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Jerry Granelli: Groovemaster or Destroyer?

By Published: October 22, 2007

Usually, when Jerry Granellis in charge, things dont go well. I would say that right across my life. When the self-will is going on--when Im willing it--things dont usually turn out that well. And the same thing is true musically. If youre trying to manipulate it and control it, the musics not going to speak. Its not going to reveal itself.

Jerry GranelliIt's easy to mention drummer Jerry Granelli's accomplishments, but hard to really make clear his importance, or the way he's continuously, over forty years, been at the forefront of most of the innovations and new movements in jazz music.

Granelli grew up in San Francisco and made his mark drumming for pianists Vince Guaraldi and Denny Zeitlin. Guaraldi's trio with Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall and Zeitlin's trio with Granelli and bassist Charlie Haden were top-tier, big-gig jazz groups, and in them, the drummer established a reputation for fierce, perfect time.

Granelli could have continued playing in this area until the present day, but typically, he moved on. The San Francisco/Berkeley area was churning with musical experimentation in the 1960s, much of it amplified rock, and Granelli was among the first jazz players to embrace the possibilities of amplification and rock—long before the term "fusion was used, Granelli was playing it. And, for that matter, world music.

From that time, Granelli's followed his muse from sound to sound and city to city. He founded the music department at the Naropa Institute in the 1970s and has taught in Boulder, Berlin and Seattle. He's been musically associated with guitarist Ralph Towner, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, guitarist Bill Frisell and vocalist/guitarist Mose Allison. He's also had a deeply fruitful relationship with producer Lee Townsend, who's produced several of Granelli's recordings, the most recent being the near-flawless Sandhills Reunion (Songlines, 2004), a collaboration with poet Rinde Eckert.

The above biographical notes are pretty by-the-numbers, and those desiring a more colorful coverage Granelli's career and life are strongly counseled to watch Jerry Granelli: In the Moment, Colin MacKenzie's remarkable 2002 documentary. The film touches upon most of the salient details of the drummer's career as well as the ups and downs of his turbulent life from his origins as a rather badass Italian-American Bay Area youth to his contemporary life as a practicing Buddhist, recovered alcoholic and working, teaching resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada).

The summer of 2007 saw the release of The Sonic Temple (Songlines), the second album by Granelli's quartet V16. It's a live recording of two consecutive performances on two consecutive days; the set list's the same, the differences between the sets are subtle, and the music and band are devastating. Granelli remains one of the best working drummers in any genre of music, but the band's just as fine—this is an electric-guitar quartet unlike any other.

I spoke with Granelli about the new recording and V16—and about a great deal more. He's an extraordinarily clear-minded man, and his words, while frequently punctuated by a gleeful laugh, are always sincere and usually profound.

Chapter Index

  1. V16 and The Sonic Temple
  2. The Value of Hearing More Than One Set—and Not Being Scared
  3. Avoiding the "One, Humor in Music and Letting The Piece Tell You What to Do
  4. Blurring the Roles in Music and Music as Benign Ritual
  5. Sandhills Reunion: Movies for the Ears, Rinde Eckert and Lee Townsend
  6. Sound Sculptures and Iron Sky
  7. Loving the Drums

V16 and The Sonic Temple

All About Jazz: I think we'll talk about several of your recent projects.

First, let's talk about your band V16. This is a quartet of yourself, guitarist David Tronzo, slide guitarist Christian Kögel—who you played with before in your 1990s band UFB—and your son J. Anthony Granelli on electric bass. Your newest recording, which is the second release from the band, is a double CD called The Sonic Temple, named after the studio where the music was recorded in two live sets before an audience.

This is a great record from a really unique band that's capable of playing rhythmically, and also in a non-rhythmic, almost timeless fashion. It's very much an electric guitar group, but certainly not in the sense of rhythm guitar, lead guitar and bass holding down roots of chords. Rather, I hear the musicians as four equal parts of one organic organism—the hands and feet of this animal, as it were. Tell me how this group formed and what it does.

Jerry Granelli: Well, that was a pretty good description you gave there. With UFB I was trying for the same thing, which is something J. Anthony describes as "one big instrument. One big guitar, one eight-handed instrument.

The group was formed, really, out of relationships, and wanting to have relationships. Originally, [bassist] Anthony Cox was in the band; he was on the first record [The V16 Project (Songlines, 2003)]. As you said, I've had a long relationship with Kögel—ten or fifteen years now. I just think he's one of the unsung heroes of that instrument. He can just do so much, and Tronzo is the same way. I'd played with Tronzo before; we'd encountered each other and played a little bit.


