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Larry Grenadier – The Gleaners / ECM 2560

Larry Grenadier: double bass

Over the decades, ECM has released a line of inventive albums showcasing solo double bass by such virtuosos of the instrument as Dave Holland, Barre Phillips and Miroslav Vitous. Now the label presents The Gleaners, the first album of solo bass by Larry Grenadier. As one of the most admired, accomplished bassists working in jazz today, Grenadier has been praised as “a deeply intuitive” musician by The New York Times and as an instrumentalist with a “fluid sense of melody” by Bass Player magazine. His personal tone has made him a bassist of choice for such artists as Paul Motian and Pat Metheny, not to mention some 25 years of deep, ongoing work in pianist Brad Mehldau’s widely influential trio. For ECM, Grenadier has featured on two albums as part of the cooperative trio Fly (alongside Mark Turner and Jeff Ballard), as well as three records led by guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel. The Gleaners includes a brace of originals by Grenadier, along with distinctive interpretations of numbers by George Gershwin, John Coltrane and Motian. There’s also a pair of pieces written especially for Grenadier by Muthspiel, plus an instrumental interpretation of “Gone Like the Season Does,” a song by the bassist’s wife, and frequent collaborator, singer Rebecca Martin.

Grenadier recorded The Gleaners at Avatar Studios in New York City with Manfred Eicher as producer; they mixed the album at Studios La Buissonne in the South of France. In his liner note, Grenadier wrote: “The process for making this record began with a look inward, an excavation into the core elements of who I am as a bass player. It was a search for a center of sound and timbre, for the threads of harmony and rhythm that formulate the crux of a musical identity.” Reflecting on the gestation of his first solo album, he talks further: “For years, I had been satisfied by collaborating with other artists, feeling that I had room for my own voice in the music. But Manfred planted the seed of making a solo album, and I cultivated it as an artistic challenge. Manfred is a former bassist, so he understands the instrument and its history, both in jazz and classical. Few people truly know how to treat the double-bass sonically in the studio, but Manfred concentrates on bringing out its special qualities. In making The Gleaners, he was vital in the editing and the mix, really helping me shape the album.”

Those previous ECM albums of solo bass by Holland, Phillips and Vitous were key inspirations for Grenadier. “But other instrumentalists playing solo were also a big influence, such as Sonny Rollins,” he says. “I looked to them to help answer the question: How do you develop something solo over a long span with cohesion and clarity? Joe Henderson also used to play these substantial solo intros before tunes like Monk’s ‘Ask Me Now’ that were inspiring. There were other things, too, when it came to solo string playing. I’ve always loved solo cello music from Bach and beyond, and Manfred introduced me to violist Kim Kashkashian’s solo Hindemith recordings, which I fell for. As all those influences swirled in my head, I began thinking about a solo album conceptually, how to make it interesting over 45 minutes or so – and not just to other bass players. I experimented with various tunings and scordatura, like the 17th- and 18th-century violinists used, to get a full range of sounds – and that gave the instrument a whole new vibration for me, a feeling of real sonic potential to explore.”

Grenadier’s title of The Gleaners was inspired by a documentary film from 2000, The Gleaners and I, by the French director Agnès Varda, who was in turn influenced by the 19th-century painting by Millet called The Gleaners, of women harvesting in a field. “For me, as a musician, you glean things from the people you play with and the music you listen to, but it takes work to get the most out of everything, to harvest the things you can use yourself,” Grenadier says. “I’ve always felt something like that as an artistic credo – working to get to the good stuff. Even in the middle of a gig with, say, Brad Mehldau – just trying to be truly in the moment, alive to the best of what’s happening.”

