Drummer Jerry Granelli is kind of an underground legend in the jazz and psychedelic music world. All his biographies mention that he was the drummer in the Vince Guaraldi Trio during all the famous “Charlie Brown” sets, which gives him massive cred for all time. More importantly, Granelli was a fixture in the Bay Area music scene for two decades, playing with Miles Davis and Sly Stone and the Grateful Dead and just about anyone else. He inspired countless musicians as a teacher at Colorado’s Buddhist-influenced Naropa University before moving to Halifax and becoming a percussion guru. Fortunately, this move did not mean a monkish withdrawal from the world; he continues to record and perform in many different projects, and is just kind of generally an awesome individual.
The Sonic Temple double-CD set chronicles two live dates by Granelli with his band V16. This band includes his son, J. Anthony Granelli, on bass, and two amazing guitarists named Dave Tronzo and Christian Kögel. Granelli plays drums, as well as a custom-built steel sculpture. And the set is fascinating for exactly seventeen reasons, only a few of which I have room to mention here.
Reason One: This is a great experimental music band playing at a very high level. Jay Granelli is a bass player of great subtlety—his post-rock/ambient/jazz project called Mr. Lucky made a great record last year called Homing—and provides the perfect grounding for the explorations of the others. His father manages to provide a time-keeping role while still functioning as a lead instrument on some numbers; on disc one’s “Riddim”, he keeps up a beat that can be described as both “rollicking” and “muted,” and the others just let him go with it for a while, dropping in and out as they see fit.
But the Granellis are Buddhist enough to be able to cede the limelight to the two guitarists most of the time. Tronzo, on electric slide, and Kögel, on regular electric guitar, are both simultaneously soloing on a lot of tracks, but they are somehow perfectly attuned to each other’s work. At the beginning of disc two’s “Farewell”, they are both playing the same woozy (and Ornette Coleman-derived?) melody, but in completely different ways; they slip and slide back and forth in time, psychically expanding on phrases thrown out by the other while still following their own paths. It’s inspiring, and all the more impressive considering that it’s all done live with no overdubs.
Reason Two: This package has a lot to teach about the nature of improvisation. These discs were recorded on two successive nights at the Sonic Temple in Halifax, and each one features the same seven songs, in the same order. This gives listeners a few different listening options; one can listen to each set all the way through, or burn the tracks onto a portable listening device and compare the way the songs are approached. There are no radical departures here, but it is clear that Tuesday’s set is a little harder-edged, a little freer. Opener “The Ballad of El Leo Nora” seems to float a little less on the second night and find its groove a little earlier, and Kögel leaves a bit more space between his lines on “It’s a Man’s World” on the second disc. But “Rock Thong” actually seems to rock a little harder on Monday than Tuesday, go figure. Still, pretty fascinating stuff.
Reason Three: This so-called “jazz” rocks pretty hard. This shouldn’t surprise us, considering the band has two—count-‘em, two!—masterful guitarists wailing away—but now that post-rock has died again, it’s still kind of shocking that four people can care so little about genre labels. “Immeasurable” is probably jazz, given its structure, but it’s also very menacing and rocky and awesome. “The Old Neighbourhood”, the longest track on both discs, rides a few different world-music-ish grooves, including stuff that sounds like African jive, reggae, Balkan polka, and good old-fashioned early-Santana/Tony Williams Lifetime jam. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with Phish or any tedious neo-hippie action. This is precision, this is punch, this is real exploratory music that cannot really be held down by anything. It is free, but it ain’t free jazz. It is just freed of all our bourgeois expectations.
Best jazz album of the year so far, until the next one comes along.