by Ian Mann
July 07, 2020
Far exceeding the usual limits of the jazz ‘tribute album’ this invigorating homage represents an unexpected delight. The performances are absolutely terrific throughout.
The Jerry Granelli Trio
“Plays Vince Guaraldi & Mose Allison”
(RareNoise Records RNR0120)
Jerry Granelli – drums, Jamie Saft – piano, Bradley Christopher Jones – bass
On this album the veteran American born drummer Jerry Granelli (born 1940) pays homage to two great pianist / composers, Vince Guaraldi (1928-76) and Mose Allison (1927-2016).
Earlier in his career Granelli enjoyed lengthy tenures with both men and appeared on Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” album in 1965. Guaraldi provided the soundtracks for the animated “Peanuts” cartoons and that Christmas album is still hugely popular in the States.
Now a Canadian citizen Granelli has released over twenty albums as a leader, his solo recordings exploring a wide stylistic range and often including experimental and avant garde elements, including the construction and playing of sound sculptures.
As a sideman he has worked with many leading musicians including pianist Denny Zeitlin, bassists Charlie Haden and Gary Peacock, guitarists Ralph Towner, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, vocalists Jay Clayton and Jon Hendricks and saxophonists Kenny Garrett, Charlie Mariano, Lee Konitz and Jane Ira Bloom.
Granelli’s partners on this highly individual ‘tribute’ album are pianist Jamie Saft and bassist Bradley Christopher Jones.
Saft, born in New York in 1971, is a highly versatile keyboard player, equally adept on piano, organ and synthesiser who has appeared on well over fifty recordings, including almost thirty as a leader.
He has operated across a broad range of musical genres and his collaborators have included saxophonist John Zorn, trumpeters Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu and Wadada Leo Smith, guitarist Joe Morris, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte, plus many others, including a well publicised and well received project in conjunction with Iggy Pop. He has also recorded two previous albums with Granelli, “The Only Juan” (2002) and the duo set “Nowness” (2015).
Saft and Jones (born 1963) have previously worked together in Previte’s bands as well as in Saft’s own projects. Often billed as Brad Jones the bassist has also worked with Zorn and Douglas and with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Dave Liebman, guitarist Marc Ribot, vibraphonist Bill Ware and many others, including collaborations with rock artists such as Elvis Costello and Sean Lennon. Jones also enjoyed a lengthy tenure with the group The Jazz Passengers.
As their somewhat eclectic CVs might suggest Granelli, Saft and Jones bring a thoroughly contemporary approach to their interpretations of the contrasting compositions of Guaraldi and Allison.
Guaraldi is known for his ‘pop’ approach to jazz and achieved considerable commercial success in the 1960s. He’d already enjoyed a massive hit with the tune “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” even before the “Charlie Brown” albums.
Allison’s output was more hard bitten and socially conscious, and despite being labelled as an eccentric his blues rooted music was hugely influential on pop and rock performers, among them Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and most famously The Who, who delivered a blisteringly bombastic, highly amplified version of Allison’s “Young Man Blues” on the album “Live in Leeds”. Granelli first played with Allison on the 1976 album “Your Mind Is On Vacation” and continued to perform intermittently with the pianist / vocalist until Allison’s death some forty years later.
Despite his long associations with Guaraldi, and particularly Allison, Granelli approaches their compositions in the same spirit as “Nowness”, his 2015 duo recording with Saft. Granelli refused to re-visit Guaraldi’s music for many years after leaving the pianist’s group in 1965 and this new album is no mere nostalgic exercise as Granelli explains;
“You’re letting go of the past, you’re letting go of the present, and you’re just in the music. That’s the place you want to play from at all times. Then your whole vast experience is available to you and you can discover something new you’ve never played before. This record is a wonderful celebration of that coming together of now”.
The first piece to be tackled by the trio is Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind”, a surprise hit in 1962, which led to a hectic performance schedule for a Guaraldi trio that included his fellow San Franciscan Granelli.
The familiar melody here features Saft at his most flowing and lyrical, with Jones’ bowed bass on the intro bringing a compensating darkness and steering the music away from sentimentality. Granelli’s work, predominately with brushes is deft and inventive throughout.
Guaraldi tunes bookend the album, with “Christmas Time Is Here” from the Charlie Brown Christmas album coming last. Sandwiched in between are four Allison compositions, one traditional song, another piece from Guaraldi and two improvised “Mind Preludes”, the latter featuring sparkling improvised dialogues between Granelli and Jones.
