Larry Grenadier “The Gleaners” (Long Form)

As one of the most admired, accomplished bassists working in jazz today, Larry Grenadier has been praised as “a deeply intuitive” musician by The New York Times and as an instrumentalist with a “fluid sense of melody” by Bass Player magazine. Grenadier has created an expansive body of work in collaboration with many of the genre’s most inventive, influential musicians – from early days playing with sax icons Joe Henderson and Stan Getz to what has been decades performing alongside pianist Brad Mehldau, from extended experiences working with the likes of Paul Motian and Pat Metheny to co-leading the cooperative trio Fly (with Mark Turner and Jeff Ballard) and quartet Hudson (with John Scofield, John Medeski and Jack DeJohnette). Over a performing and recording career that spans now three decades, it has been not only Grenadier’s instrumental virtuosity and instantly recognizable tone that have made him such an in-demand collaborator but also his uncommon artistic sensitivity, imagination and curiosity. In February 2019, ECM Records will release Grenadier’s first album of solo bass. Titled The Gleaners, it presents a brace of originals by the bassist alongside pieces by George Gershwin, John Coltrane and Paul Motian, as well as a pair of works written especially for Grenadier by guitarist, longtime friend and fellow ECM artist Wolfgang Muthspiel. Grenadier also includes an instrumental interpretation of a song by his wife, and frequent collaborator, the singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin.

Grenadier recorded The Gleaners in December 2016 at Avatar Studios in New York City for ECM with Manfred Eicher as producer and James Farber as engineer. Grenadier and Eicher mixed the album at Studios La Buissonne in France. In his liner note, Grenadier writes: “The process for making this record began with a look inward, an excavation into the core elements of who I am as a bass player. It was a search for a center of sound and timbre, for the threads of harmony and rhythm that formulate the crux of a musical identity.” Reflecting on the gestation of this first solo album, he talks further: “For years, I had been satisfied by collaborating with other artists, feeling that I had room for my own voice in the music. But Manfred planted the seed of making a solo album, and I cultivated it as an artistic challenge. Manfred is a former bassist, so he understands the instrument and its history, both in jazz and classical. Few people truly know how to treat the double-bass sonically in the studio, but Manfred concentrates on bringing out its special qualities. In making The Gleaners , he was important in the editing and the mix, really helping me shape the album.”

Previous ECM albums of solo bass – by Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland, Barre Phillips – were particularly inspiring examples for Grenadier, but that’s not all. “Other instrumentalists playing solo were a big influence, such as Sonny Rollins,” he says. “I looked to them to help answer the question of how do you develop something solo over a long span with cohesion and clarity? Joe Henderson also used to play these substantial solo intros before tunes like Monk’s ‘Ask Me Now’ that were inspiring. There were other things, too, when it came to solo string playing. I’ve always loved solo cello music from Bach and beyond, and Manfred Eicher introduced me to violist Kim Kashkashian’s solo Hindemith recordings, which I fell in love with. As all those influences swirled in my head, I began thinking about a solo album conceptually, how to make it interesting over 45 minutes or so – and not just to other bass players. I experimented with various tunings and scordatura, like the 17th – and 18th -century violinists used, to get a full range of sounds – and that ended up giving the instrument a whole new vibration for me, a feeling of real sonic potential.”

Grenadier’s title of The Gleaners was inspired by a documentary film from 2000, The Gleaners and I, by French director Agnès Varda, who was in turn influenced by the 19th -century painting by Millet called The Gleaners , of women harvesting in a field. “For me, as a musician, you glean things from the people you play with and the music you listen to, but it takes work to get the most out of everything, to harvest the things you can use yourself,” Grenadier says. “I’ve always felt something like that as an artistic credo – working to get to the good stuff. Even in the middle of a gig with, say, Brad – to be authentic in each moment, alive to the best of what’s happening.”

