Darrell Grant: From The Heart, Through The Keyboard

R.J. DeLuke By

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I know what my voice is and I know what I have to say. To me, the question becomes: How does that fit into the world?
Darrell GrantPianist Darrell Grant believes in the power of music and art to change people, and through that path effect positive change in the world. That path may be the road less traveled, but he is not alone. After a time of learning his trade and then establishing himself as a musician with something to say he's been striving to move his art down that road over the years.

His newest music, captured on Truth and Reconciliation (Origin Records, 2007), is on the right track and it has him enthusiastic about the future of Darrell Grant as a persona and musician. This is music with a purpose that comes from this artist's heart and spirit.

"I really do think we as musicians have enormous power. We can own up to that and use it... Or not, he says with a chuckle. "For me, that's where I'm at and that's what is interesting to me. It makes me satisfied to find a way to really notice what can happen from putting this art out into the world. And hopefully do it with some intention. Other people, commercials interests, are happy to use art for their intention of making money or promoting their agenda. That means it is powerful. It can be used. What if I as an artist decide what the agenda is? And if the music really is that powerful maybe it could move the world in the direction I think it should go in, as opposed to just being used by other forces.

Grant, who cut his teeth on the New York scene—Woody Shaw, Betty Carter, Frank Morgan, Sonny Fortune, Charlie Persip, Greg Osby, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes—for years before deciding to break away to base himself in the Pacific Northwest, is onto something. He believes Truth and Reconciliation is his best yet, a double disc that carries through it a theme of redemption, optimism, hope, the value of freedom and the worthiness of the struggle to be free. It's honest. Deftly laid out, smartly done. It's executed with passion that Grant hopes he brings to whatever musical setting he finds himself (as evidenced by other albums including 1999's Smokin' Java or 2003's Spirit, both on Lair Hill records.)

Grant, 45, was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Denver. He's has been teaching at Portland State University's School of Fine and Performing Arts for the last ten years, in addition to still performing when he found time, though he no longer relies on the latter for subsistence. The experience seems to have given Grant some perspective, as well as, he admits, a sense of community. He's matured as a player as well, and his artistic vision has come to a focus on the new record.

"When you're in your twenties, it's all about proving yourself, says Grant with thoughtfulness found in his demeanor and his cadence. "Can I do this? Can I keep up with my peers? Can I master this incredibly difficult music and demonstrate my mastery of it to the point where people will employ me and where I can get a record contract and have the right to say what I want to say? In the generation I came up in New York, in the mid-to-late 1980s, it was the neo-traditionalist theory with less about freed-up expression and more about highly developed craft and a sense of knowing and being able to play within a recognized tradition. There were people who didn't do that, like Greg Osby and Steve Coleman and the M-Base musicians. But even for them, it was very much a skill-based thing.

"When everyone got into their thirties, and the reality of life, of a family to support—and also you've established yourself—you've answered those questions for yourself. Then it seems like people spend the time asking: What is my voice? What do I do? What is my sound? There are exceptions. There are people who explored those things from the very beginning and came into their twenties with a very good knowledge of what their voice was. But for me, it definitely changed in my thirties.

"And then I feel at the point I'm at now, in my forties, I've sort of found that. I know what my voice is and I know what I have to say. To me, the question becomes: How does that fit into the world? What am I supposed to do now? What do I do with my music? The interesting thing for me now is still continuing to develop as a player, and get better. Learning new languages and expanding my voice and being clearer, and being better within the territory that I feel is my own.

"The other thing is: What do I do now? How to I participate in community? What is it to be a musician? Part of my moving out of New York and moving to Portland [Oregon] and becoming an educator and working in the community here in the Pacific Northwest has been in pursuit of that question. What does it mean to be an artist?

Grant says his teaching position (he recently received tenure and has been made a full professor) has allowed him to answer that. But now he is interested in the artistic statement and how to make it sincere and important. "That's what making this record was about. What is the best that's within me and how can I get that out? Once it's out, it's: How do I use it? What is it for? How do I take that into the world and hopefully accomplish some things?

