Primary Instrument: Guitar
Greg Skaff is a NYC-based musician and composer whose skills and reputation place him among the premier guitarists in jazz. Fresh to the Big Apple in the ‘80s, Skaff had his first professional gig with none other than Stanley Turrentine--which went so well the sax master kept him gainfully employed for the next five years. In subsequent years Greg has flourished as both a sideman and bandleader and played and recorded with, among others, Bobby Watson, Ruth Brown, Freddie Hubbard, David “Fathead” Newman, Kevin Mahogany, Gloria Lynne, Jim Rotondi, David Hazeltine, Bruce Barth, Mike LeDonne, Joe Farnsworth, Matt Wilson, Ben Allison, Orrin Evans, and Victor Lewis.
At the helm of his own bands, Greg--with his creativity, his passionate touch, and his impressive technique on prominent display--has seized the attention of discriminating listeners at leading Manhattan jazz clubs and at concert venues worldwide. The guitarist has two acclaimed feature albums under his belt--the newest titled Ellington Boulevard, on the widely distributed Zoho Music label; he has also made stellar contributions to several recordings by saxophonist Bobby Watson. Always in demand, Skaff is currently on call for Watson and Newman, plays in a trio with drummer E. J. Strickland, and organ player George Colligan, and also contributes to several other ensembles--including James Rotondi’s Electric Band and a collaboration with drummer Matt Watson and bassist Ben Allison. He has a third feature album to be recorded soon.
A native of Kansas, Skaff picked up the guitar at age 16 after becoming enthralled by George Benson's It's Uptown album. He then studied music at Wichita State for three semesters, but his real passion was performing jazz, blues, and rock in Wichita clubs. During that time he paid special attention to such visiting jazz luminaries as Lou Donaldson, Lonnie Smith, and Jack McDuff and quickly realized his dream of becoming a top-flight jazz guitarist would best be served by leaving the Midwest for the jazz world’s capital city--NYC.
Finding work with Turrentine not long after his resettlement in the East was a stroke of luck. As a worthy successor to George Benson, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green in Turrentine’s bluesy soul-jazz groups, Skaff found his guitar playing deepening in its manner of expression over the course of hundreds of shows all over the country and in Europe, Japan, South America, and South Africa. His increasingly confident work took on that hard-to-define-but-understood-when-heard quality called soul. Today, he looks back on the experience and says, “I absorbed Stanley’s sense of phrasing. I didn’t realize how much I was absorbing at the time. I gravitate toward his kind of phrasing, where he puts the notes in a beat, in the meter. His sound is ingrained in my brain.”
Crossing paths on the road with world-class musicians such as organ player Jimmy Smith and Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn furthered his informal education on channeling emotion into tone and rhythm. Skaff meanwhile continues to reap benefits from the Turrentine connection as “Stan the Man’s” close friend “Fathead” Newman--the principle saxophonist in Ray Charles’s Orchestra and a formidable bandleader in his own right--has been using him frequently on gigs.
Bobby Watson--one of the top soprano and alto saxophonists around--offers Skaff a concise, and ringing, endorsement: “Greg is the most versatile and imaginative guitarist I’ve ever worked with.” Their decade-long association has been invaluable to Skaff’s seasoning as a world-class jazz player. “It’s a lot looser than with Stanley,” Skaff commented, comparing now-deceased Turrentine’s modus operandi to Watson’s. “I’ve had to listen to the music in a different way. There’s a lot more interplay with Bobby and also with the rhythm section. I play differently in the ensemble--it’s much more open and I make up more guitar parts.” Denizens of jazz clubs have been joined by jazz critics in marveling over his inventive guitar playing with Watson. Brits Richard Cook and Brian Morton were moved to describe his work on the Watson album Quiet As Its Kept (Red) as “revelatory.” In the Watson discography, Skaff is also heard to good advantage on the albums Live and Learn (Palmetto) and Urban Renewal (Kokopelli).
Skaff brings a particularly virtuosic spirit to his guitar lines when collaborating with Hammond organ and drums, and should be heard on the wonderful album Ellington Boulevard in the company of B-3 specialist Mike LeDonne and ace drummer Joe Farnsworth. Music journalist Bill Milkowski points to the guitarist’s “blues-drenched sensibility, rhythmic assuredness, strong affinity for funk, and his boppish tendency of blowing at breakneck tempos with apparent ease.” Reviewing the album in Jazz Times, Russell Carlson exclaimed that “the trio bristles with an uncommon collective intensity” and the music was propelled by a “joyous energy.” Owen Cordle at Jazz Times termed the release a “nice set by mature, thinking players.”
Organ player George Colligan--a favorite with everyone from Cassandra Wilson to Don Byron--has recently teamed with Skaff and drummer E. J. Strickland in an exciting trio that has quickly become a favorite of audiences in NYC and Italy. It’s worth noting, too, that Skaff’s telepathy extends to pianists; his feature album from the ‘90s, Blues and Other News (Double-Time), found him in a trio that included the exemplary piano man Bruce Barth. His current working group, of which there is a recording project in the works, teams him again with George Colligan on organ and with E. J. Strickland on drums; also slated is a recording that will include the legendary Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ.
“Composition--that’s what my own groups are about...” Skaff reveals. “I’ve got things in me that must find expression through music and ultimately I feel that my songs are the best showcase for my playing.” Like his guitar work, Skaff’s compositions demonstrate that his passion is controlled more by inspiration than formula. Six original songs on Ellington Boulevard, along with newer compositions performed in concert, show his strong grasp of jazz composition while simultaneously advancing forward-looking at innovative musical concepts.