BMN Jazz Spotlight: 'Paint a Picture, Tell a Story' By Greg Chako

The title of my 2007 recording, Paint a Picture, Tell a Story, tells you everything you need to know about what is most important to me as a jazz artist. It’s critical to me that my playing and writing SAYS something, speaks to you, moves you, and displays a style which is uniquely my own. 

Listeners have told me that my music does indeed ‘paint a picture’ or ‘tells a story’ in their imagination. To me, that is among the highest possible compliment that can be awarded to any player. It means that in those listeners’ minds, my writing and playing elicits some inner beauty and grace, and the reflective, emotive aspect of jazz. That is an effect much more personal and meaningful than my playing being described in terms like: ‘great chops,’ ‘nice licks’ or, ‘incredible technique.’ 

It is that deeper evocation of painting a picture in the minds of my listeners, or telling a story with my solo, that I strive for. This is especially the case with my albums, all of which represent a culmination of my creative musical life up to the point of their publication, and each album is similar to a big chapter in the “book of my life,” if you will. 

The Paint a Picture, Tell a Story chapter was a follow-up release to Where We Find Ourselves, a double album of all-original compositions released just a couple years before Paint a Picture, Tell a Story. The two albums have a similar sextet format including tenor and soprano sax, trombone, bass clarinet, and various percussion augmenting the common ‘trap’ drum set. One significant difference in personnel with Paint a Picture, Tell a Story is the addition of jazz-stars Delfeayo Marsalis and Don Byron to the Asian-based group I had assembled. That was not the first time I’d played with famous jazz musicians, but it was the first time I made a record with them! 

Like Where We Find Ourselves that preceded it, Paint a Picture, Tell a Story was my effort to get original compositions out there. Writing new music is a worthwhile pastime, but simply composing songs at home pales in comparison to actually publishing them on an album so they can be heard. Unpublished material is invisible while published works can be listened to and appreciated long after I am gone. That is one reason I find making albums so gratifying as an artist. It’s an accomplishment nobody can ever take away from me, and when times get tough for me emotionally, listening to my past releases can be validating, and it can raise my spirits enough to give me a ‘second wind’ to create anew. 

Most, if not all of my songs have a back-story or some particular inspiration behind its title or composition. For example, the 3rd title of this release, Murtabop, is inspired by one of my favorite foods in Singapore called, Murtabok, an Indian dish resembling a pancake stuffed with egg and meat or vegetables. The melody line is bebop-ish, so I changed the last letter of Murtabok from “k” to a “p”. 

A different example is track #6, Hurry Up and Wait. This song is dedicated to the types of jobs we sometimes played while living in Japan as working musicians. It was my humorous attempt to musically capture the nature of being told by an agent to hurry, then wait, then hurry, then wait. Though I experienced my own fair share of such gigs, an extreme example was shared with me by a frequent collaborator of mine in Japan. He was flown to a far-away province only to be sent home the next day (with pay) without ever playing a note! This was despite being asked three different times to come onstage ready to play as the stage curtain began rising, but then told to go off stage and wait some more since the curtain never actually rose at all. 

On Hurry Up and Wait there’s a fast, rhythmically accented melody line which is like being told to hurry up, followed by one that feels like we’re beginning to get into a groove, then, the fast line interrupts again, sending us into a slow blues which expresses frustration! There are different solo changes and an odd-bar form that represents the high degree of uncertainty and change typical on such gigs. 

The point I am trying to make is that each of my songs are highly personal and unique. I use music to express the various personal experiences I’ve had, the places I’ve been (such as a remote and pristine scuba-diving location), or aspects of a memorable relationship I had with someone. I imagine that the more personal the inspiration of my songs are, the less likely they will sound like someone else’s, and the point of all art in my opinion, is to use it to express what is best in us, and endeavor through our experience and education, to organize it in a way that is most likely to elicit an emotional response from an audience.

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