We look for the story. Maybe the story of how a song comes to be, or how a chance meeting becomes a musical relationship that becomes a record. The story of how a life in all its complexity leads to a pinnacle of self-actualization. We build narratives to promote and to critique. Ideally, music can provide a respite from all that. It’s not that music has a monopoly on a truth that language can’t access; it’s that music exists outside of language all together. And that is, in fact, what makes it true.
Here’s a narrative about Gregory Tardy:
Greg’s never been known for playing pretty music. He came up with the “young lions” of the early 90’s under the influence of Wynton Marsalis. He was drafted into the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine by Nicholas Payton. A fierce musician with a burning sound and a reverence for Coltrane, Greg set the scene on fire with his arrival in NYC in 1994. Now, 25 years later, we hear a more contemplative, elegiac Tardy. After a lifetime of his sound directing his experiences, his experiences now inform his sound.
It’s the mid 80’s and Tardy can’t get to his regular spot playing for tips on the street in front of a local café in New Orleans. That’s the money spot, and now he’s not sure how he’ll buy groceries this week. New Orleans has other riches though. He’s setting up in coffee shops, passing the hat with Brian Blade, Nicholas Payton, Eric Revis, and a whole murderers row of young New Orleans jazz greats-to-be. When he gets the call from Nicholas Payton to ask if he wants to join Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine he responds, “Do you really need to ask me if I want to play with Elvin?”
With Elvin, he found his footing, surfing on the huge waves of sound Elvin would generate from the back of the bandstand. He saved enough money from touring to move to NYC in 1994. He was quickly signed to Impulse Records and began touring his own music worldwide. And suddenly things turned. Reviewers were calling him derivative, too much a devotee of Coltrane—there was a backlash against the whole ethos of the “young lions” traditionalist movement. It didn’t matter that Tardy was actually almost a decade older than the crop of musicians associated with the movement, or that his music wasn’t backwards looking at all. Still, the critiques stung Greg and he moved consciously to court work with Andrew Hill and Dave Douglas, purveyors of the downtown scene. Pushing Greg out of his comfort zone and playing progressive and free music. It was here that Greg hooked up with Bill Frisell, joining his quintet with Ron Miles and Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollensen.
Greg is in high school in the Midwest. His family is full of musicians, both his parents sing Opera. Despite Greg’s dedication to classical clarinet, he’s a metal head and a devotee of RUSH. Finally, his older brother plays him a recording of Coltrane playing “Monk’s Mood” and it hits Greg like a thunderclap: “I didn’t understand what they were doing but I knew I wanted to do it.” There’s a series of leaps of faith and now Greg’s life revolves around Jazz—eventually he heads to New Orleans to start really workshopping.
The next thunderclap hits in 1996, after playing for years with Elvin, when Greg dedicates his life to Jesus Christ. Ten years after that, in 2006 Greg leaves Bill Frisell’s Quartet to take up music ministry to a congregation of 8,000 strong at the Times Square Church in the hopes of pursuing a preaching career. For four years, Greg played his horn minimally, focusing on his family and his congregation, working hard as a music writer and band leader of the church, and playing a lot of piano.
It was while he was at the church that his hands started to bother him. Typing long hours and his work on the piano, or perhaps his lack of work on the sax after a lifetime of playing hours every day, led to carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. It became so bad that Greg couldn’t hold his daughter’s hand as she crossed the street, or type his pin code into an ATM without his hands seizing up. He had surgery on both hands. With impeccable timing, the University of Tennessee called to offer him a permanent position. Leaving full-time ministry wasn’t an easy decision, but Greg took the job.
As Greg started playing his horn again he found that his hands were slowly getting better. Now he reckons his hands are at about 90% of where he was before he took the Church position. Living in Knoxville, teaching and raising his family while playing and touring worldwide, Greg feels like he’s right where he is supposed to be.
One thing that Greg has been searching for in his life has been the right opportunity and setting to record “Monk’s Mood”—the song played on his brother’s turn-table that got him started on this journey. Hearing Bill lay down acoustic guitar while Greg blows the melody of “Monk’s Mood” is a revelation. All of these narratives are true. But the real truth, of course, is in the music.
– Elan Mehler