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Bringing it home

Celebrated jazzman Greg Osby invites Berklee students into his Inner Circle

At 50, the saxophonist says he still hasn’t found the off switch. At 50, the saxophonist says he still hasn’t found the off switch. (Chitose Suzuki for The Boston Globe)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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Greg Osby’s saxophone had been manhandled enough.

That’s one reason the venerable jazz musician offers for returning to his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, to become a full-time professor in 2007.

“I had a few incidents on the road that encouraged me to make a decision,’’ says Osby, seated in a tricked-out computer lab on the Berklee campus. (“They didn’t even have computers when I was here,’’ he says, looking around with a laugh.) He ticks off the struggles of many working musicians living out of suitcases: “Missed flights, the enhanced security due to all this world strife, a cat dropped my laptop and then it was malfunctioning. . .’’ Then came the airport security agent who was careless with Osby’s horn. “I said, ‘Can you afford to pay for that?’ And then he made it difficult and took me in back and went through all my bags and stuff. I said, I need a break. So this really is a kind of sabbatical for me. I’m still touring but not as much, [it’s] wildly reduced.’’

Instead — nearly 30 years after he left Berklee to hitch a ride with Dizzy Gillespie that led to an acclaimed career of composition and collaboration with folks like Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette — he decided “it was high time for me to give back and avail the students of my knowledge and expertise. And also give them the benefit of me still being active.’’

Reduced touring or no, Osby, a no-nonsense guy with a quick wit and a focused energy, is indeed active.

While his time at Berklee teaching improvisation and harmony, and giving lessons to private students and performance ensembles has allowed the St. Louis native time to catch his breath to a degree, the 50-year-old remains indefatigable outside the classroom.

When discussing his next potential recording project, he reels off three different configurations that speak to the diverse nature of his musical wanderlust: a chamber ensemble, a piano and sax duo, and a “funky, soulful organ trio.’’ He was also hoping to use the summer to finish some compositions, dust off his paints and canvasses, and “learn to cook more than the three dishes that I know how to cook.’’ (Apparently he makes a mean stir-fry.) Plus, he continues to perform with various combos, including his own Greg Osby 6, which plays the 10th annual Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival tomorrow afternoon.

“I really need to find the off switch,’’ he says with a laugh.

But there’s no time to turn off when he’s got a label to run. Inner Circle Music — begun the same year he returned to Berklee and boasting a roster that includes well-respected veterans like pianist James Weidman and up-and-comers like Japanese flutist Yukari — is a particular passion for Osby. An avid student of the business half of the music business, something he tries to impart to his own students, Osby is obsessive about the process. He is as concerned with efficiency as creativity. The label even comes with its own expansive mission statement — available on its homepage in three languages — promising works by “some of the next generation’s provocative composers’’ and seeking to “help define the current era with our art.’’

“I think it’s a community vibe,’’ says Portuguese vocalist and Inner Circle sig nee Sara Serpa, who began performing and recording with Osby after linking up through MySpace while she was a student at Berklee herself. “It’s kind of a platform for everybody who is doing original music who’s young and doesn’t have opportunities to record for the still-alive big record labels, to have an identity in a way, to be part of a group that has some intention behind it.’’

And Osby’s intention is clear. “I want Inner Circle Music to be known as a brand that’s synonymous with quality and fidelity and the look.’’

Osby called in a lot of favors from photographers, designers, engineers, and other creative types to make Inner Circle spin and invited the artists to invest. “They have a nickel in their dime, as my mother used to say,’’ he says. “So that makes them much more responsible when they’re promoting it, because once they recoup their production cost, that’s funneled into a reserve which pays for any subsequent recordings. So it’s perpetual. Then nobody digs a hole of debt.’’

Instead they can get down to the business of making music. Osby returns to muse on what he’ll do next, recalling a golden era when artists would release several albums a year, giving fans and aficionados a choice. It’s no surprise that the saxophonist would like to return to that era. It requires no touring, and musically, he says with a smile, “that’s a kaleidoscope of possibilities.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

THE GREG OSBY 6 FEATURING MARK TURNER

At: Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival, Berklee Stage, 732 Columbus Ave., tomorrow, 2:15 p.m. Free. www.beantownjazz.org