The Greg Packham Group Rehearses

The sessions take place in the jazz guitarist Greg Packham’s basement in Fairfield, Connecticut, accessed through the dark garage. The Greg Packham Group, formed in 1973, has been rehearsing here every Tuesday evening almost as long, since 1976.

Greg Packham, have Telecaster, will play. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The group has made two albums, Action-Reaction and Into the Flying Pan (with Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones), both recorded at the late Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey.

My radio show on WPKN happens to be at exactly the same time as the rehearsal, so it’s been quite some time since I’d dropped in on a session. But I was off February 15 and so I became a socially distanced fly on the wall.

The band in full cry. At this point, Martha Lind has replaced Mike McGrath on keyboards. (Jim Motavalli photo)

When I arrived, they were already playing. All the musicians can all sight-read, which is good, because the Packham book numbers 600 original compositions. When I arrived, they were playing “Friday Night at the Club.” The bass player was Jason Frangenes, an eighth-grade science teacher at my alma mater, Staples High School. On keyboards was Mike McGrath, a music teacher at Middlebrook School in Trumbull, Connecticut. Nick Rodriguez was on Latin percussion, and Ray Field on drums.

Hard Knocks. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The personnel shifts due to availability. Players move away, and a few have departed our Earth. Alto sax player Vince Montalli was out of town. While waiting for new tenor sax player Malin (pronounced MAWL-in) Carta to show up, the band ripped through a version of “Mr. Moto,” which is about, well, me. It’s bebop with a lot of stops and starts.

McGrath on keys this time. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Packham was playing a black 1978 Fender Telecaster with a tray of effects pedals, some of which he’s had since he was a California seventh grader. The band played another song, “Eternity,” on the ballad spectrum but fairly sped up. Everything was being recorded through the 24-track board, direct to CD. The balance in the room was misleading—headphones showed how it was actually going down.

Carta and alto player Vince Montalli are the two-horn front line. (Greg Packham photo)

Some 45 minutes in, Carta arrived. She’s by far the youngest (and newest) member of the band, and a recent music performance graduate of Western Connecticut State College in Danbury. She studied with Grammy-nominated saxophonist Jimmy Greene. In the band, she plays tenor and flute, but she’s also a pianist singer and educator.

She opens her sax case, extracts a reed, dampens it, and inserts it into her mouthpiece. In minutes, the tenor is ready to go, but the next tune is “Floating Leaf,” and it needs her flute. Carta has never seen the piece before—none of the members have—but with their eyes fixated on some dense notation they play it without a hitch.

Packham and his all-stars in Woodland Hills, California when he was all of 10. (Photo courtesy of Greg Packham)

“Floating Leaf” is extremely catchy, and distinctly Asian. Packham says he’s been watching a lot of Japanese movies lately, and recommends Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 Funeral Parade of Roses. Packham has an ear for melody, in whatever style—and the band covers a lot of ground, from reggaeton to funk, bebop, blues, Latin, Cape Verdean and more.

Carta has only been playing flute for about a year, but she sounded strong and assured on the instrument—which can sometimes melt into the background. I recommended she check out another Connecticut flute player, Ali Ryerson, and asked if it is a challenge to record songs on the first take, and she said, “At times it can be a little difficult.”

At that point, bassist Frangenes left, but it didn’t cause a problem. Pianist Martha Lind took over from McGrath, and on the Hammond B3 that’s a perennial in the studio she could play bass lines with one hand. On they went, with “Hard Knocks,” a loping bop tune with Carta back on tenor, exploring the bottom end of that instrument.

Packham is a chameleon, and his own solos reflected the needs of his compositions—some of which still had wet ink on them. But he plays a lot of guitar, no matter the occasion. By next week, he’s very likely to have another four or six songs ready to go. The band is likely to start playing out soon, so stay tuned to that Facebook page linked above.

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