Usually, when I do projects, it's because I can hear something in my head. I'm not quite sure what it's going to be, but I can usually hear or feel the chemistry. And my relationship with J. Anthony is [laughing] thirty years-old. And it's been a fantastic thing to watch him grow as a musician and as an artist. He had a strong relationship with Tronzo, and with Kögel as well. So it was just putting all this chemistry together, basically. I think that's your job as a leader—to just come up with some vision, put some guys together, and let them be who they are. Not try to get them to be something else. Let them be who they are. And that gets so interesting, and I learn so much from that; I really get put on the spot by all of that.

And this last record is really a reflection of their writing. They all just wrote so beautifully that it makes the record work. All I did was say, "Let's do it live. And our relationship as a group has been growing over the last four or five years. We've been coming together in Halifax for the [Atlantic Jazz] Festival, and we teach together for two weeks here every year. So we play a lot during that time, and we've done some road trips together.

So the band keeps growing. Over the last year, we didn't play a lot of written music. We just played. If we were on tour, we played some of the pieces from the first record, but mostly, we just kind of played, and it grew into this need for some writing that would reflect that—that would reflect where the band was heading. That's what this record was about, in some ways. It was a sort of fruition of the last year or so, and the writing really reflects that.

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The Value of Hearing More Than One Set—and Not Being Scared

AAJ: The songs on The Sonic Temple are tunes; they're not free improvs. And the band plays the same songs in the same order on the "Monday and "Tuesday discs, or at least that's how they're presented on record. I assume that's how it occurred live.

JG: Yeah, they were played that way.

AAJ: Each set feels to me like two continuous suites of music that are broken up by the James Brown cover in the middle. "Riddim is performed in a rather concise version on the Tuesday set, and a longer one on the Monday one, but the differences between the performances are subtle ones. There aren't glaring differences between each set. So why offer the two sets to the listener?

JG: It's kind of a flashback to how I grew up. People used to come out in the old days [laughing] and they would hear a band for more than one night. I remember going to hear Miles' band for two weeks in San Francisco.

AAJ: Right, a band would do a long residency at a club.

JG: Yeah. And it was amazing, because you'd see a lot of the same people there over the course of that two weeks. And Miles played pretty much the same music every night. But each night was different—subtly different. And sometimes really obviously different, as a piece would grow. I don't think people get enough of a chance now to hear improvised music that way. We blow into town, play one night, and that's the way they think it is. But the next night could be completely different!

So there was some need to share that with people, I believe. And over the last few years, people have said to me, "This band needs to record live. What we do live is different from what we do in a studio. They're two different things. So those were the two driving forces behind the recording.


And also, the Sonic Temple—it's a great place to play a live studio concert, because you have the intimacy of an audience, but you can get a really good recording at the same time. So it was a combination of the space and the timing—the band being ready—and just not wanting to play for only one night. We didn't go into it with the idea of playing both nights and choosing the best; we went into it upfront with the idea of releasing both sets: "Here it is. And [laughing] that's pretty confident, when you think about it!

AAJ: Well, if it hadn't worked out well, instead of naming the discs "Monday and "Tuesday, you could have called them "The Good Night and "The Bad Night.

JG: Right. Also, I really do believe in letting people have their experience of the music. Some records you do in that other way—you want it to be like a painting. It's going up on a wall, and that's it. It's always the same, and you find the subtleties in another way, by looking at it constantly. I like to paint and draw, so when I work that way, it's such a relief to not have to do it in the moment—to be able to look at it for a couple of days and then change something, add something. And it's the same when you're writing. You might write a few bars, and six months later, you come back and finish it.

And what we do is spontaneously compose. It has the same work to it, but you do it completely in the present tense. I think it's important to capture that right now in time, because there's not a lot of that being done, in my humble opinion. People are kind of pretending to take those kinds of chances, but if you hear it the next night, it's pretty much the same. And the night after that, it's still pretty much the same. When I see that, I think, "Okay, there's nothing really being risked.

But I like that edge, and this band likes that edge. And one person in the band might be having a hard night, but the music doesn't care about that, and it's the overall that is important. So it was important to let people hear that.

I hear all kinds of things from people. Someone said, "I like Monday night, but Tuesday night has this interesting kind of twist. And I say, "Okay, that's great. It was hard to keep from judging the two separately. We didn't listen to Monday night until we'd finished Tuesday night. Because you do want to do that—that's human nature, to say, "This is good, and "This is bad, but I think it's really important to keep that open and see where the music grows. When you play twenty concerts, you're done, and you realize, "Wow, I've been on this incredible journey.

When the band played in September at the Berklee College of Music, after recording that album, we went in and just tore that music limb-from-limb! And there was no feeling of, "Oh, I wish we had recorded that. It was just, "Oh, this is where we are now! We really worked on crystallizing this music, digesting it, and doing it. And that's going to be different than it is six months later. It's just another capturing of a moment.

AAJ: And it's not a question of what's good and what's bad. Either way, it just was.