Next up is Allison’s classic blues “Parchman Farm”, famously covered by John Mayall and by the rock bands Blue Cheer and Cactus. This instrumental version is introduced by Granelli at the drums and features an exuberant piano performance from Saft, who digs deep into the body of the song, well supported by the insistent polyrhythmic grooves generated by Granelli and Jones. There is also a solo episode from Saft that explores a variety of jazz piano styles, from raw blues to free jazz.
A similarly ebullient take on the traditional “Baby Please Don’t Go” finds the trio stretching the boundaries of the song through their sophisticated rhythmic interplay, with Jones’ muscular but melodic bass coming to the fore. There’s also some thrilling interplay between Saft and Granelli with the leader responding vigorously to Saft’s tumbling piano runs, this followed by an unexpectedly quiet and subtle coda. Rock listeners will know this tune from the version by Van Morrison and Them, but the trio’s interpretation is said to be inspired by the late US blues singer and guitarist Big Joe Williams (1903-82).
“Mind Prelude 1” is the first of two astonishing dialogues between the powerful but melodic bass of Jones and the vigorously brushed drums of Granelli, with Jones’ bass melodies borrowing from well known blues licks and phrases. Expressed like this it doesn’t sound like much, but take it from me these exchanges are beguiling, dazzling, exciting and quite stunning.
The trio absorb themselves in Allison’s blues again with a relaxed, but still vital, exploration of “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” with Jones adding counter-melodies to Saft’s piano lines while Granelli holds things together from the kit.
Guaraldi’s “Star Song” was released at the height of the bossa nova boom and was allegedly a favourite tune of Miles Davis. The trio’s light and breezy interpretation manages to stay just the right side of schmaltz and sentimentality and incorporates a virtuoso bass solo from the impressive Jones.
“Young Man Blues” must be Mose Allison’s most famous song. I’ve always loved the composer’s witty and succinct original, and as a listener who came to jazz from rock I’ve always maintained a fondness for The Who’s incendiary version too. Here Granelli and the trio find something fresh to say with it, thanks in part to the distinctive sound of Jones’ bowed bass as he exchanges ideas with piano and bass in a manner that reflects the call and response origins of gospel and blues. Saft later stretches out further on piano, adding jagged runs and other avant garde elements, while Granelli responds with typical wit and imagination from the drums.
“Mind Prelude 2” follows, another thrilling dialogue featuring Granelli and Jones and featuring some truly virtuoso playing from the bassist.
The trio undertake a particularly rigorous examination of Allison’s “Your Mind Is On Vacation” with Granelli’s rolling polyrhythmic figures underpinning Saft’s jagged piano phrases, the latter’s playing sometimes reminiscent of avant-gardists such as Cecil Taylor, Myra Melford and the UK’s own Keith Tippett. Jones weighs in with some powerful playing of his own on what is arguably the most radical transformation on the album.
Granelli says of Allison;
“We were great friends. Mose was the Charles Ives of the blues. He would take the blues as far out as he could, and he became one of the great influences in American songwriting”.
The album concludes with the trio’s version of Guaraldi’s famous “Christmas Time Is Here”, which is delivered fairly straight. Despite their avant garde credentials the musicians stay true to the spirit of Guaraldi’s best known tune, with Granelli’s sensitive brush work, as on the original, a highlight.
Jones’ bass solo features him at his most melodic while Saft’s playing is disarmingly lush and lyrical. It’s a charming way to finish a surprisingly good album.
I have to admit that I didn’t approach this album with any great sense of anticipation. ‘Tribute’ albums are a rather too common occurrence in jazz with contemporary musicians re-treading old ground rather too faithfully, but Granelli, Saft and Jones approach their chosen material from a contemporary standpoint and without sentimentality. In their collective hands the music of Allison and Guaraldi becomes malleable, they’re not afraid to pull it around or to dissect it, and most of all to have fun with it. This playful, subversive element is something that Allison, in particular, would have appreciated. But for all the taking of liberties they still stay true to the essential spirit of their chosen pieces.
It also helps that the performances are absolutely terrific throughout with Granelli still right on top of his game and playing with great skill, flair and inventiveness. Saft also plays with great assurance and fluency and Jones is very much an equal partner in the creative process who delivers some great solos and other moments, both with and without the bow. The two bass and drum interludes prove to be unexpected set highlights.
Far exceeding the usual limits of the jazz ‘tribute album’ this invigorating homage represents an unexpected delight. As well as highlighting the playing and interpretive skills of the Granelli it’s also a reminder of the enduring compositional abilities of Allison and Guaraldi.
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