Richly conceived, beautifully played and recorded with a rare blend of warmth and detail, The Gleaners includes seven original pieces by Grenadier – starting with the deeply melodic arco opener “Oceanic.” Next comes the grooving pizzicato homage “Pettiford,” about which Grenadier says: “That track is my tribute to Oscar Pettiford, one of the first jazz bass players that I heard, when I was a teenager. My piece is based on the chord changes of his tune ‘Laverne Walk.’ I’ve also played ‘Pettiford’ in a trio version with Fly.” The album’s other originals range from the arco lyricism of “Vineland” and “The Gleaners” to the pensive pizzicato of “Lovelair” and “Woebegone” (with the latter capped by some artfully overdubbed arco). The interpretations on The Gleaners include touchstones for Grenadier: “Another musical hero of mine is Miles Davis, for his sound and the way he thought about music, as well as the bands he put together. I love the Miles and Gil Evans version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess , so including ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ is my nod to that inspiration.”

The Gleaners also includes a medley of John Coltrane’s “Compassion” and Paul Motian’s “The Owl of Cranston.” Grenadier says: “ ‘Compassion’ comes from Coltrane’s Meditations suite, an important piece of music for me. It flows into Motian’s ‘Owl of Cranston,’ which I used to play with Paul. His tunes are so melodic, but the flow of the rhythm, often out of tempo, is the thing that I love about Paul’s approach to composition and to music in general.As he might say, to play out you have to be able to play in. The great musicians I’ve played alongside – from Joe Henderson and Paul Motian to Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny – all teach the same thing: know your instrument really well, listen closely and be open to the moment and its possibilities.”

Born in 1966, Grenadier grew up in San Francisco, his family a musical one. At age 10, he began learning the trumpet, which was his father’s instrument. His dad taught him how to read music, and he was soon given his first electric bass, which enabled him to play cover tunes in a trio with his two brothers. After being introduced to jazz at home, Grenadier had his passion for the music stoked at age 12, witnessing a live performance by bass kingpin Ray Brown. That pivotal event led him to explore the work of such bass greats as Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware. “The more I got into jazz, the more I gravitated toward the upright bass as my main instrument,” Grenadier recalls. “I was drawn to the acoustic instrument’s subtlety and its physicality. I liked how the double-bass produces its sound naturally. The instrument still holds mystery for me – I remain fascinated by it all these years later.”

Grenadier was a working professional by age 16, gigging and recording with various members of his hometown’s jazz scene, as well as playing with major jazz performers who passed through San Francisco. During this period, he had the rare opportunity to expand his musical horizons by working with such iconic figures as Johnny Griffin, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Farmer, Johnny Coles, Frank Morgan and Toots Thielemans, along with such prominent Bay Area-based musicians as Donald Bailey, Eddie Marshall and Bruce Forman. “Early on, I met a great piano player in San Francisco named Larry Vuckovich, who saw enough potential in me to hire a kid to play with him,” the bassist recalls. “Through him, I met other musicians who helped me tremendously. The chance to work with older, more experienced players was invaluable. Those guys generally didn’t talk much about music – they just did it. I learned from watching and listening to them. Working in that environment, I knew that I had to get my act together quick.”

Rather than pursue formal jazz studies in college, Grenadier chose to continue honing his skills through hands-on experience, playing live gigs and studio sessions while studying English literature at Stanford University. At Stanford, he met and toured with Stan Getz, who was artist-in-residence at the university. The young bassist was also able to work with Joe Henderson around the same time. Grenadier says: “Working with those two tenor titans, well, it was like getting hit over the head by a gong. I remember thinking, ‘This is what real music is, this is what it’s about – such beautiful sounds, such intensity.’ I was so young that I experienced it more on an emotional level than an intellectual one. They were very different players, of course, but two different interpretations of the same thing, really.” About being a lit major, he says: “I knew I wanted to be a bass player, but I thought that being educated in literature would teach me how to get under the surface of things. It did, in that I learned how to get into the depth of a text, which helped me when it came to exploring the full depth of a record or a composition.”

After graduating from Stanford in 1989, Grenadier moved to Boston to work with Gary Burton, touring the world in the vibraphonist’s band (which is how he came to know guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who has not only composed for the bassist but also drafted him into the sessions for his three recent ECM albums). By 1991, the bassist settled in New York City, where he established himself as a presence on the city’s unparalleled jazz scene. Along with playing with an emerging group of peers – including guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Joshua Redman, among others – Grenadier renewed his working relationship with Joe Henderson and served a stint in vocalist Betty Carter’s band.

