Jerry Granelli: Groovemaster or Destroyer?

Paul Olson By

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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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