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Lou Grassi: Joining Two Worlds


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I'm a kind of a low-impact leader. Some leaders really try to control everything. I trust the people that I have to do what's needed, and to undoubtedly show me some possibilities of what could happen that I would have never considered.
Drummer Lou Grassi has appeared on over two dozen sessions in addition to serving up over a half dozen of his own CDs, many at the helm of his Po Band group which has featured such special guests as Sun Ra Arkestra saxophonist and bandleader Marshall Allen, the legendary Danish saxophonist John Tchicai and Art Ensemble of Chicagoan Joseph Jarman. A fixture on the New York jazz scene as one of the most reliable drummers whose flexibility naturally criss-crosses the territory between straight ahead and "free", Grassi's fondness for improvising has taken each and every group he has played with to new levels of creativity. All About Jazz caught up with the drummer just before he took off for a month-long European tour.

All About Jazz: How did you get started playing?

Lou Grassi: I was 15, almost 16, when I started playing, but I had a desire to play since I was much younger. I don't know exactly what it was that attracted me to the drums.

AAJ: What were you hearing then?

LG: Things like The Ventures, Everly Brothers tunes, things like that. Then when I was 18, I ended up in the army during the Vietnam era and I got in a band. So I stayed in the States the whole time. After basic training they send you to music school for about six months. The band I was in was about 30 or 35 guys and about half of them were jazz musicians. In fact (drummer) Billy Cobham auditioned me at the time. So I got in a situation like that with people who were more advanced and you hang with them and you learn.

AAJ: You've spent a good deal of time playing both traditional/Dixieland jazz as well as stuff that many people classify as "free". Others have pointed to a strong connection between the two; do you see a natural progression there?

LG: I think there is. I got into traditional jazz later. It's been less than 20 years since I started playing it, so I sort of went backwards to it. But there's definitely a natural progression. The earliest jazz - before Louis Armstrong changed things - was collective improvisation; there was no featured soloist, somebody would get a four bar break, but nobody would get a chorus. Louis started that, the concept of playing an entire chorus, or several choruses as a soloist, so there's definitely a strong connection.

AAJ: How long have you been recording with CIMP (Creative Improvised Music Projects) Records?

LG: Since they started and I believe this is their tenth year - and that was when I was just getting back into this music... I had been getting more commercial work and work in wedding bands, giving lessons, doing musical theater, playing a little bit of jazz, but I was really out of the loop with the creative improvised music scene, which I had been involved with earlier.

AAJ: How and why did you get out of that scene?

LG: There was a period when I had moved out of Manhattan, living in New Jersey and I was struggling to make a living as a musician and did what I had to do to make a living. I just sort of lost contact with that world for a while.

AAJ: Were the times just inhospitable to the music?

LG: Maybe, but I don't know. I know there are other people that just stuck with it all that time....but there seems to be a lot of young people getting into the music...Art Rock bands like Sonic Youth...that have become popular and have turned their audience on to music, plus the fact that there's not a lot of great (pop) music being made and there are people with ears out there who seek music with substance.

AAJ: Let's go back to CIMP. What do you think of their "room temperature" recording technique?

LG: I think they're doing a great job. The benefit, it's nice that you're hearing music played that's really honest music. There's no editing, there's no mixing, there's no anything. You (the musician) really have to be able to deliver, you can't go fix anything...and I'm a big believer in that. I'd rather live with my mistakes and have something that's really an honest statement than have something that took six months to make, a year to make and make everything "perfect" and take the life out of it. Recording the bass has been a big challenge for them, which they seem to have gotten much better at in recent years, but on a lot of the early CIMPs, a drummer like myself who plays strong, when he kicks it up, he ruins the bass, so that obviously is a problem, but I think they've gotten much better at achieving their goal.

It makes you more conscious. In a live playing situation, sometimes you get strong and you realize you're not hearing somebody and you realize this is what's happening at this moment and it will take care of itself. In a recording situation, I have to constantly ask, "Well, am I getting too loud? Am I gonna lose the clarinet? Am I gonna lose the bass?" So in a way it restricts you from playing the way you might in a live situation, where you know that, because the guys are on microphones and there's a PA system. And you know that in the house, the sound is getting balanced - but recording that way, you have to think about that.

AAJ: On your freer projects, the players sound like they're really listening to one another. A lot of "free" jazz players don't have that.

