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Muriel Grossmann Explores A Musical Universe of Boundless Possibility

Muriel Grossmann Explores A Musical Universe of Boundless Possibility

Courtesy Erich Reismann

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Our music can sometimes sound like '60s avant-garde, late '60s spiritual jazz, the great guitar- organ soul jazz combos, country, blues, gospel and even rock. Whatever it sounds like, I hope it sounds close to the listener and makes them travel far and, like that be transformed and filled with blissful energy.
Muriel Grossmann, a talented alto, tenor, soprano saxophonist and composer, was born in France and grew up in Vienna. She has lived in Ibiza, Spain, since 2004. Devotion, her 15th album, was released on December 1, 2023, on Third Man Records. I stumbled across this gem on the Tidal streaming service in early January. Grossman was unknown to me, but the album's captivating cover drew me in and I listened without any preconceptions. I was immediately floored by the opening track, "Absolute Truth," a fiery 22-minute journey of '60s-inspired spiritual soul jazz. It radiates a potent Coltrane influence and exudes an undeniable, compelling groove. The second track, "Calm," boasts an irresistible riff. Although squarely within the jazz tradition, "Calm" could be a staple in the jam band genre. Grossmann is an exceptional saxophonist and a spiritual seeker in the vein of Trane, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders. She is matched by an outstanding quartet, including her longtime musical partner Radomir Milojkovic on guitar. The music has elements that are at once familiar but offer a distinctive synthesis made possible by a band with superb chemistry and synergy.

The year 2023 witnessed an abundance of remarkable jazz albums, yet Devotion stands out as an extraordinary work, contending for the top position on my list of the year's best. Tone Scott aptly writes in Goldmine "Grossmann has released her unique brand of jazz music into the universal sonic ethers, and has, through her own vessel, carried the deeply eclectic spirit of some of the greatest jazz players of all time Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Dewey Redman, Lonnie Liston Smith, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders Don Cherry, and the like), into the new millennium, without reserve, without conformity, and without shame." Grossmann has a deep catalog with several excellent releases, including Universal Code (Dreamlandrecords, 2022) Union (RR Gems, 2021), and Golden Rule. I contacted her to do a feature in the Jazz Raconteur series, and she graciously accepted. This is her story.

All About Jazz: Please tell us a little about yourself.

Muriel Grossmann: My name is Muriel Grossmann, saxophonist and composer. I have recently released my 15th album, called Devotion. It came out on the Nashville label Third Man Records in 2023. I lead a quartet consisting of Radomir Milojkovic on guitar, Abel Boquera on Hammond B3 organ and Uros Stamenkovic on drums. For the last several years, I have been playing mostly with my band developing my music. The music I have been composing for almost 10 years is labeled spiritual jazz. It contains all the elements of spiritual jazz and where it comes from; world music influences, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz, blues and elements from popular music like funk, rock etc.—I would describe it as energetic music, hypnotic adventures, and feel-good music. We tour extensively throughout the year.

I am also a dedicated mother of two children who are a great inspiration. I love to read and contemplate Buddhist scriptures and try to incorporate some of my findings into my music.

AAJ: Can you describe your experiences as a working musician prior to recording your debut album? How did those early experiences affect your approach to music?

MG: I had the great opportunity to play in different types of setups, duos, trios, quartets and even some bigger bands before I came to Spain, which helped me a lot to understand and learn all kinds of aspects and details about different styles of music like so called world music, jazz, blues, pop and rock. I even wrote some beautiful songs on the guitar with lyrics and sang them. I have some recordings that we always wanted to put together, but time is always a factor. Anyway, it was a very important and instructive phase, which certainly influenced everything I did afterwards.