JG: Yeah. It was. I did it. Or it did it! It did it, and that's the way it was then. It's interesting—in all the comments I've gotten from people, no one has said, "I like Monday night better than Tuesday night. It's more what you said—"Tuesday has a subtle difference. There are changes. A tune will have a different tempo. "Riddim came out shorter on Tuesday night; on Monday, we were stretching it, finding a different path through it. That tune came directly out of improvising. We'd just played the melodies, and Christian took them off a tape. He said, "Here, remember this? We were like, "Ah, no—but we'll try to remember it now.

AAJ: I think that's a good way to come up with tunes.

JG: Oh, I love to do that. And a lot of this music is a reflection of that—something that was just played earlier on.

JerryAAJ: I didn't know anything about the origins of the compositions, except who was credited with writing them. But I did come to a personal conclusion that these were specific tunes that go a certain way—after hearing the record I could hear them in my head—but that they probably grew out of improvisation. I could hear how a band would start to go into this area, and the song being a crystallization of that.

JG: Yeah. And the song takes advantage of the strong points. Like "Immeasurable —Tronzo said, "Hey! I wrote this tune! Let's try it! I've never made it work! Nobody's ever going to make this tune work! He told me to just play this time thing, so I played it. And if you listen to it, J. and Christian are definitely playing chicken—it's not like we come in after a set four bars. They're overlaying these things, and this playing starts to happen: "Who's going to blink first?

And that's part of the nature of the band—not panicking over situations like that. We may wander, but there's never a lot of panic.

AAJ: No, the band plays like it has a spine.

JG: Yeah. And that's a great way to put it.

AAJ: Well, you don't want to sound scared, and I don't think this group ever does.

JG: If you're scared, they'll eat you. The music will eat you. It just will. That fear just creeps into everything, and everything becomes hesitant, and people start questioning—all this thinking takes place on the bandstand, which is just anti-music.

AAJ: I think people do that a lot in bands where they're scared of the leader.

JG: Yeah. I was teaching this week. I teach in a high school sometimes, and I do this thing where I get these high school kids working with free improvisation. And it's amazing the courage people show. Then we'll work on something like the blues, and that courage disappears, because there is the possibility of being wrong.

AAJ: Right—"You played that wrong.

JG: Yes, and they're used to hearing just that. Or looking at a written piece of music and thinking, "I could make a mistake. That takes away from the music; it takes away from the belief in it. Always going strong and wrong is much better! Make a great mistake and then go from there.

AAJ: And keep making it. If you played it flat, keep playing it flat.

JG: Yeah, do it again. It may open up a whole thing for everybody. So, yeah, I think there has to be a spine to it. There has to be a conviction. You have to give the other people in the band something to deal with. If you're going, "Oh, oh, I don't know, the guys don't have anything to deal with. So it just becomes everyone chasing their tail, or a bunch of free clichés.

AAJ:Everyone but you contributed songs to the record. I'm struck by how compatible the songs are—how much they seem like V16 tunes. Do you think the band has a way of transforming material so it sounds like V16 stuff, or do people write with the band, or certain things about the band, in mind?

JG: I think it's a little bit of both. But I think people did write with certain things in mind—what this band would do with the music. What this band would do to it [laughing]. Whatever we pick up, something strange happens to it, no matter what we try to play. That band does something to the material right away. Or somebody goes, "Let's not play that part. Let's just do this.

Like I said, the band's kind of a chemical reaction. We'll say, "Let's play this, and play it really straight, and it doesn't happen! Never. It's always, "Okay, we're off, and we're out there.

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Avoiding the "One, Humor in Music and Letting The Piece Tell You What to Do

AAJ: The audience for the sets is mostly inaudible. They're certainly not talking through the performances, but I can hear them in the sense that I swear I can hear their attention—it's very palpable. Did you have the impression when you were doing the sets?

JG: Oh, yeah. They were definitely in for the ride. Now, we don't play with the expectation of applause, applause—sometimes the music just goes for a long time. And it did on the CD, too—I'm starting something while something else is ending.

AAJ: That's why I got that feeling of musical suites. The tunes morph into others.

JG: And then there's the James Brown song, "It's a Man's World, where we were ready to just play that song. By that point, we were ready to do that. And it's a surprise for the person taking the ride with us—all of a sudden, it's straight down the road.

AAJ: And after a few notes, they all realize that they know the song.

JG: Right. "How did I get here? Are these the same guys? But that happens a lot with audiences—they like to take that ride. And they were there to hear the band. They had come to see this band. And again, it was a great setting. They were really close to us—not 40, or 100 feet away. They were at the end of the pedal wires. So it was very warm that way.

AAJ: "Rock Thong is one of Christian's songs, and it's powerful. It starts with some marvelous two-way guitar and sort of congeals into a stuttering, staggering groove with J. Anthony's bass sort of taking the melody over David's wah-wah and Christian's chordal crunch. It really builds tension without releasing it—it uses a lot of the tools of electric rock while being really its own thing. And the silences around the notes are as important as the notes. Any thoughts?