LG: There's a lot of free improvised music, or "avant-garde" music, or whatever you want to call it, where it sounds to me like - people with a lot of facility and a lot of ability - it sounds to me sometimes they could have been playing in two different rooms on two different days to the extent that I hear them connecting with one another. I'm really into connecting, like with the guys in the Po Band. I'm just really fortunate to play with such master musicians as (trumpeter) Herb Robertson and (clarinetist) Perry Robinson, (trumpeter) Paul Smoker, (late bassist) Wilbur Morris; these guys, they listen so well and on a certain level. That's really all it's about. You spend years developing your technique and learning your skills, but when it comes down to playing, all you're doing is listening and the music comes out. You're not making the music - all you're doing is listening and stuff happens. That's how it happens for me, anyway.

AAJ: Is there a particular album of yours that you feel best represents what you're doing?

LG: I don't. I like them all. I guess I'm lucky that way - I enjoy my own work. I know people who suffer over their work, and they're just never happy with what they do, and I really feel sorry for them, because they're doing wonderful things, and other people enjoy it. They should enjoy it too. But I like all of them for different reasons. When I'm doing a gig, and we've got CDs out for sale, people will ask, "Well, which one should I get?", and I really can't answer that.

AAJ: Talk about some of your latest projects.

LG: There's the William Gagliardi quintet... It's all Bill's music, all his compositions. He's a really prolific composer (also alto, soprano, and tenor saxophonist) and it's a band that - like the Po Band - really is connected. Everybody really listens... There's a new CD on CIMP ( Hear and Now ) with Bill, Kenny Wessel (guitar), Dave Hofstra (bass), John Carlson (trumpet) and myself...We (Grassi and Wessel) have a new trio CD ( Jawboning ) that just came out in December. It's Kenny, Ken Filiano on bass and myself...we're doing a combination of standards that we're reworking and expanding and original material. That's really a band that can play straight ahead, mainstream jazz, or play totally "free" or land someplace in the middle.

AAJ: And what's your newest group?

LG: Avanti Galopi (Italian for "gallop ahead"), that's my newest CD as a leader...it's just been out a month or so. It's with Herb Robertson (trumpet), Rob Brown (alto sax), Ken Filiano and myself - we all have compositions on it. I'm also in a Burton Greene/Roy Campbell quartet with Adam Lane on bass and that group has a new CD ( Isms Out ), which was released, I believe was released this past week...we're looking to do more things with that.

I'm part of a Gunter Hampel trio with Gunter and Perry Robinson and myself. It's really a treat and an honor to play with such master musicians. It's a pretty exciting group - we've toured in Europe and the US. It looks like Gunter will be in NYC in March as part of the Vision Club Series....We played the Vision Festival in 2003, in the Galaxy Dream Band...

Also, German trombonist Gunter Heinz. We played this past August at the FIM (Festival of Improvised Music) in Antwerp, and afterwards we did a trio recording with Fred Van Hove (pianist and founder of WIM), and we're shopping that around, looking for the right label.

Also, another thing I'm trying to find a home for - I did a duo with Marshall Allen at the Guelph Festival in 2001 and two days after that 9/11 happened...and we just sort of forgot about it. We recently listened to it and it's a really good recording... Something that's worth commenting on, Marshall Allen, Joseph Jarman and John Tchicai - all three of them were people that I didn't know and all three of them I contacted them out of the blue...They all accepted and just were enthused about the music. It's just incredible the musicians of that generation. Guys who are ten years older than myself, they have a spirit and an attitude about the music - it's always about the music. I was amazed that they would record for the money that's available. There's something about the guys in that generation; they really have that spirit - it's not just about business.

AAJ: Do you think that spirit will live on?

LG: I hope so....I'm really impressed with the young musicians on the scene - guys in their 20s and 30s play great and, I think I can speak for many of my contemporaries, much better than we were at that age. They've got their heads on straight...they have a sense of community. They create situations not just for themselves, but for themselves and others to play. Throughout history people have always said the younger generation was going to the dogs and I really can't say that. These guys are really taking care of business, I'm really impressed. But I hope they don't get so involved with taking care of business that business takes precedence over everything else.

AAJ: You're leaving for Europe tomorrow. Which band is that with?