The biggest inspiration to write music intensively came when I moved to Ibiza. At that time, I also started to meet with Joachim Kuhn, who lives on the island, and at that time, he was going to a lot of jam sessions playing the saxophone. He played the alto saxophone, and you could hear a strong Ornette Coleman influence in his playing. I hung out with him often, listening to music, talking about music, playing together and looking at his compositions. He has a strong mind, is very focused, has an impressive daily routine, and loves old records. He is a very inspiring person to be around. His approach to music is very free and energetic, and it just got me into a strong flow of composing. I began assembling a band in Barcelona, where I had lived previously, and soon started inviting these musicians to Ibiza for playing and recording sessions. Since then, I've consistently released a new record each year and embarked on tours to present our latest music. In Ibiza, I get the chance to work throughout the entire season each year. This prompted me to invite my band over, leading to a summer filled with playing standards, rehearsals and recording sessions. From Joachim, I learned so much about writing, energetic playing and improvisation. He still inspires me to work on our own band sound.

AAJ: ECM is a quintessentially European label with a broad international scope. Were you exposed to much music from that label? Were any of the ECM artists or albums particularly influential to you?

MG: When I was in my late teens, I really enjoyed some of the ECM records like Oregon. But soon enough I discovered the records of Prestige, Old Blue Note, Verve, Impulse and then I dived into that music. ECM records have a very sophisticated sound, taking the listeners towards a clean sound and playing. I personally love records that sound like playing live, like in a club.

AAJ: Can you tell us about the (jazz) music scene in Ibiza and how it has impacted your music?

MG: The jazz scene is small—it's a very small island—we have a few clubs, a few jams, a big band with a great arranger, two jazz festivals a year and the opportunity to play in bigger formations. And then there are the neighboring islands, very close by, which have more clubs and musicians. I love the island of Ibiza, it feels like home, like freedom, close to the sky and the sea. It is very inspiring.

AAJ: It is not uncommon for a tenor or alto saxophonist to double on soprano. But it is somewhat unusual for a saxophonist to play all three horns. How did that come about in your evolution as a player?

MG: I am a true all-saxophonist. I use each of the horns differently, they give me different ranges of sound, different quality of sound and agility. I started playing on the alto, which I played as if it were a tenor in the beginning. I always played the soprano next to the alto. When I added the tenor, my alto sound naturally became more melodic, more agile and less soaring. The tenor could take over this strong, powerful element. I have a very special relationship with the soprano. I really enjoy its Eastern, hypnotic qualities, and I take great pleasure in playing it. I love all the other instruments too, my home is full of different drums, a double bass, a Hammond keyboard, a small harp, some Indian instruments, many different flutes, many bells, gongs and percussion instruments.

AAJ: Most of your records prior to Devotion were self-produced and put out on your own label. They have remarkably good sound with excellent clarity. How did you achieve such results?

MG: Devotion, like all the previous records, is produced by me and I hope that this will continue in the future. And since Golden Rule, our records have been released and distributed on my own label and on RR Gems Records. Interestingly, I did most of the recording in my house in Ibiza, in one room, without much miking. Of course, it got more sophisticated over the years. We just put everything in one room, with almost no separation and little miking. But I knew what sound I wanted to achieve. We mostly worked with very few sound engineers, Klaus Scheuermann, from 4ohm.de, who also masters for Joachim Kuhn. He is really talented, has very good ears, and creates a very natural sound. Now we work mostly with the Ibiza-based sound engineer Louis Henry Sarmiento ll of Sonic Vista Studios, who produces a very strong groove-oriented sound. He has great attention to detail and a good feel for our music.

AAJ: The bass (when present) and drums are very forward in the mix (listening now to Universal Code). Was that a deliberate effort to create a certain kind of mix/sound? For example, was the goal to give each instrument an equal voice or create a kind of groove?

MG: Groove is definitely one of the main elements that I use in my music to speak to the listener, it makes me feel good and I hope it makes the listener feel good. I am also a secret admirer of the bass and/or a Hammond bass and its ability to take the composition into a trance-like groove. I love it when bass and drums merge into one big driving force. Our drummer plays very full and energetic and with a powerful and imaginative groove. In general, I like it when each instrument can be heard and when they come together and melt into one sound, that distinct sonic experience that lifts you up. Personally, that's the sound I hear on all the records that I love and enjoy.

AAJ: Devotion is your debut for Jack White's Third Man Records. How did that come about? Can you describe the experience and your relationship with the label? I believe Devotion is the first new jazz album released on that label. Did you record the album before arranging for its release and distribution?