JG: It's got that rock thing of not ever quite getting off—it keeps on building, it keeps on building, and just when you think it won't build anymore, it keeps on building! And we play with that with space. I like to not hit where it's expected. Maybe I'm not even capable of doing it now, of hitting where people think you're supposed to—but I like to not hit where you think that "one is going to be, which creates this little gap, and another kind of tension rhythmically. You think it's going to go, "Slam! There's the period! —and it doesn't happen there.


It's like reading a Cormac McCarthy novel. You know, the way he can write without periods at all, for pages, and you're just swept. You think you need a comma, you need something—and it keeps going. And that's what that tune does. I mean, it's a pretty stock groove, but the way it's spaced—I'm really working with avoidance [laughing]. There's all this tension about not playing all of it, and the mind starts ticking—filling in the gaps. People have heard that groove so much—I wish I owned the copyright on that groove.

AAJ: Even people who don't love music have heard so much of it that they have all these unconscious expectations of what's supposed to happen next. So if you avoid, say, the "one, it hits them in the stomach.

JG: Yeah. "That didn't happen! And that's a sort of a joke—it's something you're sharing together. I think music has a lot of humor in it. If you really understand the form, it has a lot of humor. It's like understanding a language; if you don't understand a language, it's very hard to get the humor in it. If you go to another country and don't know the language, you're going to miss the jokes.

But at the same time, I've found that if you're going from country to country and you can almost get into this sort of cosmic, ethereal humor groove—you can catch it. You can catch the natural feel of humor being expressed without knowing the language. Which, again, sets up another kind of communication: "We don't speak the same language, but that was funny.

AAJ: Well, you might do better at that sort of thing than some of us. You're a musician. You're used to picking up hints.

JG: When I go to Italy, I run out of words, and my hands just keep going. I do a lot of speaking with my hands, and my face, and eyes.

And the band is so about listening. It's not so much listening to each other as it is listening to the piece. The piece is dictating what's going to happen next. I think the band plays from that point of view. It's a quartet, but it's a quintet because there is this fifth element, and that's the piece. The piece is saying, "Jerry, just play 'chu-chu-chu-chu-chu-pap and it'll be fine.

AAJ: To give in to that requires a certain humbleness. You can't feel as important to the whole as you might otherwise.

JG: Yes. Usually, when Jerry Granelli's in charge, things don't go well. I would say that right across my life. When the self-will is going on—when I'm willing it—things don't usually turn out that well. And the same thing is true musically. If you're trying to manipulate it and control it, the music's not going to speak. It's not going to reveal itself. And I think that maybe that's the ultimate technique—this ability to plug into that at any given moment. And when you have four people willing to do that, then this reaction starts to happen, and this humor, and this play. It all starts to happen.

And every person in that band is a virtuoso. That's what's so interesting—that they're then willing to give all that up, to surrender it to the greater cause of the music.

AAJ: Well, if you can get to that point, playing music is a great thing to do for a living.

JG: Oh, yeah. I have no complaints about that. And I find myself wanting to play more and more with people who are interested in doing that. Which kinds of limits your circle in some ways, but at the same time it expands the joy of the experience. I'm really not that interested in not doing that.

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Blurring the Roles in Music and Music as Benign Ritual

JG: And the form doesn't matter—whether it's a bebop gig, or whatever. If people are interested in doing that, it's really fun, and it's really interesting. If they're not, it just becomes this role-playing thing. And I think that's what people missed about what some of us were doing in the early sixties: We weren't just working with a new form, but also destroying some roles. It was societal—almost a reflection of or an impetus to societal changes and cultural changes that were trying to happen.

AAJ: I had never thought of it that way.

JG: It struck me that way. Especially when I hear people using that form now, which has almost become a cliché. It has become a viable form, just like bebop or standards.

AAJ: It can be very clichéd.

JG: Yeah. It's like, "Oh, just play a standard—I'd rather hear that. When I see that, I think, "Oh, my god! Do I do this to people? Do I bore people to death like this? I'm never going to play again.

AAJ: Well, I like that idea of reassigning roles. It was easy for people to hear that it was different, but they might have missed that in the early 1960s.

JG: Yeah. And if you listen to V16, sometimes for one moment, just for two beats, the drums are the primary instrument. They may vanish again in the next beat, and you hear the guitar come across—and now that's in front of you. And then that guitar disappears, and you realize, "Oh, that's Tronzo, that's not Christian. Or, "Who the hell is that? Is that the bass, or the guitars? Sometimes on the bandstand, I don't know; I have to look around to see who's playing something. Maybe I'm playing it.

AAJ: I don't even think of the bass as the bass in this group. It just feels like the low guitar.

JG: That's the way it sounds. It has the function, and it performs that function—but its function isn't set in stone. Its function isn't its role, if that makes sense.

