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Bassist Larry Grenadier, who has long been among the most ubiquitous sidemen in jazz, is set to release his first solo album, The Gleaners (ECM), later this month. Speaking by phone from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley, he describes the solo-recording process — with its inherent solitude, its insistence on introspection, its hyper-focus on individual sound — as “shockingly bizarre.”
“I’m so used to having other people around me to interact with,” says the nearly 53-year-old bassist, who, over the course of his long career, has played with such luminaries as Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson and Betty Carter. “But playing solo is all about looking inward, of letting go of the sense of reacting and just embracing the unexpected. It was a challenge.”
Despite its narrow instrumental focus, The Gleaners presents a captivating study in sound, texture and compositional ingenuity. Its title was borrowed from Jean-Francois Millet’s painting of the same name (which in turn inspired the 2000 Agnès Varda documentary The Gleaners and I), and in many ways Grenadier’s album is itself an act of gleaning — extracting bits and pieces from various sources. Over the course of 12 new and original compositions, it funnels all of Grenadier’s past experiences — his early days as a sideman in San Francisco, his first tour with vibraphonist Gary Burton, his groundbreaking work in the 1990s with pianist Brad Mehldau and guitarist Pat Metheny — into his most personal artistic statement to date.
Grenadier’s vision has been shaped by his predecessors, which is why The Gleaners also serves as a compendium of his deepest influences. Originals like “Pettiford” and covers of tunes by John Coltrane and Paul Motian point to obvious musical sources, but Grenadier also taps themes of immigration, home and family for inspiration. The album also features songs written by his wife, singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin, as well as a pair of brief bagatelles penned by guitarist and frequent collaborator Wolfgang Muthspiel.
That personal-through-the-collective mindset is what has defined Grenadier’s career as of late, most notably through his work in the trio Fly, which he co-leads with drummer Jeff Ballard and saxophonist Mark Turner. That group — which recorded its first album in 2004 and its most recent in 2012 — was formed in an attempt to redefine the notion of how a typical jazz trio operates, liberating it from the constraints of a chordal instrument by dispersing the harmonic responsibilities among its three members. Such innovative thinking is what continues to make Grenadier a trailblazer in his field, and it’s why The Gleaners, an album he was initially reluctant to make, may prove to be a crowning achievement.
I understand you’ve been working on this album for a while, starting back in 2015.
Yeah, it's kind of been a slow process, which is actually fine by me [laughs]. It matches my pace.
How’d the idea for a solo bass record come about?
Out of the blue, really. I was recording with Wolfgang Muthspiel for his previous album, Rising Grace, and while we were in the studio out in France, [ECM founder and producer] Manfred Eicher mentioned the idea of doing a solo bass record. Honestly, I had never even considered doing a solo bass record before. But it must have been the right moment, because it sounded like a really intriguing challenge. At that point in my career, I was ready to push myself in a different direction.
The solo bass record is a rare bird in jazz. Where did you turn for inspiration?
It's rare, yes, but not as rare as I had initially thought. There were a few touchstones for me, most of them on ECM. Growing up, there was a record by Dave Holland called Emerald Tears [from 1977], and then he did one in the early ’90s on the VeraBra label called Ones All. And Miroslav Vitous did one in the ’80s called Emergence that was excellent.
I went back and listened to them all, because for me the obvious starting point was, “Alright, let’s go back and get a sense of the history of the solo bass album.” That led me to players like Barre Phillips, who, back in the late ’60s, made the first solo bass recordings in jazz. I didn’t really know his playing, but he became a strong influence, because he essentially brought something to the table that was completely different from what everyone else was doing. That’s what every musician strives for, I think.
Of course, I was also listening to some classical music that was written for solo instruments — solo viola, solo cello — just to see how a composer creates a piece that can maintain a listener’s interest with just one instrument, a single thread.
