Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Well-worn Experience: Dance Hall by Jerry Granelli

Drummer Jerry Granelli in the studio. (Photo courtesy of DL Media)

I don’t know if it’s been properly proven but the adage that some things get better with age can often apply to a musician. In the case of Dance Hall (Justin Time), the new album from drummer Jerry Granelli, experience makes for great music. On this session, the producer is Lee Townsend, whose know-how makes him one of the best sound designers in the business. Dance Hall features guitarists Bill Frisell and Robben Ford, two of the most interesting and, I will say, distinguished musicians of the past 30 years. On electric bass is J. Anthony Granelli, Jerry’s son and long-time music director. To bring all this musical experience into one studio to record cover songs, no less, speaks to the essence of Granelli’s respect for and personal appreciation of popular song. As he says in the liner notes, “the key for me was not doing covers, but finding songs that were personal to my journey” and what a journey it has been for the famous drummer, who turned 77 on December 30th.

For this particular band it all started in 1992 on a marvelous record called A Song I Thought I Heard Buddy Sing (Evidence), named after a tune by Bunk Johnson, a trumpet player from New Orleans. The album was inspired by a novel by Michael Ondaatje called Coming Through Slaughter, a fictionalized story about the life of one Buddy Bolden, the legendary musician often associated with the invention of jazz. The producer on that great record was Lee Townsend. Twenty-four years later, after an impromptu meeting at the Halifax Jazz Festival, Granelli was able to get Ford, Frisell and Townsend back together again for Dance Hall, which was recorded over three days in Vancouver. Like the aforementioned record, this reunion album is a labour of love that pays tribute to Granelli’s fondness for rhythm and blues, and songs that he says “were personal to my journey [in life].”

The record opens with Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me in The Morning” from one of his best records, Blood On The Tracks. While this instrumental version fails to capture the angst and anger of the original, it does have that soulful, R&B feeling about it that I really like. Dylan’s music has been covered for years, ever since he came on the scene in the early sixties, and while he may not have intended it, Granelli and the band have captured the feel of the song and built a steady pulse with which to improvise. Ford’s contribution to this opening song is the perfect fit.

But the crux of the record and the free expression of musical ideas are best heard on “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” composed by Charles Mingus. On this track alone we experience the musical ideas of Frisell and Ford, while dutifully enhanced by Granelli’s remarkable touch on drums. It’s a jam session that carefully and joyfully evolves with Frisell’s ideas reflected by Ford’s responses.

The rest of the album is a marvelous pastiche of music by the late Fats Domino (“Ain’t That A Shame”), Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia” and the ballad “This Bitter Earth” by Clyde Otis, first recorded by Dinah Washington. Like all the tracks on this terrific album, enhanced by a great horn section, they share a spirit beyond nostalgia, which is human and compassionate and makes your feet move. This is the kind of music we need to hear in 2018, to revitalize our faith in people and take us from the noisy political arena and back into the dance hall.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He’s the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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