On his new ECM album, alternate tunings, Oscar Pettiford, Anton Webern, studio techniques & the loneliness of recording solo
Legends Gary Peacock, Dave Holland, Miroslav Vitous, and Barre Phillips have graced the bass world with their solo recordings on the ECM label since the ’70s. Now Grenadier joins the ranks of these celebrated players with his own set of brilliantly conceived and impeccably executed solo double-bass tracks 2019, Grenadier’s intonation, tone, and expressiveness is quite an achievement, and it’s one of the best records in its category that I’ve heard in a long time.
I first met Larry in the early ’80s at a jazz workshop in San Jose, California. He was a workshop student, about 15 years old, and I was 22 — a fledgling teacher. I remember sitting with my clinician colleague Todd Coolman in the audition room when Larry played for us, and thinking, “What can I possibly teach this kid?” Larry ripped through “There Is No Greater Love,” in thumb position. My teaching concept at the time (gleaned from my musical mentor, Jamey Aebersold) was simple: Teach what you know.
At that point in my teaching career, I could play strong quarter-notes, in time, with a pretty good sound and decent intonation. Even in his mid-teens, Larry already had a strong foundation on the double bass: solid walking skills, a good command of the instrument, and a mature ear for the jazz language. I can’t claim to have taught Larry much at the workshop that week, but we hit it off. Our paths have crossed regularly through the years, and it’s been an inspiration to Larry developinto one of the great jazz bassists of our time.
Grenadier has a storybook career, from his early days of playing with Stan Getz and Joe Henderson in San Francisco, his work with the Brad Mehldau Trio, and his cooperative trio Fly (with Mark Turner and Jeff Ballard), to his sideman activities with Pat Metheny, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Rebecca Martin, Paul Motian, and countless others. Although he seldom takes on private students, Grenadier teaches a few times per semester at the Basel Music Academy in Switzerland.
The Gleaners was recorded at Avatar Studios in New York by engineer James Farber, with ECM founder Manfred Eicher producing. In the liner notes, Grenadier writes, “The process for making this record began with a look inward, an excavation into the core elements of who I am as a bass player. It was a search for a center of sound and timbre, for the threads of harmony and rhythm that formulate the crux of a musical identity.” When I found out recently that we were in the same time zone, I jumped at the chance to catch up with Larry and ask him about his new album.
You and Manfred came upon the idea of recording a solo bass album
I had been doing albums with him over the past 15 or 20 years. I always really dug working with him musically and personally. He mentioned once after a recording. I was definitely not thinking about doing a solo bass record, but it seemed like the right sort of challenge I wanted to take on at that moment, so I said yes. For the next month or so, I , “Oh, what did I get myself into?” Conceptually, it was a real puzzle. I had some references, but not that many. The puzzle became the motivating force to think about the music how can it capture a listener for 45 minutes and be interesting on multiple levels. Those considerations brought me into different technical thingsthe practicing to get ready for it.
So, the music grew out of the conceptual puzzle.
Right, the journey of learning more about the instrument and learning more about what music means to me. A lot of bass players don’t record that much as leaders, and I think it’s mainly because we find ourselves in situations where we feel like we can express ourselves and make our music that way. I’ll be 53 next month, so it took me a while to even want to do . came at the right moment, and it was really educational thing.
There’s one track called “The Gleaner.” Does the title have a special meaning for you?
Naming jazz tunes is such a bizarre thing. For me, it basically ends up being about what I was thinking about while getting a tune together. And that could be inspired by external things, what I was reading, or seeing a movie or person. This title came out of seeing a documentary by the French filmmaker Agnes Varda, called The Gleanersand I, about modern-day gleaning. Gleaning was what poor people would do after the wheat had been harvested. They’d come in and collect the leftovers from the fields, and it reminds me of how we learn to play music: We glean bits of information along the way from various sources.
How was it being in the studio alone, the engineer and producer present and no other musicians around?
Being in the studio alone is a trip. I had never really done that, except for maybe overdubbing something. You’re waiting for something to react to, but it never comes. You have to get comfortable with that.
You’re waiting for the “Yeah, man,” after the track!
“Yeah, man” — you’ve got to say it yourself!
Let’s talk about how James Farber recorded your fantastic tone.
I recorded in New York. I’m pretty sure the mic was a [Telefunken] C12 on the bass, and then maybe a [Neumann] U 47; I really don’t remember. For the first hour or so, we experimented with where to stand in the room. I ended up facing one of the walls; I was eight feet or six feet from a wall. I did the arco stuff in another part of the room with mics very far away. I used two different basses: one bass for arco, and one for pizz.
What are your string choices on those basses?
Well, that was another trip. For the pizz stuff, it was a G string that Gerold Genssler in Berlin makes, and then the bottom three were D’Addario Helicore Hybrids. For the bowing stuff, that was fun to experiment with, because I had never really done that. I tried a bunch and ended up with a mix. On the G string, I think it’s called Pirastro Original Flexocor, and then D’Addario Kaplan on the D and A. I think the Estring was just a Thomastik Spirocore.