The drums are the drums. Whatever I play, it won't sound like guitar melody. It won't sound like a guitar, because it's a drum. It has a different inherent nature. So that's always there. That's about pulse, tempo, time—and how to imply that, how to make that strongly felt without doing it in an obvious way. It sounds exhausting when I say it! It's more natural than it sounds.

JerryAAJ: I love the tune that starts the sets off, J. Anthony's "Ballad of El Leo Nora. It's very about sound and texture, and of course it's the perfect song to begin the sets—the band slowly gathers around it. It feels like the sound of dawn. It's like new light.

JG: It's everything you say. And it's a beautiful way to start, because there's not a lot of traffic, sound-wise. You can hear your instrument in space. And this band is really about sound; each guitar is totally unique-sounding, and everyone's working with their sound all the time. And this piece really sets that up. It takes patience; you can't just rush in there and start killing. You've got to work with the space and let this thing unfold. If you do, it's great. It is an amazing composition; J's writing is fantastic.

AAJ: It doesn't seem like this song could even be a three- or four-minute tune.

JG: It's got to take its time. It has to happen. Sometimes we do play just a brief sketch of it to get started, and sometimes it appears somewhere else in the set. When we started with that tune each night of the recording, we knew where we were going: "Okay, we're in. The music has accepted us. The space has accepted us. We're in this space with the audience, all of us together, and now we'll go forward. So it has that gathering quality.

AAJ: That sounds, in the most benign way, like a ritual. And there is a ritualistic quality to these sets—in a very non-frightening way.

JG: Yeah. We're talking about it now, and that's about as literal as it ever gets, but I think that's part of it. I really do. You can just feel it—you can feel when the space opens and you're in tune with it. There's no separation. And everything is working; everything is fair there.

Which doesn't mean it feels good. That's really interesting. It doesn't mean you feel great about it [laughing], because there's no time to feel either way, really.

AAJ: Well, it's not a narcotic.

JG: No. It's not. You may really be having a hard time. Yet the music is working.

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Sandhills Reunion: Movies for the Ears, Rinde Eckert and Lee Townsend

AAJ: Let's talk a bit about the Sandhills Reunion project; the recording came out in 2004 on Songlines. This is a collaboration with poet Rinde Eckert; a sort of Billy-the-Kid-related movie for the ears. It's a fantastic sounding record—another great-sounding Lee Townsend production, with players that include J. Anthony and Christian Kögel. Sometimes I don't want to listen to records that include poetry very many times—like a comedy record, I feel I know it after a while. But this stands up to many, many listens. You'd worked with other writers—William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg—when you were at the Naropa Institute, so this wasn't entirely new to you. Tell me how the project came together.

JG: Well, I did a record called A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing [(ITM, 1992), produced by Townsend, and inspired by a Michael Ondaatje novel]. And I did a record that was Rilke poems [On Music (Pacific, 1999), with Annabelle Wilson]. So anyway, this was the third record I'd done with Rinde. I just think he's brilliant as a performer and writer.

A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing included a Michael Ondaatje text. I love that record, but I wanted to go to the next step, which was to get text, prose, poetry, whatever, as part of the band, as part of the piece. So I experimented with some Ondaatje first, and that was kind of working, but then it wasn't working. So Lee and I came up with the idea to have Rinde write the text. I knew I wanted him to be the speaker on it, because of the way he can work with words.

Again, it's a sound. I knew immediately I wanted Lee to record this band, to get that sound I wouldn't get anywhere else. And it's too big a project to try to do yourself; it took a year to formulate it and get it staged. Then [bass clarinetist] Jeff Reilly—who's kind of my partner here—and I put the things together separately. We had the large ensemble; that band started playing together because we were in Halifax. We played once, did a kind of concert, and everyone said, "Oh, great. Let's do it again! They look at me when they say that. It means, Find us another gig.

So we did it again. We used a little of Ondaatje's text, on tape, and people wrote the music—they wrote these pieces. So now I had the pieces, and then Rinde wrote the text. See, the music was recorded separately. When Lee and I spoke about this, we talked about shooting it like a movie.

l:r: Rinde Eckert, Jerry Granelli

AAJ: It is a movie.

JG: It is a movie. It really is. I think of it as a movie. So the idea was to record material, and see what we'd do with it. And then Rinde just nailed the text—it's just a wonderful journey.

AAJ: So he just did the vocals with headphones playing the prerecorded music?

JG: Yeah. The last mix, he came in. He'd written the text, and he put it over there. And in a remarkable way. So much of this was made in the studio; it's the opposite of V16. This was really a studio recording. It could only be created in the studio. The interesting part was that, once we had done it, we had gigs!

AAJ: So now you had to go perform the record.