MG: Third Man Records is a label started by very passionate musicians. I was approached by them while I was working on the album Reverence. I had already promised my former label RR Gems Records the follow-up album Universal Code, then Corona came along and things got delayed. I had a wonderful experience with RR Gems and that continued and evolved with Third Man. I experienced a lot of freedom, great guidance, high levels of professionalism and wonderful teamwork. When RR Gems released Universal Code on vinyl, I had already composed, recorded, mixed and mastered Devotion. I sent it to Third Man, they loved it and started production.

AAJ: Can you talk about the enduring influence of John Coltrane on your music and how it has evolved over time?

MG: John and Alice Coltrane are the musicians that I feel closest to. I love their sound and their message. It feels like home. What they brought to this world speaks to me and I recognize them in my heart. I have had many phases of listening to their music and will continue to do so. There is so much to find in the sound of their music, in the message and in the exploration of ideas. Over the years I always find new elements of interest that then influence some part of my music. I suppose it is also natural that a prolific, powerful voice like Coltrane's can be found in so much music out there. You can hear his late 1965-67 phase flowing into my music at the beginning of my recordings. From the albums Natural Time to Reverence, you can hear his 1962-65 compositional and signature quartet phase and from Universal Code onwards I feel the influence of all that including the earlier phase. At the moment, I am going through another intense Coltrane listening phase, studying his records chronologically.

AAJ: In recent years, the music of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders has enjoyed a resurgence with several noteworthy tributes. Can you talk about their influence and how it has shaped your sound?

MG: I am a big fan of the music of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Their music feels close to the essence of how I feel music. I've always felt that's what I've been striving for in my sound. Turning inward and speaking from that devotional core of us that feels one with all existence and non-existence and yearns to either offer prayers or take action for the betterment of the world. I feel like we have that in common, and maybe that is the communal feeling you get from listening to our music.

AAJ: Spiritual jazz, which has always been present, seems to have been embraced by contemporary jazz artists such as James Brandon Lewis, Shabaka Hutchings, and perhaps Kamasi Washington on his debut album, Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015). Do you think there is any particular reason for this revival—perhaps a reaction to more banal music or our difficult times? Do you think you share a common purpose conveyed in your music?

MG: I am happy that spiritual jazz has experienced a revival. Spiritual jazz of the '60s, for me at least, conveys a message of unity of purpose, of dedication to a compassionate response to the world. I have been composing music with the elements of spiritual jazz since 2007. It was the time of the economic crises and the rise of the global net, leading to an overflow of divergent ideas some that may have been grounded in truth, made many lose their center even more. Maybe it was a reaction to that. For me, my music has always expressed my core message. We are all made up of the same core values; if we can see and understand them and strive to express them at all times, it will transform us into a peaceful world nation.

AAJ: Guitar great Sonny Sharrock told an interviewer about a year before he died (1994) in response to a question about more arranged music with a cerebral quality: "That's not making music; that's putting together puzzles. Music should flow from you, and it should be a force. It should be feeling, all feeling." Your music embraces a remarkable depth of feeling and a measure of compositional complexity. Does Sonny's comment resonate with you?

MG: More arranged or less arranged music, the difference is how you approach it, where is the center of your mandala, where you take it from. There is only one center, and it is the one that points outwards every time. It is the absolute truth, that which is always ready, ready to receive, ready to respond or not to respond. Yes, it is a force, as Sonny said, and when you feel it, you are always aware and just do what needs to be done.

AAJ: Among the influences evident in your music, we can hear strains of African and Indian music. You have previously cited artists such as Fela Kuti and Ravi Shankar as influences. Can you elaborate?

MG: Down-to-earth melodies and the use of the pentatonic scale have been the basis for much music around the world. Rhythms that express our inner and outer movements have been the basis of all rhythms in jazz. Our musical heritage comes from a down-to-earth approach, from being one with nature, a nature that has not yet been mixed with the digital world. I am very moved by our world music heritage. The polyrhythmic drum grooves, the hypnotic melodies of the flute or the human voice, the meditative sounds and lines of Indian instruments, I always include these elements in my music as main themes or as an accompaniment to the theme or a solo, or as the drone orchestra layers that are played behind the quartet, providing the ground and the sonic space to transform the listener's state of mind into a state of bliss.

