Danny Meyer: How long have you been in Colorado?
Grant Gordy: Just about ten years, I think it is.
DM: Ten years, wow. Can you talk about your time here?
GG: Yeah. I found that there’s really—it’s a little bit in insular here, in a way that I think is really wonderful because it maintains, supports a healthy sense of community. As you know, my main scene that I came up in was the bluegrass world. Here in Colorado, we have Rocky Grass Festival and Telluride Festival and there’s such a culture around that kind of stuff. There’s just a lot of support in the community both in the local level and for people coming through.
Also, it really feeds into a vibrant community. When I first came to Colorado, I lived in Fort Collins and I still feel like it’s almost kind of like a second hometown for me because it’s a wonderful town. There’s a wonderful community there and it’s a place where there’s a connection. Certainly, with the bluegrass thing, there’s a connection there. A lot of people are involved in that scene and thrive in it. I found that’s a thing that makes Colorado really special for me. It’s just a great community here.
GG: Yeah. It’s also just really beautiful; naturally really, really beautiful. I was never into skiing or anything, but there are all kinds of wonderful outdoor things that you can do here. The thing that always appeals to me and really connected to me was the people here, and how they really foster that sense of community. Yeah, just on all different levels.
DM: You're a representative of a new breed of musician that is working in both the jazz and bluegrass communities. What is something you learned playing bluegrass that you may not have had access to had you only been in the jazz world.
GG: I remember the first time I went to the Boulder Outlook Jazz Jam. I remembered feeling that it was kind of a different thing because it’s all up on stage, you got to sign up on the list to play; it’s like a recital, like a concert kind of thing.
At a bluegrass jam, it’s just a bunch of people all hanging out in a place, maybe drinking beer or whatever. Just hanging out, play fiddle tunes, somebody sings and somebody throws in some harmony vocals and there’s not a pressure to be—you’re not trying to cut anybody. Nobody’s there to judge about what kind of changes you can play over. Not that I really feel a great degree of that in a jazz jam, but it’s certainly not about that in the bluegrass world.
It’s funny because bluegrass music, particularly, is a really virtuosic style of music; it’s very technically and physically demanding. It doesn’t have the kind of harmonic demand that I think you find in jazz, but it’s really virtuosic music. Great bluegrass players are just great musicians, but there’s a degree of acceptance. I mean if you can find an exception to everything but the degree of acceptance that happens in that world that is very comfortable to come up in. You go to jam sessions, the general feeling is everybody is kind of there to play and have fun. You don’t really have much to prove, so that’s part of it.
The other thing is that the whole oral of tradition is really, really strong in folk music; in fact, it’s predominant, obviously. Maybe it’s a little different with young people now with YouTube and stuff. But I think generally, if you grew up playing bluegrass, you’ll learn tunes through hanging out with people. Maybe it’s an overly romanticized version, but I always like to think that Charlie Parker probably did that too, just hanging out and playing. That he would learn that way.
Just yesterday, I hung out with a fiddle player and we sat down, he taught me a tune. He would just go phrase by phrase and that’s the norm. You don’t sit down with a Real Book. But it’s similar in the sense that there’s a standard repertoire that most people know. When you go to a bluegrass jam and probably everybody already knows "Red Haired Boy", "Blackberry Blossom", or "St. Anne’s Reel" or something.
[In bluegrass] the “aural tradition” thing is very, very strong. And it is great for ear training. It tends to—I was going to say it gets you off the page, but it doesn’t even include the page in the first place. What I found for me is that it really strengthen my ability to listen on the fly and no matter what kind of music I’m playing, really be responsive and really use my ears and have that be my guide predominantly. Yeah, that was really healthy for me.
DM: What is something that you learned being a jazz musician that if you had only lived in the world of bluegrass; you never would have connected with.
GG: Yeah. A lot of things, man. Personally, just different sounds that exist. There are instruments that happen that are motivated by breath; that doesn’t happen in bluegrass. For instance, the phrasing that happens with bluegrass, you can play literally an entire solo of constant 8th notes without ever stopping. You can play through four choruses of "Blackberry Blossom" or something, just play 8th notes and never stop because you don’t have to stop to breathe.
What I realized with the phrasing with jazz, it’s not just about being elusive, playing syncopated rhythmic stuff. It’s not about obscuring the beat, it’s just the things developed a certain way because people need to breathe - at least that’s certainly part of it. It’s part of how—I imagine how all the wind instruments developed that language and also, being syncopated and stuff was a big thing; just phrasing that’s really a big thing.
