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Jerry Granelli: Groovemaster or Destroyer?

By Published: October 22, 2007
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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Download jazz mp3 “Ballad of El Leo Nora (Monday)” by Jerry Granelli V16