Even the briefest conversation with Phil DeGreg will naturally get around to his storied Jazz career, which stretches back to the early ’80s. And DeGreg can dazzle with his amazing perspective on Jazz as a musical/cultural phenomenon, its roots, birth and evolution.
Neither comes as a surprise, given his depth and longevity as a performer: DeGreg was once a member of Woody Herman’s legendary Thundering Herd; his trio with bassist Aaron Jacobs and drummer John Taylor still maintains a standing Sunday gig at 5 p.m. at Covington’s Dee Felice Café; and he’s had a 27-year tenure as a professor of Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
Even three decades into his career, DeGreg remains passionately engaged in his favored music. Although not particularly demonstrative in conversation, the love and devotion he feels for Jazz flashes in his eyes, whether he’s addressing the genre’s long, colorful history or his own place in it.
That passion flares when DeGreg references his new recording, the propulsive and engaging Brazilian People, credited to DeGreg and Brasilia, his Samba-Jazz group.
“This was a working band; we had a steady gig for the better part of a year at a restaurant that has since closed,” DeGreg says of Brasilia. “I’ve been into this kind of music for awhile so I got some guys together that like it — two of the guys on the record, Rusty Burge and Kim Pensyl, are my colleagues at CCM — and I used the trio I work with regularly. We played that music a lot so we went into the studio. Kim did the production on it; he’s got the ability to really put a sparkle on everything.”
The material on Brazilian People came from a variety of sources. Three songs are compositions by Brazilian Jazz/Pop legend Antônio Carlos Jobim, while DeGreg and Burge contributed one original piece each. The rest are songs by well-known Brazilian artists whose work is instantly familiar to natives and genre fans, but not necessarily to general Jazz listeners.
“We have the Jazz standards that everybody knows, and they have a whole body of standard music, too,” DeGreg says.
“If I get a chance to present music to people who have maybe never even heard it, and they think it’s good — and I never take credit, I always say, ‘This is a composition by …’ — that’s like my hobby. Jazz has been my living, but Brazilian music has been my hobby.”
Starting with his childhood piano training, DeGreg has always been fascinated with Jazz in its myriad forms and translations. The native Cincinnatian, who holds a psychology degree from Yale, subsequently studied music in Kansas City, then completed a master’s degree at the University of North Texas.
After touring with Woody Herman for a year, DeGreg was recognized for his prowess by Jazziz Magazine and the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in the mid-’90s, and he was house pianist at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club for over a decade and a half, playing solo and accompanying visiting artists.
DeGreg became fascinated with Brazilian Jazz in the late ’90s and subsequently recorded the highly regarded Brasilia and Amazonas, both with crack Brazilian bands. Four years later, DeGreg received a four-month Fulbright Fellowship to study and teach Jazz at Brazil’s University of Campinas, which further deepened his love of the country and its unique musical pulse.
DeGreg notes that both Brazilian popular music (or MPB, Música Popular Brasileira) and Jazz have developed similarly.
“They’re both European/African fusion musics and they grew up in two different countries that had slave trades,” he says. “I think my first trip to Brazil was ’98 or ’99, and I heard this stuff and just fell in love with it. It’s that fusion of harmony and grooves. The first time when I was sitting in on a jam session, I’d never felt anything like that in my life.”
The recent closing of the Blue Wisp Jazz Club is the latest in a series of setbacks for the local Jazz community, which once thrived in an atmosphere of love, support and exposure. With little to no area radio play and a decreasing number of venues featuring Jazz on even an occasional basis, DeGreg realizes there are limited outlets for him to ply his beloved trade.
“I’ve been making CDs in this town for years, and I can’t even get them played,” he says. “It kind of makes them all vanity projects. I don’t know why I keep making them, except I like the music and I like to play and I like to document things and this is a particularly good band.”
DeGreg considers himself more interpreter than composer. While his recordings have featured his original pieces, he prefers to put his own spin on the expansive Jazz songbook, live and in the studio.
His last studio album was 2011’s Melodious Monk, a duo album with Pensyl where they transcribed and transformed some of their favorite Thelonius Monk tunes, but he’s obviously committed to maintaining his current studio/live profile.
As he mulls retirement from teaching, DeGreg is certain he’ll continue to be an active Jazz ambassador, as both performer and teacher through private lessons. He’s just done some studio recording of original songs, which could wind up on a release, so he’s still looking to the future, 30-plus years after he began. Regardless of the current Jazz climate, he’s ready to work at a moment’s notice.“When I’m working with (Brasilia) or playing with the trio, I never read anything. I memorize everything,” DeGreg says. “I don’t feel comfortable leading a band in public unless I have all the music internalized well enough that I don’t have to look at a piece of paper. I would love to find another local once-a-week gig, but trying to book a five-piece gig in this town … nobody’s in this for the money, and people are willing to play for the door, but it’s hard to ask people to do that. Music in general has been devalued, and that’s not just Jazz.”
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