María Grand
Photo: Pedro de las Rosas / Courtesy of Fully Altered Media

María Grand Updates Sonny Rollins for the New Century with RECIPROCITY

The thrill of María Grand’s exceptionally flexible trio is how easily they make the complex sound earthy while imbuing simple themes with weight and power.

María Grand
14 May 2021

Saxophonist María Grand—born in 1992 in Switzerland but with a decade of working in New York City on the New Jazz scene—has an enigmatic, searching tone. She can use a silvery sheen to slide her lines of melody at you, but she has also developed a brawnier tone that links her back to other saxophones traditions. Her lines sometimes wander in a linear manner that evokes Sonny Rollins, and at other times, they circle in small cells of melody that belie her long tenure in Steve Coleman’s band and work with musicians such as Vijay Iyer.

Reciprocity is Grand’s third recording as a leader, after a 2017 EP and then Magdalena in 2018. The latter project put forward two spoken-word artists Jasmine Wilson and Amani Fela) along with guitarist Mary Halvorson, David Bryant and Fabian Almazan on piano, Rashaan Carter’s acoustic bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. The new recording, by contrast, features just a classic tenor saxophone trio with bassist Kanoa Mendenhall and drummer Savannah Harris. And while Grand’s ambitions as a composer haven’t vanished in this more stripped-down format, the sound of her horn now feels more in the foreground, and matters of structure and texture are different.

What that means in 2021 has shifted from what it might have meant ten or 20 years ago when the contours of the new century’s “creative music” were not as clearly formed. Today, there is a thriving scene in which composition is intertwined with improvisation in ensembles that use extended technique and complex arranged structures. This music not only flirts with the sound and affect of classical “New Music” but also often distances the art from the “jazz” tradition in which swing and blues structures were so central. The music is busy finding common ground with traditionally notated European traditions and hip-hop, metal, trance, South Asian traditions, and more. The classic jazz influence is competing with so much these days.

Grand has certainly been steeped in the New Jazz, a player, and composer in the lineage of Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill as much if not more fully than that of Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis. But those associations are not everything, as this new recording proves.

Reciprocity‘s format of acoustic bass, drums, and tenor saxophone directly evokes the great Rollins trios. “Whabri” gives us the trio in polyrhythmic dialogue, with Harris evoking Elvin Jones with a clattering, elegant but not-too-neat swing and Mendenhall rolling her bass with a loose, organic drive that is part funk and, at certain times, a walking groove that Jimmy Blanton or Wilbur Ware would admire. This performance is not a throwback, as it shifts time signatures and has clear modern elements, but it is an elastic conversation in a blues vernacular—and Grand’s horn croons with feeling as it explores the moment. There is no sense that this music is an icy-new thing that is just working out formal ideas.

In a different way, the trio’s performance of “Canto Mana” by the Venezuelan singer Jesus Hidalgo suggests the kind of adaptations of pop tunes that we might associate with Miles Davis. The rhythm section plays a swaying and simple 6/8 version of common time, supporting Grand’s vocal reading of the meditative song. The elastic and soulful groove of the bass and drums, along with Grand’s unmannered singing, really honor the song and bring feeling from simplicity. That is, the band knows when not to overcomplicate things.

In other places, we hear both of these impulses combined. The two-part composition, “Fundamental”, begins with the musicians intoning words as a kind of koan over bowed bass and cymbals, with a cool vocal melody rising above the foundation and singing lyrics from Khalil Gibran. The second part sends us back to the saxophone trio, with Mendenhall and Harris snapping and running like a mountain stream as Grand plays rippling phrases above them. The leader uses phrasing informed by her MBASE mentors such as Coleman—a recursive, spinning momentum that takes bits of melody and keeps mutating them in a way that generates rhythmic as well as linear interest. After a thrilling bass solo that turns into a tour de force duet with drums, the vocal comes back, combining the meditative element from “Pt I” with the grooving momentum of “Pt II”.

The thread that runs through Reciprocity is a suite of Grand compositions called “Creation”. The same critical elements are carefully orchestrated, with voices adding texture, interest, and thematic suggestion but the trio operating as the engine and the living conversation. It is a compelling mixture. Voices are used a few times as textural bookends or thematic seeds—not center stage. “Creation, the Joy of Being” uses voices in a spoken tumble that announces the title and establish a working feel for the trio, with no clear theme melody but instead a platform of cascading elements that begins at a meditative pace and then accelerates like a fire, with the rhythm section in a couple of places falling into an infectious walking swing.

“Creation, Welcome”, which happens to conclude the set, brings a voice in beneath the trio’s conversation, right in the middle of the performance. “Creation, Interlude” is brief, but a simple hummed vocal line is critical. As bass and drums play a written rise-and-fall walking groove that makes occasional stops on the one, we hear a pleasing held-note vocal melody that acts as a string upon which these beads of swing are strung. A short statement, spoken in French, ends the interlude.

Mostly, the suite leans into the trio in its new-century Sonny Rollins mode. “Creation, Superbear” is a joyous example, with Grand stating a clear and simple theme built on small phrases that turn back on one another, giving the band a launching point for conversation. Strong solos on tenor sax and bass emerge, grounded in jazz history while never being quite conventional. “Creation, Matrescence” is a ballad form that sounds more abstract—which is to say, less grounded in an obvious connection to blues or swing playing. “Creation, Ladder of Swords” splits the difference—a slow, thrumming piece that uses blues tonality and then works itself into a gallop.

Grand uses vocals more prominently on a couple of other stand-alone compositions. “Prayer” exposes, it seems fair to say, the limitations of Grand’s voice, which is thin and plaintive—though effective as a foil to this creative rhythm section tumbling and coloring around the melody and words. More effective is the harmonized group vocal chant of “Now, Take, Your, Day”, which sets up a simple theme for the trio over a funk groove—evoking “A Love Supreme” just a bit, but alternating the vocal chant with a more active theme. The improvisations on this track are among the finest on Reciprocity. Both Grand and Mendenhall solo in brief, pointed statements, maintaining the language of this new generation and century, this modern combination of styles that move the sound of bebop and post-bop forward through the greater freedoms and more complex structures of Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill.

The thrill of this exceptionally flexible trio is in how easily they make the complex sound earthy while also imbuing simple themes with the weight and power of feeling. It still seems worth noting at this late date that the band happens to consist only of women—but one born in Europe, one born in Japan, and one born in the United States. They share one element, sure, but they are otherwise incredibly diverse in their personal stories and in the different kinds of music they play outside the trio. Each proves throughout this recording that they are artists to be heard more widely in large part because they can operate across the full spectrum of creative music.

By tacking back to a small group format and working with players of astonishing chemistry, Maria Grand has taken another step in proving that the New Jazz is not all mathematical equations or music school dazzle, not the triumph of European jazz thinking or any other kind of departure from the music’s wonderfully mutable history Reciprocity isn’t A Night at the Village Vanguard, but it is equally true that it would be impossible without that history.

And the balance here between yesterday and tomorrow feels just right.

RATING 8 / 10