Also, being able to hear different kinds of sounds in my mind, imagining how piano player might phrase a line in my head rather than just thinking about how Tony Rice or David Grisman would phrase a line.
Of course, there’s also the harmonic thing.
A bridge for me- for a lot of bluegrass musicians - between one, four, five harmony that you find in a lot of folk music and then a complex harmony is swing music like Django Reinhardt.
Also, the Django thing is a sensible connection because technically, the style of playing Django relates more easily to bluegrass than playing like Miles Davis relates to bluegrass in the sense that it’s string music. It’s all played on strings, the Hot Club quintet was three guitars, and bass and violin, which isn’t really that far from a bluegrass band.
What I found for me, I was interested and started listening to Miles, Charlie Parker, some more modern stuff. I realized there’s a whole other thing harmonically happening there that I wanted to check out. Harmony has always been a really big thing for me. There’s always so much harmony in a lot of the music that I really love and if I hadn’t taken the time to really listen to Red Garland, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau or Kurt Rosenwinkel, I would be missing out on this great wealth of harmonic information in approaches to harmony, in approaches to melody and rhythm that is really not in bluegrass. If it does, there’s a select few people that are doing it. It’s not really the standard part of the vocabulary with that music.
There’s a lot of things about getting into jazz that were really helpful and informative for me.
DM: Can you talk about some about David Grisman? What’s great about playing with him?
GG: David is a big hero of mine. Talk about kind of the bridge between diatonic harmony and progressive stuff, and getting into jazz. Even more than Django, he was really the bridge for me. He was into all these other kinds of harmony, writing these cool tunes that were really unique and with more sophisticated arrangements that you would find in a fiddle tune.
For me personally, he’s such a hero and such a legend. Also, he’s been around for a long time. He has lot of experience in the music business, toured with Stephane Grappelli, knew all the first generation bluegrass guys. He also got to play with Chick Corea and Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen. Jerry Garcia. He has had a very a illustrious career and he’s really steeped in the music business. I really respect him a lot and really appreciate that I had the opportunity to hang with somebody that a little bit more from the old school. I mean he’s quite a bit older than me. It’s the opportunity to get to hang with somebody that has seen into the past.
DM: And as a player?
GG: As a player, he has a gravity that is pretty much unlike anybody I have really played with; he has had such a singular voice for such a long time. I literally could tell his playing after one note. He had such a strong musical voice and style, but he doesn’t really rest on his laurels either. I find that there are times when we might be playing and he might go into sort of a free section or slightly more open section in the tune. All of sudden, he’ll do something that is really surprising like some harmonic superimposition that I was totally out of left field. Something I would never expect him to do.
He talks about—he loves Bill Monroe and he knows everything about old time music and Django Reinhardt, but one of his favorite musicians is Eric Dolphy. He’s got such big ears and he has heard so much. He just listens to so much, he has played with so many great musicians and he has a wonderful combination of having such a strong personal voice and style. He can make it work playing straight ahead bluegrass. He can play in a jazz group and do his thing, play the right notes. He has such a strong voice that’s really taught me a lot about just really being emphatic with what I’m going to play. If I’m playing something just really say it. To make a strong statement. Not to be afraid to put it out there.
DM: Can you talk some about Darol Anger?
GG: Yeah. I get to play with him in a week. I’m really excited because he’s another big hero of mine and he was the original violinist in the David Grisman quintet back when it started in 1978. He’s a legendary figure in the world of modern fiddle playing. I’m not a fiddler, but I know he’s had a very strong influence on everybody that came after him in terms of what is stylistically possible on the fiddle. He's always absorbed a wide variety of influences; for instance he’s one of the people responsible for bringing awareness of Swedish music to the States which has become a tributary that fed a little bit into what people are checking out now in acoustic, folk music. People are learning Swedish tunes.
He’s really responsible for bringing some jazz into the vocabulary of what fiddle players can do. His first record, he recorded "Moose The Mooche". He’s a wonderful guy too, such a joyous player. He’s one of those guys that’s always into playing. I remember one time he played a gig at Swallow Hill. He'd just finished playing the show and we talked for a moment, but very soon thereafter we just headed into another room to play some tunes together.
He seems to always want to play and he’s just great. He’s one of those really ferocious musical minds that is a real inspiration and clearly he’s been that way his whole life. He’s involved in the American Roots Music Program at Berkeley now. He’s able to influence more and more young people in that setting, which is just great because he’s one of those guys that’s a national treasure, I think. He’s a great bluegrass fiddler. He’s one of those guys that totally took it to the next level in terms of improvisational ability and composing chops, just really heavy guy.