Richly conceived, beautifully played and recorded with a sensuous blend of warmth and detail, The Gleaners includes seven original pieces by Grenadier – starting with the deeply melodic arco opener “Oceanic.” Next comes the grooving pizzicato homage “Pettiford,” about which Grenadier says: “That track is my tribute to Oscar Pettiford, one of the first jazz bass players I really dug, when I was a teenager. My piece is based on the chord changes of his tune ‘Laverne’s Walk.’ I’ve also played ‘Pettiford’ in a trio version with Fly.” The album’s other originals range from the arco lyricism of “Vineland” and “The Gleaners” to the pensive pizzicato of “Lovelair” and “Woebegone” (with the latter capped by some artfully overdubbed arco). The interpretations on The Gleaners include touchstones for Grenadier: “Another musical hero of mine has always been Miles Davis, for his sound and the way he thought about music, as well as the bands he put together. I love the Miles and Gil Evans version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, so including ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ is my nod to that inspiration.”

The Gleaners also includes a medley of Coltrane’s “Compassion” and Motian’s “The Owl of Cranston.” Grenadier says: “‘Compassion’ comes from Coltrane’s Meditations suite, an important piece of music for me. It flows into Motian’s ‘Owl of Cranston,’ which I used to play with Paul. His tunes are just fabulous – they’re so melodic, but the flow of the rhythm, often out of tempo, is the thing. I love Paul’s approach to composition and his approach to music in general – his influence is so strong among my generation. I got to spend more than a decade with him onstage and in the studio, which meant that I could absorb this long history of music, from his days with Bill Evans and then Keith Jarrett to his albums as a leader on ECM and that great trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Throughout all that he did, there is this open approach, where you hear time beyond strict metronomic time, free but with a flow. He could play so loose because he was so rooted in the tradition. As he might say, to play out you have to be able to play in. The great musicians I’ve played alongside – from Joe Henderson and Paul Motian to Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny – all teach the same thing: know your instrument really well, listen closely and be open to the moment and its possibilities.”

 

Born in 1966, Grenadier grew up in San Francisco, his family a musical one. At age 10, he began learning the trumpet, which was father’s instrument. His dad taught him how to read music, and he was soon given his first electric bass, which enabled him to play cover tunes in a trio with his two brothers. After being introduced to jazz at home, Grenadier had his passion for the music stoked at age 12 by witnessing a live performance by bass kingpin Ray Brown. That pivotal event led him to explore the work of such bass greats as Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware. “The more I got into jazz, the more I gravitated toward the upright bass as my main instrument,” Grenadier recalls. “I was drawn to the acoustic instrument’s subtlety and its physicality. I liked how the double-bass produces its sound naturally. The instrument still holds mystery for me – I remain fascinated by it all these years later.”

About his prime influences as a bassist, Grenadier runs down those players and qualities that have meant the most to him: Brown (“such a huge beat, such clarity of sound – what he played on bass offered so much information that you had to pay attention to it”); Pettiford (“for his clarity, melodicism, swing-to-bop values, the way he dug chamber music, too”); Mingus (“huge technical ability on the bass, along with his incredible composing and bandleading”); and Scott LaFaro (“his incredible technique and his individuality – he was sui generis, like Jaco Pastorius”). Along with those figures, and Holland and Vitous, Grenadier’s key bass influences also include Charlie Haden, Eddie Gomez, George Mraz and Marc Johnson. “All these players have been about developing a distinctive voice on the bass, with the technique to convey their ideas with real lucidity,” he says. “Obviously, Charlie was a very different player than someone like Miroslav, but they both rank as advanced speakers on their instrument. It’s about pushing yourself technically so that you can get across what you’re trying to express. Among my peers, you can hear that in the playing of Ben Street, Eric Revis and Rodney Whitaker – they’ve inspired me, too.”

The art of music “remains a learning experience for me, above all,” Grenadier concludes. “I’m always working on the technical aspects of my playing, but at the same time, I know that what happens onstage isn’t all about that. The level of intuition that exists in music, especially in jazz, is a constant reminder to me of what humans are capable of, both in music and beyond. I always want to keep a bit of that mystery at play in the music, so as not to over-intellectualize the magic. That’s why I think you have to balance a studied approach to how music works with a primal, instinctual understanding of the way music feels. Having access to technique is essential for being able to communicate and express yourself musically. But, ultimately, music is about emotion. The most vital quality in making music at a heightened level is empathy, the ability to listen and feel.”

© Studio Svengali, únor 2019
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