The most enduringly fruitful relationship Grenadier forged during his early years in New York was with Brad Mehldau. They formed a trio with drummer Jorge Rossy in 1994, with the three quickly making their debut on record the next year. This version of the Brad Mehldau Trio would become one of the most acclaimed piano trios of the late 20t h century and into the 21s t , touring worldwide and recording a series of milestone studio and live albums for Warner Bros. and Nonesuch over a decade – including the Grammy Award-nominated, five-volume Art of the Trio series and the discs Places, Anything Goes and House on Hill, with the group’s material ranging from Mehldau’s searching originals to vintage standards to fresh material by the likes of Radiohead, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. Widely praised on both sides of the Atlantic for its heightened interactivity, the trio developed a sleek lyrical glow and rhythmic push-and-pull that was as accessible as it was complex. The New York Times praised the trio’s rapport and its “strong, original sound,” holding up the group as “a standard-bearer for new jazz.”

The Mehldau trio changed drummers in 2005, with Jeff Ballard joining the pianist and Grenadier for the Nonesuch album Day Is Done. Going from strength to strength, this incarnation of the trio continued apace, releasing the Grammy-nominated Brad Mehldau Trio Live and the poetic studio discs Ode , Where You Start and Blues & Ballads . This version of the trio has a sound that can be “denser and more tumultuous,” according to The New York Times. In its review of the trio’s 2017 concert at London’s Barbican, The Guardian singled out Grenadier in a performance of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me,” saying that the tune was “delivered in streams and fragments over a fast bass walk that became a superb bass solo of vaulting intervals, blues turns and unexpected swing licks.” The review added: “This version of Mehldau’s trio is 12 years old now, but both its repertoire and its methods stay memorably fresh.” In May 2018, the trio released its latest Nonesuch album, Seymour Reads the Constitution! In its review, DownBeat s aid that the album “might set a new bar for what counts as The Art of the Trio.”

“It was totally organic when we first got together as a trio with Brad and Jorge – we shared the same ideas about where to go with a piano trio, rooted in the tradition but with our own, contemporary approach,” Grenadier says. “The trio has evolved sonically, rhythmically and structurally over the years, with our sound hitting a different gear when Jeff joined. The music has changed as we have changed – and that’s what I love about jazz. Playing with Brad has been an amazing experience. He’s acute in his hearing and quick with his responses. Because he hears everything, he’s attuned to the bass, always leaving room for it. That affects my choice of notes and how I play them. Everything matters – and that deepens the musical conversation. As we have always aimed to do, the three of us are really making music together , not just accompanying each other.”

As the 20th century shaded into the 21st , Grenadier made another important connection, touring and recording with superstar guitarist Pat Metheny. The bassist was part of Metheny’s trio with drummer Bill Stewart that released the studio album Trio 99/00 and the following Trio Live. Later, Grenadier took part in the collaboration between Metheny and Mehldau that resulted in the albums Metheny/Mehldau and Metheny/Mehldau Quartet, released in 2006 and 2007. “I’ve played with Pat in a lot of different contexts: duo, trio, quartet,” Grenadier says. “We performed so much together, every night for weeks and weeks on the road – like a rock’n’roll band. Because I grew up listening to Pat, it felt totally natural from the beginning. He’s so clear in his intentions, and he writes such great tunes. I also learned a lot from him: how to develop a solo, how to put a set together, how much professionalism and care you can put into something. Pat is very open with the music and for him, every night is important – you have to meet his level of commitment. He never rests on his laurels, and I find that deep and inspiring. He has this very modern, contemporary approach, always pushing to make music that’s about now .”

Although he met them years before, Grenadier became especially close with Ballard and saxophonist Mark Turner during his early days in New York; the three players came together as the cooperative trio Fly in 2000, releasing their eponymous debut disc via Savoy in 2004. The trio has followed that with two albums for ECM: Sky & Country (2009) and Year of the Snake (2012), with each further underscoring the group’s unique sound and uncanny chemistry. “Playing with a group of musicians over a period of years, you develop a sense of trust – and with that trust comes a willingness to take risks and try different things,” Grenadier says. “In Fly, we all write material. And while Mark carries the melody a lot of the time, often it’s me or Jeff leading the sound. It’s a democratic band.” The New York Times has called Fly “one of the most compellingly cohesive small groups in jazz,” while sax great Joe Lovano is on record as a fan: “Fly is a beautiful trio – they play with a wonderful clarity,” he said. “They’re improvising, but their dialogue is more classical in nature, the way it feels. That’s [the kind of] expression – waves, life forms, the wind. Fly sounds lovely, and their music has a real presence – it captures you.”

