Greg Skaff is a NYC-based musician and composer who rates among the premier guitarists in jazz. No idle boast, this. Fresh to the Big Apple in the ‘80s, Skaff had his first professional gig with none other than Stanley Turrentine--it went so well the saxophone colossal kept him gainfully employed for the next five years—and in the years since he has flourished as both a sideman and bandleader. Consider some of the luminaries with whom Skaff has enjoyed a close musical rapport in live performance and/or in the recording studio: Bobby Watson, Ruth Brown, Freddie Hubbard, David “Fathead” Newman, Kevin Mahogany, Gloria Lynne, Jim Rotundi, David Hazeltine, Bruce Barth, Mike LeDonne, Joe Farnsworth, Matt Wilson, Ben Allison, Orrin Evans, and Victor Lewis. At the helm of his own bands, Skaff, with his creativity, his passionate touch, and his impressive technique on prominent display, has seized the attention of discriminate listeners at leading Manhattan jazz clubs and at concert venues all over the world. The guitarist has two acclaimed feature albums under his belt, the newest titled Ellington Boulevard, on the widely distributed Zoho Music label, and he has 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 Ralph Peterson, Jr., and organ player George Colligan, and he also contributes to several other stellar groups, including James Rotundi’s Electric Band and a collaboration with drummer Matt Watson and bassist Ben Allison. He has a third feature album in the planning stages.
A native of Kansas, Skaff picked up the guitar at age 16 after being enthralled by George Benson’s Uptown album. He then studied music at Wichita State for three semesters, but his heart was more invested in performing jazz, blues, and rock in Wichita clubs. He paid special attention to visiting soul-jazz stars Lou Donaldson, Lonnie Smith, and Jack McDuff. Skaff quickly came to understand that his dream of becoming a top-flight jazz guitar player would best be served by leaving the Midwest for the jazz world’s capital city, New York City.
Finding work with Turrentine not long after his resettlement in the East was a godsend. As a worthy successor to George Benson, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green in Mr. T’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 overseas 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 like organ player Jimmy Smith and Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn furthered his informal education on channeling emotion into tone and rhythm. These days, Skaff 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 on gigs.
Bobby Watson, one of the top soprano and alto saxophonists active, also places his first call to Skaff. Watson offers a 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 mentions, 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 a different way in the ensemble--it’s a lot 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’s also heard to good advantage on the albums Live and Learn (Palmetto) and Urban Renewal (Kokopelli).
Skaff brings a virtuoso spirit to his guitar lines in trios with Hammond organ and drums—hear him in the company of B-3 specialist Mike LeDonne and ace drummer Joe Farnsworth on their wonderful album Ellington Boulevard. In the liner notes, 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, is currently teamed with Skaff and drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr., in an exciting trio that has quickly become a favorite of audiences in NYC and in 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 threesome that included the exemplary piano man Bruce Barth.
It is in those trios that Skall exhibits his considerable skills as a composer. “That’s what my own groups are about,” he reveals. “I’ve got things in me that have to come out [compositionally]. I feel like my songs are the best showcase for my playing, rather than other people’s songs.” Like his guitar playing, Skaff’s writing shows that his passion is controlled more by inspiration than formula; six original songs on Ellington Boulevard, along with newer ones performed in concerts, show his strong grasp of the principles of composing in the jazz tradition while advancing forward-looking musical ideas. His writing is naturally informed with a generous blues-soul spirit.
Skaff has discovered his métier is jazz built on the solid foundation of blues. Still, like other vastly talented, questing jazz musicians of his generation, he is open to the creative possibilities suggested in other musical styles. Skaff has been studying classical guitar of late, and, on the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, he is delighted to be part of trumpeter Jim Rotondi’s Electric Band, which melds jazz with funk and rock rhythms in colorful, interesting ways. He says of his work for the plugged-in group, “That’s another part of my personality--pedals on the floor, distortion, delay, filters.”
For Greg Skaff, the sky’s the limit.
Skaff endorses D'Angelico jazz guitars.