[caption id="attachment_16588" align="aligncenter" width="1240"] Larry Grenadier: “I wanted to play how I felt in that moment. And that was really interesting, because usually I depend on somebody else to motivate that feeling to come out. Here, I was truly just reacting to my own sound.” Photo by Juan Hitters.[/caption]
How did you accomplish that on your own record?
I guess I just thought about the different sonic possibilities of the instrument. I was reading a book at the time about the early history of the double-bass. It was showing all of the different tunings that it went through historically. It really went through quite a few different versions of standard tuning. So that made me think about playing with different tunings, which I ended up doing on the record, and which really changes the sonority of the bass, causing it to vibrate differently. Some tunings kind of bring out a kind of woodwind sound, or a French horn sound, at least to my ears.
I also did a lot of pedal point, where one note lasts through a certain amount of time, making it sound almost like I’m playing a duet with myself. Other things came out of a search to find new sounds and different musical concepts, things that would make it interesting to listen to a bass player for 45 minutes [laughs]. I wanted to find new ways to create sonic variations — arco, pizzicato, pedal point — because I wanted the focus to be on texture and sound.
An obsession with sound is one thing a lot of great bassists seem to have in common.
For sure. And sound is something I’m always concerned with. “What does my bass sound like? Is it coming close to what I have in my head? Can I physically manipulate my hands so I can get closer to that sound?” I ask those questions all the time, so the solo record is in some ways an extension of what I’ve been doing for a long time, just honing in on the sound that comes out of the instrument and my control over it.
For me, sound has always been the most important thing. I mean, technique is one thing, but it’s essentially control over a sound. And even once you have an idea of your own sound, you have to figure out how, physically, you get it out of your instrument. Now that I teach somewhat regularly — I spend about 35 days a year teaching at a jazz school in Basel — it makes me think about some of this stuff even more, especially since I didn’t go to music school. The journey is never-ending for me.
I'm glad you brought up your musical education. You don’t run into professional jazz musicians these days who didn’t attend music school. But you didn’t even study music in college, correct?
[Laughs] You’re right. I actually majored in English literature.
Why the choice not to study music?
Well, basically, I was playing a lot of gigs in high school, and I was learning to play jazz on the bandstand. I never had a teacher who taught me to play jazz. I was learning it through listening to records, by playing with my two older brothers and by getting the opportunity to gig. I mean, it was 1984 that I graduated high school, so it wasn’t a given that you just go off to Berklee or New School or anything like that. Now, everybody assumes that if you want to be a jazz musician, you have to go to music school and study. But I felt that I was getting a great jazz education just by playing in San Francisco every night. I was learning from master musicians.
Sounds like the way it used to be done, when Art Blakey would take young, up-and-coming musicians on the road.
Exactly. And I was kind of like the very last edge of that. I was able to play with musicians living in San Francisco at the time — Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz — which was a very unique way to come up. I can’t imagine a better way to do it. It might have left some holes I had to fill later, technique-wise, but overall I was able to learn, very quickly, the most important things that a working musician has to know.
Do you think you learned any lessons on the bandstand that you couldn’t have learned in a music program?
Absolutely. One of the biggest things I learned about playing with these great musicians is that they didn’t really talk about music explicitly. They never told me, “You should do this or you should do that.” It was all kind of coded information, and I think that’s because a lot of them still regarded music as this kind of magical coming-together that you couldn’t really be completely prepared for. You had to just be open to it. That always stuck with me, and I think a piece of me was always scared of learning in an academic way because I might lose some of that magic.
Now that you’re a teacher,how do you reconcile that idea with the lessons you give to your students?
I try to keep a balance, to allow for the student to have an inquisitiveness and to know that it can’t all be taught. My job is to get them ready so that they’re not inhibited by their own technique when they go to make music with people. Because, ultimately, it’s all about that moment of making live music in front of other people and embracing the unexpected.
How did those ideas of magic, spontaneity and the unexpected play out in your solo record?
