Jerry Granelli: Groovemaster or Destroyer?


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Usually, when Jerry Granelli
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.


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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