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With Larry Grenadier, Bass Is the Place

October 29, 2019


In the midst of SFJAZZ’s four-night celebration of ECM’s 50th anniversary, Friday’s program was all about the bass, both via its bracingly immediate presence and its unexpected absence.  Downstairs in the Center’s intimate Joe Henderson Lab, veteran bassist Larry Grenadier gave a solo recital focusing on material from his February ECM release The Gleaners, an impressive addition to the small but inordinately rewarding discography of solo bass recordings.

Not known as a flashy player or monster technician, Grenadier approached the project with the same keen intelligence, emotional acuity, and enviable competence that’s marked his career as an accompanist for both revered masters like Charles Lloyd, Paul Motian, and Pat Metheny and superlative peers, including Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein, Mark Turner, and Joshua Redman.

Projected without amplification, Grenadier’s wondrous tone filled the room, his clear articulation making every note distinct and fully present. Without belaboring the issue, the well-constructed 70-minute set offered a deep dive into the unwieldy instrument’s buzzy, thumping, crooning palette, while Grenadier paid tribute to some of his formative influences. His homage to Oscar Pettiford (1922–1960), the Native American/African-American composer, bassist, and bandleader too often forgotten today, featured some of his most dexterous playing. Flying up and down the neck, he generated fierce momentum without seeming to sprint.

The most effective pieces featured his breathtaking bow work, like the entrancing, blues-tinged opener “Oceanic” and his disquieting theme “Vineland,” inspired by a Thomas Pynchon novel. His pizzicato rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now” somehow evoked the grandeur and orchestration of Miles Davis’s classic Porgy and Bess collaboration with Gil Evans, with gulping pauses that spoke as resonantly as a plucked string. Grenadier made similarly effective use of silence on a medley pairing the “Compassion” movement from John Coltrane’s 1965 suite Meditations with Paul Motian’s mysterious but approachable “The Owl of Cranston” (from the drummer’s classic 1984 Soul Note album The Story of Maryam).  The set concluded with the album’s most strikingly beautiful piece, “The Gleaner,” a brief arco statement that seemed to tell a pastoral whole story.

While Grenadier was making a compelling case for the double bass as an instrument that can stand on its own, trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith was performing in the Miner Auditorium (on a double bill with trumpeter Avishai Cohen). An astonishingly prolific composer who draws on deep veins of American history, landscape, and identity, he had intended to bring his Golden Quintet, a chamber jazz ensemble featuring cellist Ashley Walters, pianist Erika Dohi, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. But with Lindberg indisposed, Smith dropped a few karats and performed instead with his Golden Quartet, and somehow the space opened up by the absence of the bass felt revelatory.

A close confederate of Smith’s since the mid-1970s, akLaff is an invaluable drummer who’s also played a key role in the music of brilliant improvisers, composers, and conceptualists Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, and Henry Threadgill. With Walters and Smith playing melodic lines and akLaff’s interactive trap work, Dohi played the protean fulcrum role between the front line and rhythm section. Directing the ensemble with occasional hand gestures, he kept the music organized without the bass anchor. While far more volatile and dynamic than music commonly described as chamber jazz, Smith’s compositions draw on both jazz and European chamber music traditions, and whether playing open or muted he projected a calm, self-possessed authority that transferred to his bandmates.

For those interest in solo bass performances, the Sound Room in Oakland presents an occasional series, and with Solo Bass Night VI on Nov. 7 featuring brief sets by Michael Manring, Kai Eckhardt, Josh Cohen, Charles Berthoud, Ariane Cap, and special guest Paul Hanson on bassoon.

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.