AAJ: Many of your songs are rather lengthy, often exceeding 10 minutes. Is that part of a plan when you compose the music or more an organic outgrowth of the musicians playing together? In a similar vein, your music is well-composed but leaves ample space for improvisation. How much of that is planned? I think it helps to have worked with the same musicians over the course of many years.

MG: Your question says a lot about my music. Thank you for your deep listening and interest. I love playing with the same musicians and exploring a language that is made up of the individual sound of each one of us. I feel that the length and the compositions themselves provide the ground for each of us to express our own language, which melts into the musical universe that the listener experiences. I compose with the intention of giving each of the musicians space to develop, and we all serve for the greater good of the music. The length of the composition is perfect for this exploration. The composition is the fabric for the purpose of a larger message. It doesn't matter whether I compose all the parts of a song or leave some parts open, during rehearsals, we find out what is best for the music at each stage. There is always room for development and improvisation. That way, the message of the song comes across naturally.

AAJ: Thom Jurek writes eloquently about your music. I was taken by the following sentences in the liner notes to Universal Code, which represents a great distillation of your music. "This music on Universal Code is long on contemplative, instrumental dexterity, as well as harmonic and rhythmic invention. Its spiritual aspirations are articulated via interrogative melodies, poignant solos, and interwoven grooves that resonate inside the listener's ears, mind, and body."

MG: Thom is a great listener and has an extraordinary ability to express himself in such a detailed and artistic way. To have him describe our music is a real gift. That sentence resonates with what I want to achieve in music and for the listener. I am truly grateful to have him around as a friend and writer.

AAJ: Similarly, this was written by Andrew Gilbert in Downbeat in a review of Golden Rule: "the dynamism of its soloists and the quartet's telekinetic performance delivers the album's aim: providing a listening experience akin to transcendence."

MG: Another wonderfully expressive phrase aimed at what I want to achieve for the listener.

AAJ: Much of your music reflects a deeply spiritual modal post-bop sound, often in combination with soul jazz reminiscent of the great guitar—organ combos. Do you see that as a signature of your sound?

MG: I also think that the Soul Jazz is an integral part of Spiritual Jazz, like the ones I mentioned before, and on some records, any of the parts that I mentioned before play a greater or lesser role. Since incorporating the Hammond B3 organ into my quartet, the music has naturally opened up to the realm of soul jazz. Our music can sometimes sound like '60s avant-garde, late '60s spiritual jazz, the great guitar-organ soul jazz combos, country, blues, gospel and even rock. Whatever it sounds like, I hope it sounds close to the listener and makes them travel far and, like that be transformed and filled with blissful energy.

AAJ: I can hear threads from Miles Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia 1969) in your music, especially in the use of space. Miles' post Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) work has received a lot of attention in recent years. But I think set the table for many directions in jazz. Has that been one of your touchstone recordings---important in your formation?

MG:I have always been very interested in the transitional period of the music of a particular artist. The same goes for Miles Davis and his transitional period from the second quartet to jazz-rock, records like Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way. Or the same with James Brown transitioning from soul to funk. His musicians came from jazz, and they played soul music, and then the same musicians started to transition into more funk. Or the same thing with rock music, for example, bands like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, their drummers Ginger Baker and Mitch Michell came from jazz, but with their respective bands they were transitioning into rock. Following Bitches Brew, Miles Davis' musicians came from funk music, and it was similar in rock, the drummers came not from jazz but directly from rock music.

We recorded three songs from the Miles Davis In A Silent Way/Bitches Brew phase. It was released on a 7" that came with the subscription package and the Miles Davis triple album, Fearless, released in 2023 on Third Man Records.

AAJ: You have consistently worked with excellent musicians. In particular, you have worked with Radomir Milojkovic, an excellent guitarist deserving greater attention, for many years. I love the interplay between you, especially on tracks such as "Calm" (on Devotion) and "Post-Meditation" on Universal Code. Milojkovic plays this great, deceptively simple blues riff reminiscent of great jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, which has an interesting juxtaposition with your tenor sax. Can you describe how that interplay evolved? Incidentally, I find "Calm" to be mesmerizing—a very beautiful track.

