Music

Larry Grenadier Plays 45 Minutes of Riveting Solo Bass on 'The Gleaners'

Photo: Juan Hitters / ECM Records

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.

The Gleaners
Larry Grenadier

ECM

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.

7
Music
Music

Chewing the Fat: Rapper Fat Tony on His Latest Work From Hip-hop's Leftfield

Fat Tony proves a bright, young artist making waves amongst the new generation of hip-hop upstarts.

Music

The Bobby Lees Strike the Punk-Blues Jugular on Jon Spencer-Produced 'Skin Suit'

The Bobby Lees' Skin Suit is oozing with sex, sweat and joyful abandon. It's a raucous ride from beginning to end. Cover to cover, this thing's got you by the short hairs.

Music

Khruangbin Add Vocals But Keep the Funk on 'Mordechai'

Khruangbin's third album Mordechai is a showcase for their chemistry and musical chops.

Music

Daniel Avery's Versatility Is Spread Rather Thin on 'Love + Light'

Because it occasionally breaks new ground, Daniel Avery's Love + Light avoids being an afterthought from start to finish. The best moments here are generally the hardest-hitting ones.

Music

Buscabulla Chronicle a Return to Puerto Rico in Chic Synthwave on 'Regresa'

Buscabulla's authenticity -- along with dynamite production chops and musicianship -- is irreplaceable, and it makes Regresa a truly soulful synthwave release.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Books
Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.

Books

'Perramus: The City and Oblivion' Depicts Argentina's Violent Anti-Communist Purge

Juan Sasturain and Alberto Breccia's graphic novel Peraramus: The City and Oblivion, is an absurd and existential odyssey of a political dissident who can't remember his name.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Reading Pandemics

Parable Pandemics: Octavia E. Butler and Racialized Labor

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, informed by a deep understanding of the intersectionality of dying ecologies, disease, and structural racism, exposes the ways capitalism's insatiable hunger for profit eclipses humanitarian responses to pandemics.

Film
Film

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Film

Rediscovering Japanese Director Tomu Uchida

A world-class filmmaker of diverse styles, we take a look at Tomu Uchida's very different Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji and The Mad Fox.

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Recent
Music

Chewing the Fat: Rapper Fat Tony on His Latest Work From Hip-hop's Leftfield

Fat Tony proves a bright, young artist making waves amongst the new generation of hip-hop upstarts.

Music

The Bobby Lees Strike the Punk-Blues Jugular on Jon Spencer-Produced 'Skin Suit'

The Bobby Lees' Skin Suit is oozing with sex, sweat and joyful abandon. It's a raucous ride from beginning to end. Cover to cover, this thing's got you by the short hairs.

Books

'Perramus: The City and Oblivion' Depicts Argentina's Violent Anti-Communist Purge

Juan Sasturain and Alberto Breccia's graphic novel Peraramus: The City and Oblivion, is an absurd and existential odyssey of a political dissident who can't remember his name.

Music

Daniel Avery's Versatility Is Spread Rather Thin on 'Love + Light'

Because it occasionally breaks new ground, Daniel Avery's Love + Light avoids being an afterthought from start to finish. The best moments here are generally the hardest-hitting ones.

Music

Khruangbin Add Vocals But Keep the Funk on 'Mordechai'

Khruangbin's third album Mordechai is a showcase for their chemistry and musical chops.

Music

Buscabulla Chronicle a Return to Puerto Rico in Chic Synthwave on 'Regresa'

Buscabulla's authenticity -- along with dynamite production chops and musicianship -- is irreplaceable, and it makes Regresa a truly soulful synthwave release.

Film

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in 'Watchmen' and 'Get Out'

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof and Jordan Peele challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

Featured: Top of Home Page

'Breathing Through the Wound' Will Leave You Gasping for Air

As dizzying as Víctor Del Árbol's philosophy of crime may appear, the layering of motifs in Breathing Through the Wound is vertiginous.

Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Music

Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish Replace Form with Risk on 'Interactivity'

The more any notions of preconceived musicality are flicked to the curb, the more absorbing Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish's Interactivity gets.

Music

Martin Green's Junkshop Yields the Gritty, Weird Story of Britpop Wannabes

Featuring a litany of otherwise-forgotten budget bin purchases, Martin Green's two-disc overview of coulda-been Britpop contenders knows little of genre confines, making for a fun historical detour if nothing else.

Reviews

Haux Compellingly Explores Pain via 'Violence in a Quiet Mind'

By returning to defined moments of pain and struggle, Haux cultivates breathtaking music built on quiet, albeit intense, anguish.

Reviews

'Stratoplay' Revels in the Delicious New Wave of the Revillos

Cherry Red Records' six-disc Revillos compilation, Stratoplay, successfully charts the convoluted history of Scottish new wave sensations.

Reviews

Rising Young Jazz Pianist Micah Thomas Debuts with 'Tide'

Micah Thomas' Tide is the debut of a young jazz pianist who is comfortable and fluent in a "new mainstream": abstraction as well as tonality, freedom as well as technical complexity.

Music

Why Australia's Alice Ivy Doesn't Want to Sleep

Alice Ivy walks a fine line between chillwave cool and Big Beat freakouts, and her 2018 debut record was an electropop wonder. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she tries to keep the good vibes going with a new record decked out in endless collaborations.

Books

Five Women Who Fought the Patriarchy

Whether one chooses to read Square Haunting for the sketches of the five fascinating women, or to understand how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, Francesca Wade's book is a superb achievement.

Film

Director Denis Côté on Making Film Fearlessly

In this interview with PopMatters, director Denis Côté recalls 2010's Curling (now on Blu-Ray) discusses film as a "creative experiment in time", and making films for an audience excited by the idea of filling in playful narrative gaps.

Music

Learning to Take a Picture: An Interview With Inara George

Inara George is unafraid to explore life's more difficult and tender moments. Discussion of her latest music, The Youth of Angst, leads to stories of working with Van Dyke Parks and getting David Lee Roth's musical approval.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.