Thursday, September 22, 2011

Staying Power: Jerry Granelli’s Let Go

Jerry Granelli can best be described as a drummer who keeps moving forward. Now 70 years-of-age, Granelli is more prolific than he was 30 years ago. Let Go (Plunge Records, 2011) is his 12thalbum in the past ten years; a remarkable achievement for a musician not signed to a major label. It's also his first trio recording where he’s leading the band. Let Go is as much about what happens in the space between the notes as it is about collaborative composition.

Born in 1940, Granelli was a commercially successful musician in his mid-twenties. His claim to fame was the Vince Guaraldi Trio and the music of the Charlie Brown animated TV shows, in particular A Charlie Brown Christmas first broadcast in 1965. He later played with Mose Allison and Denny Zeitlin (who also scored Philip Kaufman’s 1979 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) associating himself with theSan Francisco music scene in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It was a fruitful experience for Granelli who seemed to be headed in a direction that would make him a preeminent drummer in jazz along the same lines as Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette.

But a conversion to Buddhism in 1970 changed Granelli’s focus and consequently his pursuit of music towards commercial success. Those years were a mix of live performance, teaching and spiritual practice that probably paid the bills but gave Granelli the kind of peace-of-mind he needed. By 1999, after visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, he decided to leave the United States and immigrate to Canada’s east coast. It was a powerful decision that led to furthering a productive career.

I became re-acquainted with Granelli’s work on a 1993 release called, A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing (Evidence). It was based on the Michael Ondaatje novel, Coming Through Slaughter, which was about New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. In retrospect, it’s the most conventional record in Granelli’s catalogue. But it set the stage for the work that followed as Granelli’s true calling was for a less structured, improvised music. Let Go is the latest chapter in along musical journey that started with the hip-hop inspired, Music Has its Way With Me (Perimeter Records 1999), the exquisite Sandhills Reunion (Songlines 2004) and the free-spirited The Sonic Temple (Songlines 2007).

Jerry Granelli
Let Go features the trio of Granelli on drums, Simon Fisk on acoustic bass or cello and Danny Oore on reeds. But just when you thought this instrumentation was sparse (compared with Granelli’s previous albums that featured more eclectic bands) this record reveals a fuller sonic expression. It’s music that works like an animated conversation between three people.

The album opens with an excellent blues-like bass line on “Bones” followed by the sweet soprano of Simon Fisk on “Dango” (which is really a tango). Once again Granelli’s crisp drumming drives the ensemble: it’s an unmistakable sound that grabs the ear immediately.

Two notable tracks feature Canadian singer, Mary Jane Lamond, who sings in Gaelic on “Solaria” and “Vulnerable” adding a sense of mystery to the songs. It takes some concentration for an artist to be this attentive to what the players are creating and still include a voice who can easily change the focus of a mostly instrumental album. As Granelli states in the liner notes, “her voice and the Scottish Gaelic language kept haunting me; I did not know how but they had to be a part of this CD.”

Jazz is a music whosestrength lies in the art of improvisation, so recordings capture a moment in a musician’s playing that cannot be reproduced. It’s what distinguishes jazz from all other art forms. For Jerry Granelli, who’s always been “in the moment, Let Go is the latest chapter in a musical life that continues to bear fruit.

Granelli is playing some selected shows next month.

 – John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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