DM: You put out a record recently. A really, really great record.
[This is really one of my favorite records. Beautiful songs. Incredible improvising. Grant has been nice enough to allow me to post here a track from the record as well as a chart for the tune. Here
DM: Yeah. You played with some incredible musicians on that record, can you talk about those guys.
GG: Yeah. Well, David Grisman plays on one tune and of course he’s great.
Dominick Leslie is the mandolin player, who plays on most of it and he’s from Evergreen, Colorado. I met him when he was probably 15, he was really young. I was able to—I was lucky because I met him when he was still in high school and he wasn’t doing that much. I’d coerce him to come over to my house and just learn my tunes before he had a gig or anything. It’s great and we were able to really spend a lot of hours playing together. I think we just forged a good musical bond and he’s one of the real happening young mandolin players in the world now. He now lives in Boston and tours with a bunch of people and just working like crazy, he’s great.
The bassist is a guy named Paul Kowert, who studied at Curtis in Philadelphia and is currently the bassist in the band Punch Brothers and is enjoying a lot of success and tours all over the world. I think they might even be in Europe right now. He’s just one of the leading guys in the acoustic bass world right now. His arco chops are incredible.
It’s hard to talk about Paul and not bring up Edgar Meyer because Edgar was the guy who started the thing of virtuosic folk arco playing that’s classically informed Paul is carrying the torch of that thing. Also, he’s a solid jazz bass player and he studied with the great Richard Davis. Paul’s just a great player.
Alex Hargreaves is one of the most happening young violinists. I believe he is 20 or 21 now. He plays on the record.
DM: He sounds so great.
GG: Yeah. He’s amazing. He started really young. He was great when he started and just gets better all the time. He’s one of those guys who’s a great fiddler and can play like Mark O’Connor or Stuart Duncan- he can play bluegrass and everything, but has really absorbed modern jazz in a significant way, and there aren’t a lot of fiddlers who have done that. He can play Wayne Shorter tunes as well as he can play bluegrass fiddle tunes. He really knows what he’s doing. He’s just great, really amazing player.
Jayme Stone is a dear friend of mine and a fantastic banjo player who lives here in Boulder, who played banjo on a couple of songs and co-produced the record with me as well.
Jayme is a tremendously diverse and accomplished banjo player, the likes of which is pretty rare. I’ve been able to work with him a lot over the years, mostly doing projects that he devised. One project that he did was he traveled to Mali and learned about West African music and then connected with a Malian griot musician. We went and made a record of all these African tunes and he just really dove into that stuff.
Right now, he’s working on this project and transcribing a bunch of Alan Lomax recordings and he’s really into that. He’s the furthest thing from a straight ahead bluegrass banjo player that you're going to find because he’s always assimilating different kinds of stuff. He was listening to Kurt Rosenwinkel and Keith Jarrett when he first picked up the banjo, which is a pretty rare thing.
He’s one of the most totally diverse and just really hungry banjo players out there.
DM: Yeah. First time we hang out, we sat and listened to Footprints Live - Wayne Shorter.
GG: Really? Makes sense. Last time I saw him, he played me this Sibelius concerto that he’s been totally obsessed with.
DM: Sibelius 2.
GG: And then, he played me this string quartet arrangement of one of his tunes that he’s doing, then we sat down and played the Tennessee Waltz. He’s totally amazing.
He’s also just one of the hardest, if not, the hardest working musicians I know. I don’t even know what to say. He’s such a hard worker. It’s amazing. Does a lot of, most if not all, his own booking, and tours all over the country and all over the world.
DM: Can you talk three beautiful things you’ve been listen to?
GG: Ray Charles. There’s a recording of the song that he does called "A Fool for You" and there’s a studio recording of the same song.
The live version is maybe 10 or 15 clicks slower and it’s like walking through molasses and it swings so hard, it’s unbelievable how they make it happen. Whenever I want to hear some good soulful music, I go back to that recording. It’s astonishing because the band is so tight; and yet so loose, it’s alive, it’s all in concert. He’s got the most soulful voice and every little piano fill he plays is just perfect, all the perfect licks and all the harmony moves beautifully. It’s just one of the most beautiful things. Yeah.