JG: Yeah. And how to do it? I had always conceived it as a performance piece that would grow and change in performance—and it does. It changes a lot. But having a conception is a long way from doing it. So the first gig was in Toronto, and we had a three-and-a-half-hour rehearsal. J. Anthony, thank goodness, created a score.

AAJ: Oh, you would need one.

JG: Yeah. He said, "I love you, dad, but your thing is so abstract! Just let me do it, okay? I'll make something that people can just play through, Rinde can do it, and it'll be set—we'll know where we're going. I said okay. It was pretty abstract [laughing]. We'd have been there for a couple of days.

So we did that. We rehearsed for three hours and performed it for the first time.

AAJ: How'd it go over?

JG: It was wonderful. People loved it, and it worked. That's the first time we knew it would really work as a piece. And people were basically, on that piece, just trying to make their marks. That piece is all in the details. If you know where you're going, know the transitions, then the piece flows. If anybody gets stuck, or lost, the piece doesn't flow. It gets interesting—but it doesn't flow.

AAJ: I would just think it would be tough for Rinde if things were too different. His words wouldn't be in the right place.

JG: Right. So there are certain things that have to happen. Now, as of the last performance, it's running at an hour-and-a-half, so he's taking many more liberties. There are specifics that he needs to happen at certain points, but it is longer. Rinde's starting to sing more. But there are things that definitely happen pretty much the same way every time. And if it changes, it's him just subtly saying a phrase a little faster, a little slower, or getting a different inflection—which then changes the music.

It's a big car to drive. And it's really a hard piece for me to play.

AAJ: Why?

JerryJG: Because I'm driving. Fundamentally, I'm controlling most of the dynamics; I'm moving that band. I have the text memorized, pretty much, and I have to know where Rinde's going, where he is, and where we are, and what's got to happen next. And if you listen to the beats, and think about them, they're mostly pretty subtle. There's not a lot of loud playing, and the tempos are subtly different—one thing is just a little bit slower than the next one, say. So it's just a really demanding piece to play.

AAJ: Well, you are driving. And subtle changes in tempo are much harder than it just speeding up and getting loud. That's not what this music does.

JG: No, it doesn't. There are also certain little drum hits Rinde likes to hear, things that set him up, or bring something out, or bring the band back in. I didn't write the music for this, but somehow I feel like I composed the piece. The vision of the piece, anyway, and with Lee.

And working with Lee is so great. That's such a wonderful working relationship that has developed. There's so much trust. He has a dedication to detail that I just don't have. He'll say, "No, no, no—I'm going to get it. Just let me fix it. Okay? And [laughing] two hours later, he will. He'll say, "What do you think? I'll say, "Man, I liked it two hours ago, but what you did really makes it perfect.

And he does that without ever compromising. It's that same thing we were talking about before—he's dedicated to the piece. He's not dedicated to it being a Lee Townsend record. I think that's why he's been able to work with so many different people—because he brings his dedication to the work.

And nothing is too hard, and nothing is excluded if it works. I'll say, "Lee, I've got a great idea. He says, "Cool, if it works. On one UFB record, he was willing to let me do a tune he had no belief in. He was going to go out to lunch while I did it. He didn't get it. And he was right, because I wasn't playing it correctly. Then we finally nailed it—I got the drum part right, and the bass part locked up—and then he got it. He was totally behind it.

But he was willing to let me do it. And he was willing to take himself out, because he didn't believe in it. And that's something I trust about Lee—he never tells me something's good unless he really feels that. That's amazing, to be able to have that kind of trust. And I know I'm out there playing and that nothing is going wrong in the booth. And man, that is such a wonderful feeling!

AAJ: In this jazz world, there are lots of records that sound fine. They recorded in a day, they mixed in a day. And it sounds fine. But only fine. But there are a couple of guys out there who will make things sound great, and if you get to work with them, it's lucky.

JG: It really is. It's really fortunate. The music for Sandhills was recorded in twenty-four hours. J. Anthony described that first day as being "Like being dragged over glass. We left the studio, and everybody had their heads in their hands. Then we came in the next morning with the rhythm section and we laid down several grooves that became pads for the pieces. And we were clicked in again; it was okay. The gremlins had gone and we were fine. But we recorded those bed tracks in twenty-four hours.

Then there were days of mixing. And that's really a luxury. And Tony [Reif, that is] was very patient. He's a lot like [ECM label head/producer] Manfred Eicher; there's a lot of music that wouldn't be recorded except for Tony doing it. Manfred was the same way. ECM recorded a lot of music that would never have gotten heard if Manfred wasn't such a fantastic producer.


And Lee's the same way. For the projects he believes in, he's willing to really work so hard. It's amazing the way he can work. It's inspiring to work with him. And he gets a sound—it'll be a Lee Townsend record. You can hear it. You don't know just what it is, but it just sounds so good. And it sounds so good again, and again, and again.