To be honest, playing solo felt weird to me. There was no one to bounce ideas off of. So, to enable some of that magic to happen in the studio, my idea was: Don’t be too prepared. I wanted to just let some things happen because it was that specific day and that specific time. I wanted to play how I felt in that moment. And that was really interesting, because usually I depend on somebody else to motivate that feeling to come out. Here, I was truly just reacting to my own sound. There was a sense of letting the music come out exactly the way it wanted to come out, and not getting in the way of it. That’s what jazz is mostly about, after all. And it’s what I’ve always loved about jazz — the way we allow the moment to kind of take over and become something bigger than we imagined it to be.
Tell me more about the album’s title The Gleaners.
I was thinking recently about how we actually learn music and how, as jazz musicians, we kind of take pieces that have fallen away, pieces that other people might not think are useful, and kind of use them as our own. That was essentially how I learned to play music — from people on the bandstand, from records, from pop music. I gleaned things from different moments in time, picked them up, ran with them. That’s what the [Agnes Varda] documentary is really about, and while the movie is not that well-known, she’s actually become more popular lately, which is great.
As far as the [Jean-Francois Millet ] painting, I was just so intrigued by how it was such a noble depiction of a common activity — three women collecting stray wheat in a field. I’ve always appreciated artists who could see the intrinsic beauty in the unconventional, the things that others might not see beauty in. It’s the most important thing an artist can do. It’s our best source of nourishment.
[caption id="attachment_16591" align="aligncenter" width="1240"] Larry Grenadier: “Now, everybody assumes that if you want to be a jazz musician, you have to go to music school and study. But I felt that I was getting a great jazz education just by playing in San Francisco every night. I was learning from master musicians.”[/caption]
Speaking of unconventional, let's pivot toward your band Fly, which is the trio you co-lead with saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Jeff Ballard. It’s piano-less and essentially chord-less, which makes it another rarity in the jazz world.
That’s right [laughs].
This may be a stretch, but I’m wondering if the unconventional format of Fly helped condition you to think more “outside the box” for your solo album.
That’s a good question. I think it did, actually. The three of us had a lot of musical history together. Jeff and I had gone back to when I was 15 or 16 years old; Mark, almost the same timeline. And when the band first formed, each of us was still doing our own gigs. I was playing with Brad [Mehldau] and Pat Metheny; Jeff was playing with Chick Corea. It was a lot of chord-heavy bands [laughs]. And Fly, truthfully, was our attempt to escape from that a bit, to have a little bit more air in the sound and a little bit more freedom in the harmony. That was kind of the impetus to it — that and of course our friendship.
So, yes, that was also kind of an experimental situation, where we had to figure out how to write music and perform music that didn’t have a harmonic instrument playing throughout it. We didn’t want it to sound like we were just playing “free,” you know? We had to find ways to show harmony with single notes. It was a compositional challenge that probably filtered into my thinking about a solo bass record all those years later. Also this idea of letting space be space, of not filling up every crevice. In Fly, we didn't say, “We’re going to fill up what could have been piano or guitar with something else.” You have to allow the space to be another member of the band. It’s a matter of trusting the space.
ECM, more than most labels, understands the importance of space.
Definitely. Fly was a natural fit for Manfred’s concept of sound, so the next two albums we did with ECM [Sky & Country and Year of the Snake] played with that space a bit more, sonically.
Your new solo album includes a cover of a John Coltrane tune and a song by George Gershwin, yet there are original compositions here that border on the classical. How would you describe the music on this disc?
It’s sort of in that netherworld between jazz and classical, influenced by both but not entirely either one. That’s kind of what happens when you just let the music come out. You get back what you put into it. I was listening to a lot of classical and jazz at the time of the recording — and I’m always listening to popular music — so all of that makes its way into the work. It’s not feigned in any way. It’s a reflection of what I’ve gone through in my life in music. It’s the sound of bringing everything together. - Brian Zimmerman
Feature photo by Juan Hitters.