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Jerry Granelli: Groovemaster or Destroyer?

By Published: October 22, 2007
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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