Lou Grassi: Joining Two Worlds
“ I'm a kind of a low-impact leader. Some leaders really try to control everything. I trust the people that I have to do what's needed, and to undoubtedly show me some possibilities of what could happen that I would have never considered. ”
Drummer Lou Grassi has appeared on over two dozen sessions in addition to serving up over a half dozen of his own CDs, many at the helm of his Po Band group which has featured such special guests as Sun Ra Arkestra saxophonist and bandleader Marshall Allen, the legendary Danish saxophonist John Tchicai and Art Ensemble of Chicagoan Joseph Jarman. A fixture on the New York jazz scene as one of the most reliable drummers whose flexibility naturally criss-crosses the territory between straight ahead and "free", Grassi's fondness for improvising has taken each and every group he has played with to new levels of creativity. All About Jazz caught up with the drummer just before he took off for a month-long European tour.
All About Jazz: How did you get started playing?
Lou Grassi: I was 15, almost 16, when I started playing, but I had a desire to play since I was much younger. I don't know exactly what it was that attracted me to the drums.
AAJ: What were you hearing then?
LG: Things like The Ventures, Everly Brothers tunes, things like that. Then when I was 18, I ended up in the army during the Vietnam era and I got in a band. So I stayed in the States the whole time. After basic training they send you to music school for about six months. The band I was in was about 30 or 35 guys and about half of them were jazz musicians. In fact (drummer) Billy Cobham auditioned me at the time. So I got in a situation like that with people who were more advanced and you hang with them and you learn.
AAJ: You've spent a good deal of time playing both traditional/Dixieland jazz as well as stuff that many people classify as "free". Others have pointed to a strong connection between the two; do you see a natural progression there?
LG: I think there is. I got into traditional jazz later. It's been less than 20 years since I started playing it, so I sort of went backwards to it. But there's definitely a natural progression. The earliest jazz - before Louis Armstrong changed things - was collective improvisation; there was no featured soloist, somebody would get a four bar break, but nobody would get a chorus. Louis started that, the concept of playing an entire chorus, or several choruses as a soloist, so there's definitely a strong connection.
AAJ: How long have you been recording with CIMP (Creative Improvised Music Projects) Records?
LG: Since they started and I believe this is their tenth year - and that was when I was just getting back into this music... I had been getting more commercial work and work in wedding bands, giving lessons, doing musical theater, playing a little bit of jazz, but I was really out of the loop with the creative improvised music scene, which I had been involved with earlier.
AAJ: How and why did you get out of that scene?
LG: There was a period when I had moved out of Manhattan, living in New Jersey and I was struggling to make a living as a musician and did what I had to do to make a living. I just sort of lost contact with that world for a while.
AAJ: Were the times just inhospitable to the music?
LG: Maybe, but I don't know. I know there are other people that just stuck with it all that time....but there seems to be a lot of young people getting into the music...Art Rock bands like Sonic Youth...that have become popular and have turned their audience on to music, plus the fact that there's not a lot of great (pop) music being made and there are people with ears out there who seek music with substance.
AAJ: Let's go back to CIMP. What do you think of their "room temperature" recording technique?
LG: I think they're doing a great job. The benefit, it's nice that you're hearing music played that's really honest music. There's no editing, there's no mixing, there's no anything. You (the musician) really have to be able to deliver, you can't go fix anything...and I'm a big believer in that. I'd rather live with my mistakes and have something that's really an honest statement than have something that took six months to make, a year to make and make everything "perfect" and take the life out of it. Recording the bass has been a big challenge for them, which they seem to have gotten much better at in recent years, but on a lot of the early CIMPs, a drummer like myself who plays strong, when he kicks it up, he ruins the bass, so that obviously is a problem, but I think they've gotten much better at achieving their goal.