might be unpredictable. After all, he loves to improvise.
Jazz fans can experience Abate’s passion for the music in two shows at RIC this semester: the Oct. 19 Jazz Workshop Combos Performance, which he directs, and the Dec. 12 RIC Concert Jazz Band Winter Concert, in which he is the featured performer. Both events will be held in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall.
– Rob Martin, with editorial contributions from Steve Imber
Greg Abate, a traveling jazz master, at home as RIC instructor