Grenadier’s latest cooperative venture has been the quartet with guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Jack DeJohnette called Hudson – which The Guardian described as “an elite jazz outfit collectively telling a compelling new story.” The band’s name references the fact that the four players share the psychogeography of New York’s Hudson River Valley. Each of the members not only live in the area; they all came up loving the music that famously emanated from Woodstock and environs. “We’re all jazz musicians, of course, but we all grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and The Band, just as we did Monk, Miles and ’Trane,” Grenadier explains. “Our name comes from the fact that we all live in the Hudson valley, and that’s where a lot of the great music by Dylan and The Band came from. There’s so much potential with this band – we have such a broad musical palette, funky and free but able to move the music anywhere.” The quartet released its debut studio album, Hudson, via Motema in 2017; alongside such originals as the Bitches Brew -evoking title track, the album includes organic interpretations of Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” and Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” DownBeat lauded the LP as “vigorous, original, engaged and downright pleasurable,” while National Public Radio described the band as treading the “razor’s edge” between “the heady and the soulful… giving familiar fare an unexpected new tilt, and making original tunes feel durable and broken-in. The group is a confab of four master improvisers who never hesitate to lay down a groove.”  In addition to all of the aforementioned, Grenadier has played onstage and on record with the likes of Charles Lloyd, Enrico Rava, Chris Potter and Danilo Perez, among others. He also featured on Paul Simon’s most recent album, In the Blue Light.

One of Grenadier’s deepest relationships–musical and otherwise–is with his wife, Rebecca Martin, with whom he has toured and recorded five albums. They released the duo disc Twain in 2013 via Sunnyside, with JazzTimes praising it as “intimate and affecting.” Grenadier says: “I met Rebecca 22 years ago, and we’ve been married for 21. She’s a singer-songwriter who has always worked with jazz musicians in her bands – that’s how we met. She comes from a folk-pop sensibility but with an appreciation for what jazz musicians are capable of bringing to a song – she was at the forefront of that, really. We share an aesthetic sensitivity, and I love making music with her. Rebecca has an organic, intuitive approach to music that’s beautiful to me. I trust her ear – she hears in an accurate, emotional way. I also appreciate her compositional concision, how to get to the heart of the matter in a song. As a jazz musician, that’s something to learn from.”

Returning to his prime influences as a bassist, Grenadier runs down those players and qualities that have meant the most to him: Oscar Pettiford (“for his clarity, melodicism, swing-to-bop values, the way he liked chamber music, too”); Scott LaFaro (“his incredible technique and his individuality – he was sui generis, like Jaco Pastorius”); Ray Brown (“such a huge beat, such clarity of sound – what he played on bass offered so much information that you had to pay attention to it”); and Charles Mingus (“enormous technical ability on the bass, along with his incredible composing and bandleading”). Along with Charlie Haden, Dave Holland and Miroslav Vitous, Grenadier’s key bass influences also include Eddie Gomez, George Mraz and Marc Johnson. “All those players have developed a distinctive voice on the bass, with the technique to convey their ideas with real lucidity,” he says. “Obviously, Charlie was a very different player than someone like Miroslav, but they both rank as advanced speakers on their instrument. It’s about pushing yourself technically so that you can get across what you’re trying to express.”

The art of music “remains a learning experience for me, above all,” Grenadier concludes. “I’m always working on the technical aspects of my playing, but at the same time, I know that what happens onstage between musicians isn’t all about that. The level of ‘telepathic’ intuition that exists in music, especially in jazz, is a constant reminder to me of what humans are capable of, both in music and beyond. I always want to keep a bit of that mystery at play in the music, so as not to over-intellectualize the magic. That’s why I think you have to balance a studied approach to how music works with a primal, instinctual understanding of the way music feels. Having access to technique is essential for being able to communicate and express yourself musically. But, ultimately, music is about emotion. The most vital quality in making music at a heightened level is empathy, the ability to listen and to feel.”

— Bradley Bambarger