AAJ: I think Sandhills Reunion is a psychedelic record—not that there are backwards guitars panning across the left and right channels, but in terms of music as movies for the ears, this is a psychedelic record.

JG: It is. And I really think of it as an audio film. People can create their own imagery. I would love to do a film to go with it.

AAJ: Well, there is a beautiful booklet included in the packaging. The photography is fantastic.

JG: And again, that's a definite signature of Lee. He doesn't stop. When it lands on somebody's desk, it's got to show what you're going to hear.

AAJ: I like that a lot.

JG: I do too. I love the visual arts. Since we lost album covers, a lot of that has been lost. But to me, a record is an artistic success if it goes all the way through—from the way it's recorded to the way it looks. The whole thing. That's how you envision the whole thing. That's what I've learned, or tried to learn. That's how you work as an artist.

AAJ: Without disrespecting the music, I have become obsessed with those lines from "Nolan on Sandhills Reunion: "Doubt is what keeps us sane. Without it a man becomes a monster. I keep applying it to our commander-in-chief here in the States. Too much confidence can be very dangerous.

JG: Yeah. When we're doing that piece, everyone walks around quoting bits of the text to each other. When we're in the airport, everyone's saying [putting on Eckert's drawl from the recording], "Back in the real world. I think that's the power of that text—it's got so many great lines. And you can listen to the words, or you can listen to the music. They go back and forth, and never in competition. That's what I was hoping for—this integrated thing. Not "poetry in jazz, or "literature in music. It's that same thing—it's creating another entity. The piece. You take these elements and there's a piece that's beyond both these elements.

AAJ: It's a rough marriage. Most don't work out.

JG: It's a really rough marriage. And I played so many concerts with so many poets, and some of it was just god-awful. From both sides. Ginsberg and I would walk off just shaking our heads. "Why'd you play so loud? "Because I couldn't stand what you were saying! "Why did you leave me alone? "Because what you were saying was so absolutely gorgeous. I had nothing to play.

So, yeah, it's a real challenge. And I want to do another one; I want to keep going with that work.

AAJ: Another movie, huh?

JG: Another movie. I guess the next step is to actually make it as a movie.

AAJ: But when people show you what you're supposed to see, it can be bad.

JG: I know. But maybe there is a way to do it. But it makes me tired just thinking about it [laughing].

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Sound Sculptures and Iron Sky

AAJ: You did a recording with Jeff Reilly called Iron Sky that came out in 2001 on the Love Slave label. A big part of that was the sound sculptures you played that are created by artist John Little. You use one of these sculptures a bit on the new V16 record. A drum kit is a beautiful thing, but these are instruments that are as visually beautiful as they are tonally unique. Tell me about these sculptures.

Jerry JG: I guess part of it is reverting back to my childhood. I played with pots and pans. They used to tell the story of me being the easiest of all the grandchildren to take care of—they would just leave me alone in my grandmother's kitchen in back of this grocery store, and I would set up this instrument. I remember having to set it up a certain way. It was all pots and pans, and I would just bang on them by the hour.

A very influential man in my life was Fred Marshall, the bassist with [pianist] Vince Guaraldi. And he wasn't a musician per se; he was an artist. He did welding and sculpture. From knowing Fred, I started to draw and get into painting He introduced me to a man named Peter Voulkos, an amazing sculptor and potter—he invented, really, abstract pottery. We were all in Berkeley. And Peter used to make these sculptures that were two or three stories tall. And bronze—there's one outside the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. And I played them all. There's a film of me playing them floating around somewhere. I played them all before they left the studio.

I waited a long time to make Iron Sky. I really waited a long time to make that record. John had created one sculpture before that one for me. He [laughing] brought me a cowbell one time—this gorgeous one. I was going to play a concert, and he brought it to me. And I didn't really know him, and I was a little leery of this guy handing me a bell.

So I didn't play it for the first half of the concert. And then I did, and it was this fantastic instrument. So we said, "Let's do something else. Then I was coming offstage once from doing a live version of the Buddy record, and John was there. He said, "Are we going to do something? I said, "Make me a sculpture, and I'll play it—I'll premiere it at the Jazz Festival this summer.

That's all I said. So when they asked me what I was going to do for the festival, I said, "I'm going to premiere this new sculpture by John Little. And he read that in the paper and hadn't made it! So he made me the first one, "Sagromides, that is on Iron Sky. Then he made me this "Volcanus Eruptus, and it's just the most gorgeous instrument I've ever played. It has such sounds in it, and it doesn't sound like anything you know—but it sounds like everything you know. And Jeff was so courageous—bass clarinet and sculpture, hello. That's gonna get a lot of plays.