Andy Statman came out with a new record this year. Andy is a mandolinist and clarinet player, who lives in Brooklyn. He came out of the bluegrass world, but he’s from New York City. I think he has a lot of different influences and he’s I think one of the most fascinating musicians in the American folk music scene.
GG: He’s really into Klezmer music and he’s a wonderful clarinet player. He’s also a deep improviser and is clearly really into free music. It’s funny because he got this weird combination of being a bluegrass guy and he’s good at playing old time, but again he’s from New York. He’s also really free, amazingly free player and he’ll be playing a mandolin which have two of each string and he’ll just de-tune one of his strings, so he gets this weird kind of out of tune thing. He’ll just play it like that and that’s what he’s doing.
The first tune on the record Old Brooklyn. It’s like on one chord. It’s an old-time tune. There’s a fiddle solo and it’s in the inside and the melody is really inside and it’s like a clawhammer banjo solo and it’s really inside; all of sudden, he comes in with his mandolin solo. It starts out somewhat diatonic and then it’s just go so out; he floats over the time.
He plays stuff that it doesn’t matter if it fits in the grid, it’s just what he’s playing; he’s playing really freely. He plays stuff that a typical bluegrass mandolin player would never play.
DM: Best mandolin solo ever.
GG: It’s just about the best mandolin solo I think ever on record as far as I’m concerned. It’s just beautiful, so expressive. He clearly has no interest in following convention. He’s just playing. It’s just astonishing. It’s the greatest solo and then they play the melody; all of a sudden, it vamps on this thing with, like, an electric slide guitar, then drums come in and it’s in 7 time signature. Only that guy would think of doing that, taking the old-time tune and all of a sudden, turns a corner into another dimension.
I think he’s just such a brilliant guy- whatever it is that he does, it just appeals to me so much. He is such an expressive musician. He just tears into the solo, it’s just so phenomenal. It’s unlike anything anybody else would ever play. I can’t think of any other man out there that would even think to try to take a solo like that.
I’ve also been listening to the Debussy quartet. He only wrote one quartet; string quartet that is. A lot of time people, because it’s often paired on recordings I think it’s from the same time period as the Ravel quartet, people will often equate them or almost take them as kind of synonymous; they’re both great.
The Debussy quartet particularly, I think is just wonderful. It was a big lesson for me harmonically, getting into that and learning how he’ll—it’s just my own interpretation of this. There may be a section where he’ll take one melody note and then you think the harmony is going to do a certain thing based on where it’s already down and where the melody is. He’ll take that melody note and pivot it, so that it becomes a different chord tone of a completely different chord.
It’s just kind of taught me that about harmony and that harmony doesn’t have to move in expected ways. It’s just beautiful, there’s some really beautiful melody and it’s just some of the most moving music. I’ve been listening to it for, I don’t know, I think seven or eight years now. I feel like every time I hear that I find something that I can come back to.
Particularly, the third movement is the most dramatic and just lovely thing. The way he sets up dynamic movement. Yeah. It’s just amazing. It’s one of the most beautiful things.
DM: You’re moving to New York in January.
GG: You’re moving there, too.
DM: Yes I am. In February. Are you playing any shows before you go?
GG: I decided that it would be nice to do some kind of farewell Colorado concert. I’ve been here for almost ten years. It just seem like it would be nice to do a send-off thing, so I put together some Grant Gordy quartet concert. One of them is going to be at the Swallow Hill, where I played a few times here in Denver, one at the Black Rose down in Colorado Springs, one at Avogadro’s number in Fort Collins. It’s with my own band and often this happens with a lot of things, I just have to figure out a lineup, you can’t be always the same people every time.
I thought it would be fun to hire Matt Flinner, he is a really great mandolin player and Billy Contreras, who’s this legendary violinist, heavy jazz musician guy from Nashville. Both of whom I’ve never really worked with or certainly haven’t worked with him in this context, so it will be completely new endeavor, but I think it would be fun. I think it’s going to be a great band. Ian Hutchison, who plays with my quartet usually will be the bass. Yes, it should be very interesting. I have no idea what it’s going to be like, but I’m excited. I think it’s going to be good.
Grant Gordy Farewell Concerts feat. Matt Flinner, Billy Contreras, and Ian Hutchison
January 11, 2013 at Swallow Hill - Denver, CO
January 12, 2013 at the Black Rose Acoustic Society - Colorado Springs, CO
Jan 13, 2013 at Avogadro's Number - Ft. Collins, CO
Find out more about what Grant Gordy is doing at his website.