A renowned guitarist who has played with jazz giants including Chick Corea and Sun Ra, Canada’s Sonny Greenwich is known for his contemplative solos and interest in spirituality. So few of his fans would have expected the 60-year-old musician to lend his strong but graceful touch to a song about stalking, incest and murder. Unless, of course, the composition was written by his son, Sonny Greenwich Jr., guitarist in the raunchy Montreal funk-punk band Bootsauce. Called Down by the Farm, the song is featured on Welcome:
Mother Earth, the recent debut CD from the Greenwiches’ new group, Meantime. Released on the independent Montreal label Justin Time, it is the father and son’s first musical collaboration. The twisted, fictitious lyrics, set to a sweet, haunting melody, tell of a brother’s murderous love for his sister, with Sonny Sr.’s crisp guitar tones in the background.
“I don’t really think it’s that bizarre,” says Sonny Sr. “It’s just a pretty song with weird lyrics.” Adds Sonny Jr: “Although I suppose others might find it kind of creepy.”
Musically, the two Greenwiches would seem to be in different worlds.
Sonny Sr. has performed with Miles Davis; Sonny Jr. has played on the same bill as a post-grunge band called the Rainbow Butt Monkeys.
Sonny Sr. was inspired by John Coltrane’s exploratory sax playing, and by cubist painting—he likes clean, deep notes and structured solos (he calls them “diagrams”). Junior, who has dreadlocks down to his waist and was inspired to pick up the guitar when he saw a movie about Jimi Hendrix, likes fuzz and feedback. “Sonny’s first interest in the guitar was that he wanted to light it on fire and smash it up,” says the elder Greenwich.
But the truth is the two guitarists share more than the same real name (Herbert) and birthday (Jan. 1). As a child in Toronto, where he was born, and later in Montreal, Sonny Jr. was taken to smoky clubs by his mother, Bernice, to hear his father play, absorbing the musician’s life of irregular hours and late-night carousing. Sonny Jr. was 12 when his parents separated in 1974. He moved into his own apartment at 16, taking with him the guitar his father had given him for his birthday that year.
Like Hamilton-born Sonny Sr., who didn’t start playing until he was 19, Sonny Jr.
skipped any sort of formal training. And to this day, neither of them really likes to practise. “The thing I always noticed about Sonny is that he played just the way he wanted to play,” says Sonny Sr. “I liked that, because it was his own individual thing, and it was exactly the same approach I took.” Adds Sonny Jr.: “I could never play like him anyway. I don’t even understand what he’s playing. The melodic stuff, OK, but the
fast runs and the diagrams, forget it.” Welcome: Mother Earth was a side project for both father and son. Sonny Jr. and Bootsauce/Meantime bassist AÍ Baculis wrote three of the songs; the other four are Sonny Sr. compositions. They range from heavily mixed jazz-funk fusion pieces to more ambient mood melodies (only Down by the Farm has vocals). Nearly all feature duelling Greenwich guitars, with Junior’s revved-up noise countering Senior’s rich and wise improvisations. The arrangements were done on a hot week in July using a Macintosh computer in a tiny back room in Sonny Jr.’s apartment. The album, produced by the son,
was recorded in a local studio in three days, with James Gelfand on keyboards and Jim Hillman on drums. “It went really fast,” says Sonny Jr. “We knew what we wanted to do and got to work.” They conceived a number of the songs as simple chord progressions that they then embellished at the mixing board, where Junior’s familiarity with such devices as sequencers and tape loops sometimes had “the old man” (as he calls his father) baffled. But Sonny Sr. is learning fast. “The next one will be even more out there production-wise,” he smiles, “because there’s lots of things I’d like to try.”
The critically praised CD comes at a time when both guitarists seem to be at career crossroads. After four albums, several North American and European tours, a Juno Award and the Quebec equivalent, an ADISQ, Bootsauce is taking a year off while looking for a new record deal (the last, self-titled album, for the major label PolyGram, was a sales bust). “That’s why it was so much fun to do this record,” Sonny Jr. says. “It was a music-making enterprise as opposed to a moneymaking enterprise.”
Sonny Sr., meanwhile, is more prolific than he has ever been in his four-decade career. Last year, he performed 20 times, as well as recording albums with Toronto saxophonist Jane Bunnett and Montreal pianist Paul Bley—this from a musician who has released only eight albums under his own name and has occasionally gone months, sometimes years, without performing or even touching his guitar. He lives in Boucherville, south of Montreal, with his second wife, Katherine, 40, in a bungalow overlooking the St. Lawrence River. On summer nights he takes his guitar to the riverside and plays under the stars. “I have to play more now than I ever did,” he sighs, “just to make sure my hands stay in shape.” When not playing, he builds on his collection of shortwave radios and g surfs the Internet, an interest in sci| ence—’’weather, satellites, the I Earth”—being his latest quest. 0 The elder Greenwich, who has had 1 a longtime affinity for experimental ° jazz, says that his sound has become
“more grounded. Right now, I think I’m playing in a style that people can more easily relate to. But I’m still trying to keep it on an edge.” Interestingly, it was Sonny Jr. who was the grounding force on Welcome: Mother Earth. “The idea was to take his guitar sound and put it in a somewhat more conventional setting,” he says, “something for jazz fans who would never listen to Bootsauce, and rock ’n’ roll types who hate jazz. Probably we’d never have gotten together if we weren’t father and son, but when it came down to it, our love of music was even more the common ground.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.