So we just set out in this direction. We recorded a lot of material—there's a whole other CD we never released. And it just turned into this fantastic work that's just a joy to do. And when I play live, I finally feel I have an instrument to fill the space beyond the drum set. Much though I love the drum set, it does a thing, and that's what it does. As much as you manipulate it, it still does a thing. It won't sustain for fifteen, twenty seconds. And when you can make one hit and it'll sustain for fifteen or twenty seconds, you don't have to worry about playing another note!

AAJ: You can just occupy yourself with walking to another part of the sculpture.

JG: Yeah. And letting the sound just soar through the space, fill the space. The bows on that instrument are six feet long. You can spend a minute bowing one note, just getting to the end of the bow. And if you change your hand slightly, you get a different note. There really has to be this union of you and the instrument. That has to happen. You can't force that instrument—I've tried it. It's steel; it'll only do what it wants! When you find its sweet, tender heart, it will just speak. But if you just bang on it, it just sounds like banging. So sometimes you have to coax it. Sometimes you bow it and it just won't do it, and you have to relax and just find a place where the metal actually feels like it opens up to you.

AAJ: Is it responsive to humidity?

JG: Oh, yeah. It's responsive to cold. It's a different instrument when it's cold. He made a new one that's stainless steel, and that's a gorgeous instrument, but very hard to play because it responds to the elements so radically.

But the record we made is pretty environmental—you can listen, or just let it fill your environment. And again, it's fun to go out and play live. We get to places and go, "Excuse me, folks, but this needs to fit through that door.

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Loving the Drums

AAJ: Do you ever tire of playing music, of drumming?

JG: Actually, I took about a month off. I wasn't touching the drums for a month. Now I'm back, and those drums kick my ass every day. I hate the instrument [laughing]. I'm saying, "Man, this is a stupid instrument. But I do love it. I love to sit there with a practice pad. I love the sound of the instrument. I love the joy of hitting a drum and hearing a sound you've never heard before. I love playing time for people when it's really used properly. There's such a joy. It's always been an instrument of fear and joy to me. It's where the worst of me comes out, and the best of me comes out.

And I've surrendered to the fact that it is something I'm going to do for the rest of my life. Other things seem to come and go, but I always come back to those drums. People move through my life, but the drums are the constant that have been there for the last sixty years. Oh, my god—you'd think I'd know how to play them by now!

Jerry GranelliAAJ: Hey, you keep okay time.

JG: Yeah, it's okay—as long as it's not too many beats in a row, it's cool.

My son and me [laughing] were doing a project, and for some reason, all these people were playing out and I was the timekeeper. And my son came up to me, and said, "Okay, man, how screwed up is that when you're the groovemaster? You're the destroyer! You're not the groovemaster!

AAJ: I interviewed Paul Motian a while back, and was going on about his painterly approach, and so on, and he said, "Hey, man, I played straight time for years! I wasn't playing abstract bullshit!

JG: That's right. And people don't realize that's the path we followed. A lot of people start the abstractness too soon. I sound like an old guy, but it's really true. One thing I hear in a lot of young people is that they don't want to play time, or they haven't spent hours playing time. But we came right out of the time thing, and even when I think I'm playing abstractly, I can hear the time back there. It's there always. It's how you can express it abstractly.

Selected Discography

Jerry Granelli/V16, The Sonic Temple (Songlines, 2007)
Jerry Granelli, Sandhills Reunion (Songlines, 2004)
Jerry Granelli, The V16 Project (Songlines, 2003)
Jay Clayton, Brooklyn 2000 (Sunnyside, 2001)
Jerry Granelli, Jeff Reilly, Iron Sky (Love Slave, 2001)
Jerry Granelli, Jamie Saft The Only Juan (Love Slave, 2001)
Jerry Granelli & Badlands, Crowd Theory (Songlines, 1999)
Jerry Granelli, Music Has Its Way With Me (Perimeter, 1999)
Annabelle Wilson, On Music (Pacific, 1999)
Jerry Granelli, Enter, a Dragon (Songlines, 1998)
Rinde Eckert, Story In, Story Out (Intuition, 1997)
Jerry Granelli/UFB, Broken Circle (Intuition, 1996)
Jerry Granelli/UFB, News From the Street (Intuition, 1995)
Jerry Granelli, Another Place (Intuition, 1994)
Jerry Granelli, A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing (ITM, 1992)
Jane Ira Bloom, Art and Aviation (Arabesque, 1992)
Ralph Towner, City of Eyes (ECM, 1989)
Jay Clayton, Jerry Granelli, Sound Songs (JMT, 1986)
Jerry Granelli, Visions (Excalibur, 1978)
Denny Zeitlin, Zeitgeist (Columbia, 1967)
Denny Zeitlin, Shining Hour: Live at the Trident (Columbia, 1966)
Denny Zeitlin, Carnival (Columbia, 1965)
Vince Guaraldi, The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi (Fantasy, 1964)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Courtesy of Jerry Granelli
Photo with Rinde Eckert: Darryl James
Bottom Photo: John Kelman

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