LG: I'll be touring Europe with the NuBand, which is Roy Campell (trumpet), Mark Whitecage (reeds), Joe Fonda (bass) and myself. That's a cooperative band, there's no leader. That's been together for about three to four years. We have 16 concerts in 17 days in five countries - France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Austria, and we'll be hot by the time we get back (laughs)!

AAJ: Whose compositions is that band playing?

LG: Everybody's — we've all contributed stuff, and it's also a band with compositions and open improvisation. That band has a bit of a political side to it. There are some pieces that are anti-war. Roy's written some poetry, and Mark has some things that he reads. On the US tour in Spring 2003...Joe Fonda spoke first about Bush...and we hit "free jazz" hard. This band has had a political side to it from the beginning.

AAJ: Are you finding big differences still exist between European and American audiences?

LG: We'll they're always more enthusiastic over there, really. I guess for a number of reasons. One is that they have a history of culture, and they tend to be more open minded; their tastes aren't as controlled by the media. Over here the media gets your mind at about the age of eleven, and tells you what you're supposed to like. Unfortunately, it's changing, now. American pop music has its claws everywhere. My wife and I just came back from a vacation in Italy, and the restaurants we ate in, we never heard Italian music, we only heard the worst of American pop music in the background all the time. It's a financial thing. In Europe the government felt the arts were something they had to support...and they really can't do that anymore...there's a worldwide recession...they're all looking for corporate sponsorship for their festivals, car companies, it's just like here. Once you're beholden to those powers, you have to become more commercial.

I've sometimes played in Germany, in situations where sometimes there were only 12 people, and we got paid well, and there was no static, nobody minded. And they said "Oh, we're sorry we didn't get you a better audience". They believe that art should exist. It has value for the culture; it's not expected to be profitable."

AAJ: When you're leading your own band, how are things different?

LG: I'm a kind of a low-impact leader. Some leaders really try to control everything. I trust the people that I have to do what's needed, and to undoubtedly show me some possibilities of what could happen that I would have never considered....I'm not such a great composer that my music is sacrosanct, or something. I want to see what they can make of it — in fact, I count on them to make it something (laughs)! If they're creative people you don't have to give them a lot to work with, you give them a seed, and they create a flower and tree from that.

AAJ: You transition from straight-type bop to music that's totally free. Do you see the two as being different worlds?

LG: Right, I do both, and a lot of people do. I had a conversation with somebody about this just last night. I did several gigs recently with Charles Gayle (saxophonist and pianist). He's playing alto now and using a different approach. We were using standard tunes to launch us, and really working with the material of the tunes, even if we don't keep the form and structure (sometimes we do). And somebody was surprised that he could do that. I said, well think about it, he's in his mid-60s. When he started playing...there wasn't free jazz. He grew up learning to play jazz. And a lot of the people who you think of as total free players, especially if they're a certain age, they can play "jazz". And I'm not saying they need to; there's a lot of great music in the world that has nothing to do with ii-V-I's — it's another level of substance, another source to draw on. Anybody who's of a certain age has that because free jazz didn't really start until the late '50s. In order to sell something, you have to label it and categorize it. It all comes down to how you play.

AAJ: Here's the obligatory New Year's question: where do you see yourself in another year?

LG: Hopefully right here (laughs)...just to continue doing the things I do, and be with people I love.

AAJ: Anything in closing?

LG: One thing that deserves mention...is the presenters, the people that are presenting this music. We've talked about the fact that it's now possible to put together tours in the States and connect the dots, city-to-city, and drive gig-to-gig and put together a ten day or two week tour. The people that are presenting this music almost entirely are getting nothing except the music for it. None of them are making any money at it. Most of them I think are putting some of their own money into it to make it happen. And they're as dedicated to the music as any musician. And without them it wouldn't happen, and they deserve a lot of credit.

Recommended Listening:

Lou Grassi's PoBand - Pogressions (Cadence Jazz, 1995)

Lou Grassi's PoBand - Mo' Po (CIMP, 1997)

Steve Swell - Atmospheels (CIMP, 1998)

Lou Grassi's PoBand with John Tchicai - ComPOsed (CIMP, 2002)

John Tchicai/Pierre Durge - Hope is Bright Green Up North (CIMP, 2003)

Lou Grassi - Avanti Galoppi (CIMP, 2004)

Visit Lou Grassi on the web.

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