Ace Chicago sax man Greg Ward celebrates his Rogue Parade

by Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune 

When the irrepressibly creative Chicago saxophonist Greg Ward moved back here in 2015, after several years in New York, he knew what he was looking for.

Or, to put it another way, he knew what he was tired of doing back east.

“Out in New York I had just kind of gotten a little fed up with one rehearsal, one show,” recalls Ward.

“I was missing the feeling of actually having a band and having a group sound, which I had been so familiar with in Chicago,” adds the saxophonist, who was born and raised in Peoria and began playing Chicago when he was 15.

Even as a music student at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Ward was constantly working gigs in the big city. As soon as he graduated with a degree in saxophone performance/jazz studies, in 2004, he moved to Chicago and proceeded to build a formidable reputation.

Little wonder, then, that just a few months after returning to Chicago he was offered a residency at the Whistler, on North Milwaukee Avenue, and seized on the opportunity to forge a new ensemble. He turned to musicians he’d worked with long before his trek eastward — drummer Quinn Kirchner and guitarists Matt Gold and Dave Miller — plus the comparably inventive bassist Matt Ulery.

That’s the unit Ward will bring to the Green Mill on Friday and Saturday evenings, to celebrate its debut recording, “Stomping Off From Greenwood,” named for the street where Ward and his wife first lived upon returning home.

Recorded in 2017 and completed early in 2018, the album stands as a statement of Ward’s objectives and priorities upon reigniting his musical life in Chicago.

“I thought it was interesting instrumentation,” says Ward of the two-guitar, no-piano lineup, for which he wrote a great deal of original music.

“I feel it’s a very good balance of acoustic, experimental jazz music. And since we have the guitars and the pedals, we have room for exploring sonically the palettes they both have at their disposal. They use that very sensitively, and they play so well together.

“So it’s electronic experimental music and acoustic experimental music and everything that makes me, me.”

Well, maybe not everything, for Ward happens to possess a musically voracious appetite and a wide-reaching sensibility, as his discography attests. From the melodic grace of his “South Side Story” (2010) to his daring re-imagining of Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” in Ward’s “Touch My Beloved’s Thought” (2016), the saxophonist has proven himself at once uncategorizable and eminently listenable.

The new recording features original works, plus a re-conception of Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s classic “Star Dust.” Ward credits the album’s existence, in part, to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which awarded him a grant to create it.

He calls his band Rogue Parade, a title he drew from a podcast and one that, perhaps, expresses the free-ranging, exuberant character of so much of Ward’s art.

How have the past few years of living and working in Chicago — while also touring busily — worked out for him?

“It’s been really incredible to be back,” says Ward, who leads a jam session Tuesday nights at the Hungry Brain, on West Belmont Avenue, whenever he’s in town.

“I never really pulled out completely. I was always active with a lot of (Chicago) bands while I was in New York.

“But just to be back here, in particular, during this super vibrant time in Chicago has been pretty special. Just to be playing with so many great musicians, getting to host a jam session at the Hungry Brain, just to see this continuum of people being creative.

“Having been other places,” adds Ward, “I really feel blessed to be in a scene like this, where people can really develop an audience for their work, and they can work a lot, and you can see a lot of different things — and not feel like you’re not going to be able to pay your rent — and take in all the beautiful art in the city.”

And, in Ward’s case, contributing significantly to it, as well.

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