By ROB DUGUAY
If it weren’t for COVID-19, Greg Abate would be touring through various cities around the globe and exhibiting his fantastic skills on saxophone in front of attentive audiences. Much like everybody else, life for the local jazz legend and Rhode Island Music Hall Of Famer has changed a bit because of the pandemic but he’s still finding ways to keep busy. He’s been working on a new album and he’s been teaching music virtually at Rhode Island College. He also will be leading a quintet for a socially distanced and limited capacity gig at Chan’s on 267 Main Street in Woonsocket on October 24 at 8pm. Abate will be joined on stage by Phil Grenadier on trumpet, Matt DeChamphlid on piano, Paul DelNero on bass and Gary Johnson on drums.
We had a talk ahead of the show about how he’s been holding up this year, that new album he’s been working on, being trusting of a safe atmosphere and missing playing live on a consistent basis.
Rob Duguay: How have you been holding up so far during 2020? It’s been a crazy year and you’ve probably haven’t had that many gigs these days, so what have you been doing to pass the time?
Greg Abate: Since I got back from Ohio back in March, which I was supposed to continue my tour all the way to California for two and a half weeks, I’ve been taking advantage of all the grants and stuff that’s been offered. I’ve managed to get some of that while successfully applying for the gig unemployment and I’m doing some online teaching part-time two days a week at Rhode Island College with classes going down 80%. I’ve also been working on a new recording with the Kenny Barron Trio which we did the sessions for at the Rudy Van Gelder Studio in Englewood, NY last month. We were initially supposed to record back in May, but they canceled it because of COVID-19. Then they rescheduled it, so I started to take another look at the music that was being arranged and I’ve spent a lot of time with that.
I’m practicing and writing some tunes while rescheduling all of the gigs I had to next year. I was supposed to do a tour of Europe starting next month that was going to be 23 shows and I lost all of it. I haven’t had many working gigs.
RD: With teaching part-time online at Rhode Island College, how has it been doing these classes? Has it taken any adjusting on your part with your students or have you had experience doing these kinds of classes before?
GA: I’ve taught online before on Facetime but now it’s more of a personal thing with my students because we’re meeting one on one just to do some exchanges while teaching them about jazz improvisation. It becomes more of an informal lesson than being in the classroom where it’s more formal, so we can talk about our days and what we’ve been up to. It’s more of a casual type of lesson than a formal lesson. I find that it’s pretty cool to do although it can be hard to line up the sound as you play along together. It’s a little difficult actually but it’s better than nothing, at least we get to see each other and they can hear what I’m playing to get an idea of what they can practice.
RD: You definitely need to count your blessings and see the silver linings in things with the situation we’re in. What are your feelings with the upcoming socially distanced show at Chan’s? Are you preparing any differently than you usually would due to the current situation or do you plan on playing it just like any other gig?
GA: It’s a little bit concerning about the virus with being around a lot of people, but this will be my first gig during COVID-19 with an audience. I’m putting faith in that the owner John Chan has his club set up right and all of us musicians are staying safe. I saw that there’s an invention of a mask for horn players now where you put your mouthpiece inside of it while you’re still blowing the air out. I don’t want to contaminate anybody but I don’t feel like I have it. More than that, I have a gig in North Carolina coming up at the end of the month for three nights in Charlotte and I’m gonna fly there.
My doctor says to wear an N-95 mask and perhaps even a face shield, but when I get there I’m going to have to deal with people in the club and it’s kind of unnerving to think about.
RD: I can totally imagine why.
GA: Yeah, so it is concerning that I have to do that.
RD: Absolutely. One big topic concerning live music is how the venues that are left are going to survive the rest of the pandemic until whenever we have a vaccine. How much do venues like Chan’s and numerous other places you’ve played at mean to your career as a musician?
GA: Very much, I miss playing regularly. Playing at Chan’s has had a big influence on me, it’s my sentimental place and I’ve been playing there once or twice a year since 1979. Also, I used to play at Bovi’s Tavern on Monday nights before it closed down in East Providence a few years ago. Going there was like going to school, learning how to play better while getting the material across and being around better musicians.
RD: You mentioned earlier how you’re working on some new music and it’s going to be your fifth album with the New Bedford based label Whaling City Sound. When can we expect it to come out?
GA: I think it’s probably going to be next spring. This time of year is a bit too close to Christmas and other releases coming out in November, so maybe I’ll just wait until January of February to figure out a release date. Whaling City has been really good to me and it should be a double LP. I’ve been mixing it at another studio in Massachusetts, it was intense going into it at the height of the virus. It’s been a surreal time, we were all in separate booths when we recorded the album and I’ve never been in a studio where I had to worry about something like this.