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With a bluesy new album under his belt, Grant Geissman talks vintage guitars and comic books.
I arrive at Grant Geissman’s home away from home — a cozy, furnished, houselike structure designed as a creative space and retreat in Sherman Oaks, California— to talk about his 16th album, Blooz (Futurism). However, his first enthusiastic order of business is not the inspiration for or mechanics involved in developing, writing and producing his first bona fide excursion into bluesy terrain after decades of recording all kinds of jazz.
Clearly, that discussion can wait. We’ve talked about his music many times over the years —dating back to his excellent run of contemporary jazz collections on Futurism/Mesa/Bluemoon in the early ’90s and through the more traditional vibes of his more jazz-oriented trilogy on his Futurism label, the first of which, Say That! (2006), features an instrumental spin through his most famous co-write, the infectious “Theme From Two and a Half Men.”
A passionate and prolific author in addition to his multi-faceted career as a composer and guitarist, Geissman is known as one of the nation’s foremost experts on and collector of 1950s EC Comics and MAD Magazine memorabilia, which he first chronicled in his 1995 volume Collectibly MAD. During his showcase performance/CD release party for Blooz at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood a few nights after my visit — with two sets prominently featuring saxophone legend Tom Scott (who plays on two tracks of the new album) — Geissman introduced a sly and snappy, percussive and bluesy rhumba he penned with pianist Jim Cox. Its title, “Side Hustle,” he explained, refers to his endeavors in the world of MAD and EC Comics.
Back at the house, he excitedly flips through the dynamically illustrated pages of two remarkable coffee table books, Feldstein: The MAD Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein, and his latest epic tome, the 592-page, 13-pound History of EC Comics, published in 2020. Geissman mentions that this one took three years to put together and write. But that isn’t the only reason for the 10-year gap between the final album of that aforementioned trilogy (Bop! Bang! Boom!) and Blooz. For half that time, he was busy co-writing music for several shows in the Chuck Lorre sitcom universe, most prominently Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men.
“The coolest thing about both my music and book projects is that I’m still lucky enough to be doing them and working with so many amazing creative people,” Geissman says. “These two worlds I inhabit are separate in a sense because most people who are into music are not necessarily interested in vintage comics. So there’s not much cross-pollination. Yet writing a book involves the same type of creative process as writing and making a record, just applying it in a different way. Crafting a song from its initial inspiration involves problem-solving the same way as writing a book, solving the story in your mind to create a meaningful through-line people can follow and connect with.”
While this statement might indicate some intricate, behind-the-scenes machinations, the immediate impression upon listening to the 12 tracks of Blooz is that of a fun, freewheeling session played by good friends and masters of their craft. From the swinging strut and whimsical simmer of “Preach,” which features a blazing Randy Brecker trumpet solo, to the mystical meditation “Sorry Not Sorry,” which also spotlights Russell Ferrante’s Fender Rhodes piano, everything is just as Kirk Silsbee describes in his colorful liner notes: It’s a “banquet of blues in many different musical flavors,” and Geissman has “assembled savvy players who can conjure and imply a bluesy feeling without playing on strict blues structures.”
And that seems to be the point. Geissman jokes — in person and at his show — that despite the album’s title, he really does know the correct spelling of “blues.” It’s just that he, Cox, his supple rhythm section (upright bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt, drummers Ray Brinker and Bernie Dresel) and guests like Brecker, Scott, Ferrante, David Garfield, Robben Ford, Josh Smith, Joe Bonamassa and John Jorgenson had no interest in positioning it as a straight-up blues album. “And that was the most fun part of it,” he adds, “the freedom to explore.”
One of the tracks that best exemplifies Geissman’s spirited “blues adjacent” aesthetic is the crackling, hypnotic Latin romp “Carlos en Siete,” which as its title hints, pays homage and puts an improvisational twist to the soulful bluesiness of Santana, all in 7/4 time. Another is the stomping, Bo Diddley-influenced triple rock-jazz guitar jam “One G and Two J’s,” driven by a blistering trio melody and featuring fiery solos by Geissman, Bonamassa and Josh Smith. Then there are the two tracks featuring Scott, the sultry, deep-grooving “Fat Back” and the brisk jazz shuffle “This and That,” which includes one of Cox’s most explosive B3 runs. Meanwhile, Blooz’s most hypnotic barnburner, the dazzlingly cool, jazz-fired rockabilly jam “Whitewalls and Big Fins,” spotlights Jorgensen’s signature Fender Telecaster madness.
Geissman, who had played songs by B.B. King and Cream in high school, had a long-brewing notion that he would someday do a blues album. Yet the origin of Blooz can best be traced to his increasingly frequent visits in recent years to Norman’s Rare Guitars. Run by Norm Harris, the legendary store in the L.A. suburb of Tarzana sells new, used and vintage guitars of all types, plus apparel, accessories and lessons. It’s also the city’s premiere hangout for musicians. As their website says, “On any given day, you can walk into Norm’s and see some of your favorite musicians and artists rocking out.”Harris also holds benefit concerts for the Midnight Mission in downtown L.A., and in 2015 he presented Geissman and guitarist Robben Ford. Geissman wrote the strutting funk tune “Robben’s Hood” for the pair to perform at that gig, and the two later recorded it for Blooz.
Geissman’s evolving passion for vintage guitars led him to use a bevy of classic axes to achieve different vibes and moods on the new album, including a 1966 Epiphone Riviera, 1965 Gibson SG, 1958 Fender Esquire, 1966 Martin 00-18 acoustic and 1954 Les Paul gold top. “I’ve known Norm for 30 years, but only started hanging out there over the past 10,” he says. “I started hearing a lot of incredible guitar players playing really cool bluesy stuff, and I began to think more seriously about how much fun it would be to finally do a project reflecting my take on the blues, which is not always traditional.”
“Truthfully,” Geissman adds, “in my earlier years I wasn’t really into vintage guitars, but when I started playing them, my style changed. I had played the Gibson L-5 and ES-335 guitars for years, and both were pretty jazzy. When I got the 1966 Epiphone Riviera, it felt like a 335 but with mini-humbucker pickups that created a tighter sound that was good for bluesier expressions. I’m really grateful to Norm and the culture he’s created at the store for being the spark that led me to create Blooz.” - Jonathan Widran
Photo by Loni Specter.