Larry Grenadier Plays 45 Minutes of Riveting Solo Bass on 'The Gleaners'
Larry Grenadier offers solo jazz acoustic bass for about 45 minutes, but The Gleaners is varied and riveting, as we expect from an ECM recording.
15 February 2019
Bassist Larry Grenadier needs no introduction to jazz fans, having recorded and toured famously with Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and many other artists who are not only brilliant but also well-known. His presence in a band means more than a great time, tone, and tunefulness but also a sense of cohesion and great taste. Can you name an album he has been on that is anything less than very good?
The Gleaners, however, is a departure and no sure thing. It is a solo bass recital: one musician without partners or overdubs (with one exception) playing a full program for your ears. ECM Records, for which Grenadier has recorded often in the past, with the cooperative band Fly (with saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Jeff Ballard), guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, and saxophonist Charles Lloyd), has put out a handful of solo bass records in the past, and they are considered classics—work by Dave Holland, Miroslav Vitous, and Barre Phillips. Grenadier's new music stands in the shadow of those records but it also a thing of its own.
Seven of the compositions here are by Grenadier, but he has also chosen to interpret writing by Coltrane, Paul Motian, Rebecca Martin, George Gershwin, and Muthspiel. The mixture of compositional aesthetics, as well as a thoughtful blend of playing techniques, make the "solo bass" idea work: not every tune has the same set of dynamics or tone. Particularly, Grenadier alternates between bowed playing ("arco") and plucked playing ("pizzicato") from track to track or within tracks—the same voice but articulated in very different ways.
"Woebegone", for example, is an original tune that suggests American folk music. Grenadier plucks his strings but in a manner that suggests that he is playing a guitar, banjo, or mandolin. The double bass can't be finger-picked, but Grenadier recreates the patterns of that kind of music, creating a rolling pattern that evokes Appalachia or similar music, with the recording's only overdubbing generating a simulation of a string band. "Pettiford", by contrast, is an original composition in dedication to Oscar Pettiford, the virtuoso bass player who bridged swing and bebop, playing with both Ellington and Gillespie using a highly articulate set of single-note lines that were as limber as any by a saxophonist. Unlike the pizzicato "folk" tune, this track is linear, a rush of forward movement rather than a stack of notes atop each other.
The Arco work feels even more distinctive, carrying whole performances into a realm that seems beyond what we usually hear as "jazz". Grenadier's original "Vineland" (though a musician, he graduated with an English degree from Stanford—so perhaps this his nod to the underrated Thomas Pynchon novel?) is a virtuoso performance based with very fast chordal bowing that also articulates a wild, dancing melody. It sounds almost like a jig drawn from the bass violin, but with quick pulses that also suggest Steve Reich just a bit. "Bagatelle 1" from Muthspiel keeps the arco playing low in the instrument's range: dark rather than dancing. And "Oceanic" is a stately original that sounds entirely composed, with resonant layers of double- and triple-stops that turn your room into a set of sympathetic vibrations.
The highlights of the set, however, combine arco and pizzicato playing. Grenadier combines a bowed treatment of Coltrane's "Compassion" with "The Owl of Cranston" by Paul Motian, plucked. The Coltrane tune is played with a muscular and singing sound, the bass rising and falling for all the world like a tenor saxophone. "Cranston" works as the answer, though, because it is structured similarly, the roundly pulled tones always returning to a low pedal point note, a grounding, much like the Coltrane melody. Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" also begins arco, with Grenadier playing a set of octaves that add additional tones almost like a fiddle. It speeds up to a flurry before giving way to a variation on the melody that uses plucked harmonics and a vocal timbre, alternating between lower and higher elements of conversation. At the end of the improvisation, Grenadier goes back his opening, but this time pizzicato, and we hear Gershwin's melody inside of it. Ingenious.
Wisely, Grenadier and his producers have made The Gleaners an album of about 45 minutes in length. That's plenty of solo bass music for one outing. Some of the tracks stand out less, perhaps. But for listeners who love the upright bass and are willing to listen with care, this recording is a gem. It is an album for careful listening—which practice repays the effort. You can get joyfully lost inside "Gone Like the Season Does", for example, with its initial song form and then its compelling improvisation. But if you played it for me, back to back with "Lovelair", yes I might confuse them. Wisely, The Gleaners is programmed to highlight contrast and variation. It is a program with a logical flow. It even ends with a short punctuation mark: a rumble of a resolution called "A Novel in a Sigh" that clocks in at under a minute.
Larry Grenadier has swung so hard on so many records, well, he has earned less than an hour of your careful listening. The Gleaners is a worthy addition to ECM's history of music for upright bass alone. In fact, I like more than its predecessors. It stands on the shoulders of those records and keeps reaching.