Truth and Reconciliation is brought to life by an array of stellar players, notably drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci, with contributions from Joe Locke on vibes, Bill Frisell on guitar, Steve Wilson on sax, and Adam Rogers on guitar. Grant arranged and produced it, including the writing, and singing, of some poignant lyrics. Not all of the songs run direct with the theme—Betty Carter's "Tight, for example, and Grant's ornate arrangement of "The Way You Look Tonight. There's even a song he wrote for his former boss Tony Williams. But the theme is present. In spots, Grant even superimposes—to excellent effect—clips of speeches by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.

Grant thought about the recording for a long time, including what musicians to use. "I needed something to tie it together, to make sense of everything. About that time is when I heard this gentleman, Bishop Peter Story. He was a colleague of Desmond Tutu's, very much involved in the truth and reconciliation process with the churches in South Africa. I heard him speak. The title 'truth and reconciliation' was kind of bonging around in my head. That's when I realized that over the course of my life this South African theme was something that resonated with me.

Grant wrote the melody and lyric for "When I See the Water when Nelson Mandela arrived in New York after being freed from prison. He penned another piece after hearing from his sister about her travels in South Africa. "The idea of truth and reconciliation is something that strikes me personally what I'm trying to do musically, which is finding a way to reconcile all the different kinds of music and the different things that I played. Also it's finding a way to tell my own unique story in music, not influenced by outside expectations or commercial considerations or any of the stuff that can come in and distract you. Just trying to be true.

He got the musicians he wanted, and the engineer he badly wanted, Joe Ferla, and went to work.

"I was really trying to not be distracted by any external voices that were not true inside of me. It wasn't as though I was trying to do something that was so cutting edge or profound. But this is what I really mean, and only what I really mean. The playing, the writing, everything. Trying to go from the heart, which was a real step forward, says Grant.

Grant's playing is light and tasty; he boldly investigates melodic and harmonic paths with interesting twists and an almost understated intensity. Blade does his usual outstanding job of moving the music, creating things that embellish as well as support, helping carry out an idea or emphasize it, with Patitucci always in step. Some of the non-originals still push the theme, like Sheryl Crow's "I Shall Believe and Sting's "King of Pain. "Fils du Soleil (For Tony Williams) is an uplifting melody and rhythm that seems to express hope and joy as much as being a tribute to a fallen comrade.

"The Sheryl Crow song I've known since her first record. It's just beautiful. It also resonated with the theme of the record, with so much about what one believes in and where we've come from, where we've come to in our country. I wanted to do the song, says Grant. "In doing it, I thought it would be interesting to take away her lyrics. Because her song was king of a quasi-love song. I thought this is a real opportunity to make a statement. How do I then make this my own personal thing? Bringing in JFK and Martin Luther King brought it to another level of what this song could say. That's what I was hoping to do with that.

"There are things I try to write, looking for the opportunity to do something. Most of it, I think, is something that takes that moment of inspiration to build on. "Fils Du Soleil I wrote the day Tony Williams died. I heard about it. I was at school. I had to coach a combo. I said, 'you guys sit down with me.' I just started playing. I wrote that song in front of my students.

The spiritual quality of music and place is thoughtfully brought to bear in "The Geography of Hope (I Am Music), in which Grant speaks a poem, over his soft, steady piano riffs and some percussion. In part of it, the pianist intones:

I am music/Worship I raise in human hearts/Bonds of peace for jaws of hatred/Spirits I comfort, minds I soothe/Truth to all I serve/I am music.

It's very effective in total, and its sincerity surpasses any attempt to pass it off as trivial.

Music, indeed, runs in Grant's family. As a child, he played piano with his mother, who sang, and his father, who read Scripture, on a local radio show he recalls being titled as "Moments of Inspiration. His brother and sister also played piano. Trained classically, he was entering competitions as a teenager and also began to catch jazz gigs here and there.

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