MG: Radomir comes from this jazz guitar tradition. He is a living encyclopedia of jazz and blues. If you see his apartment, it is full of photographs of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. You can find the records everywhere you look. His love and understanding of guitar music, in particular, is where his guitar playing comes from.

"Calm" has this call and response in Radomir's poignant blues guitar interlude with the tenor's anthemic theme. It is a composition that really feasts on and features our interplay. I am glad you mentioned Radomir. He is a fantastic guitarist with a deep spirit and view on music. Our musical collaboration spans more than 20 years of intense and creative work. We both have the same musical taste and the same urge to expand, to make music that touches us and the listener. We have naturally developed our interplay over the years through endless rehearsals and concerts in duo, trio, quartet and larger formations, through endless recording sessions and post-production processes, selecting music or recording the drone orchestras. The drone orchestras consist of him playing and recording all sorts of different guitar parts and me playing and recording all sorts of instruments. From the creation of the drones and their functions as a carpet or sound field, the accompaniment for the solos naturally became very organic and specific to our particular way of playing a solo or a theme. We can now feel each other at all times and know what makes each other sound best. It is a very beautiful and fruitful collaboration.

AAJ: I've only recently discovered your music and have immensely enjoyed getting to know your excellent body of music. I see Devotion as somewhat distinct from your other albums. Do you see Devotionn as a sort of a pinnacle (something very distinct or a unique accomplishment), perhaps the fullest realization of your music, or is it more an evolutionary stop on your musical journey? It strikes me as a work of great ambition and a remarkable achievement.

MG: Thank you, I am very happy that you like Devotion and the rest of our records. Devotion is the natural successor to Universal Code. Universal Code is a great record, very strong and very direct. I wanted to explore some elements that didn't find their way on Universal Code. We had toured extensively with our new member Abel Boquera on Hammond B3 organ and I could hear where the band felt most comfortable with him. So I composed music for the band and we developed the compositions by playing them in rehearsals and live. Although it was recorded in the studio, it has the impact and immediacy of a live recording. That's the magic of this band playing together. We can hear what each of us needs, what the music needs so that each member can maximize their creativity. And there are always endless variables and endless possibilities. It's really uplifting to play together. Every album is a time testimony of what I want to explore and what we are working on at the time.

AAJ: I'm struck by the evocative, often single-word song titles. Can you comment on what inspires the titles?

MG: I am a persistent reader and contemplator of the Buddhist scriptures, and the names of the albums and songs point out my experiences of translating the insights into my daily life—the post-meditation. Each album with its song titles, in turn, describes a journey of contemplation and post—contemplation that I have gone through and am going through.

AAJ: On a similar note, your album covers before Devotion are your own paintings with a unique impressionistic quality. I think the great Blue Note cover art conveys something about the music. Do you see a similar relationship?

MG: When we decided to start our own label, I had a lot of paintings, the result of spending quality time with my children when they were small. These paintings naturally resonated with the music I was composing and I chose them to accompany the album titles and the musical journey. It gave the releases on my label a great consistency and a bigger picture.

AAJ: Thank you so much for your time. Do you have any additional thoughts that you would like to share?

MG: I wish that humanity would strive to be more peaceful. In reality, if we ask ourselves when we are the happiest, it is surely when we have made somebody happy. I love this quote from his highness, the Dalai Lama: "When we feel love and kindness towards others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it also helps us to develop inner happiness and peace." Music and your own musical ideas come from playing, listening, practicing and life in general. As a composer and saxophonist, I always try to compose specific programs for the particular thing I want to do and play. I still have some programs from the mid-2000s that I never recorded. There are some very beautiful melodies. Composing is like writing a diary. I play a tune from a program from 2007 and I know exactly where my head has been musically. It's the same with the records. We've just recorded a new program with the band, this year's studio release. There will be some live records and archive productions that have never been released before, let's see.

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