Let’s talk about the track “The Gleaner.” You use an alternate tuning.
That was tuned F#, D, G, D, going from high to low. I was reading a book about the history of the double bass and all the different tunings. It wasn’t standardized until fairly recently.
Another thing that strikes me is your mastery of intonation with double-stops, like on “Oceanic.” You play double-stops all over the bass, and they’re all in tune. Did you practice double-stops in particular? How did you come up with all these variations?
It’s somethingI’ve practiced over the years. Most of what I practice is classical music, and some specific pieces that I’ve worked on for a long time incorporate double-stops. It’s trying to get the bass to resonate. You know when it’s happening; the whole bass moves in a different way. Thatpart of using alternate tunings — the discovery of how the bass resonated in different tunings, and how to bring that out. I love that aspect of the instrument; it’s such a natural, beautiful part, and when it’s solo bass, you can accentuate it. nensemble, it’s a little harder maybe to hear that, but by itself, you can really hear the bass resonate in different ways.
The second track on the album is your tune “Pettiford.” Oscar Pettiford is one of the first bass players who struck me as having that clarity, back in the ’50s, where every note he played had a center to the pitch. So, you wrote a tune dedicated to Pettiford based on his composition “Laverne Walk.”
Yeah. The clarity of his technique was amazing; every recording of him, whether live or in the studio, always has that perfectly clarity. I came upon this great Bud Powell thing on iTunes, which I think is just called Birdland 1953.It’s about 40 tunes of Bud playing at Birdland that year with different trios. A lot of it is with George Duvivier and Art Taylor, but quite a bit is with Oscar Pettiford, and it’s incredible. You hear a really noisy club — it’s surprising how noisy it was — and Oscar presses the notes out there. It overwhelms you, it’s so clear and powerful. Also, as a composer and a musician, he’s amazing to me. Such a great bridge from swing to bebop.
You’ve probably seen that video him and Attila Zoller playing Oscar’s tune “The Gentle Art of Love.”
When I watch Pettiford, he’s the old-school right hand, where it’s sort of a paddle board or something bouncing up and down. But it’s very clear, and the sound pops out.’the coordination between his right hand and left hand, and that’s challenge for a lot of bass players.
Right. Oscarhad a wide variety of ways to get a sound out with his right hand.was definitely coming from that original old style, where he’s almost slapping it or pulling the strings out a bit more than we would. And then he could also play it like Ray Brown. I think all these guys have a vocabulary of different techniques in order to make it work in the moment.
Speaking of other techniques,the track “Woebegone”reminded me of Red Mitchell a bit, because it sounds like you’re strumming the strings.
I wanted it to be more like a guitar, like a singer–songwriter guitar-picker, you know. It’s a bit like the way classical players play pizzicato, where they pull the sound out.
You were overdubbing some on that track, with multiple bass tracks.
I think it goes from one bass to two, and then there’s a solo blues section — that’s three basses, pizzicato. And then there are some arco basses at the end. The overdubbing was something that I had to think about: whether I wanted to do a record with lot of overdubbing, which is obviously a possibility. I went the other direction, but there was “Woebegone,” and then there’s a short tune at the end of the album that was a bunch of overdubs [“A Novel in a Sigh”]. But I wanted to make a record with a minimum of overdubs, just to have that challenge.
That makes those two tunes stand out, “Woebegone” and “A Novel in a Sigh,” where all of a sudden you hear two or three basses and it’s like choir has arrived. Your wife Rebecca composed “Gone Like a Season Does.” Is that something you had played with her before, or did she compose it for the album?
We’d never actually played that song, but I’d always liked that tune. I knew I wanted to do one tune of hers that would complement the record. I like her writing because it’s coming from a different world, but it shares this musicality and balance that I love in great jazz composers and any composers, really. There’s a balance of the form and the melody, and there’s enough harmony to get your teeth into.
On the track “Vineland,” you use some spiccato technique, bouncing the bow off the string. Is it a 4/4, 3/4 grouping?
Yeah, it’s mostly 7/8, but then it has a little 5.
Did you practice a lot of bowing techniques like spiccato and other classical techniques to get that together?
I should have! [Laughs.] Talk about writing a tune that I couldn’t play, you know. I should be able to play it, but to play it consistently and in time — it brought out stuff that I needed to work on, which was great. I’ve always practiced with a bow, but I’m not an orchestral bow player at all, there are all those different techniques. I was not plays piccato or whatever, but just trying to get certain sounds using the technique involved in getting a sound. And it was like, Wow, I’ve gotta practice this! So, it became more like an étude, really.
You’ve got a couple of tunes from Wolfgang Muthspiel on the record. Did he write those for you, or were you playing those tunes in his band?
I was recording with Wolfgang when I decided to do this album. When I told him, he said, “I’ll write some stuff for you,” so he came up with those two tunes for me. Those were both a little tricky to get the way I wanted them.
On “Bagatelle Number 1,” the first few double-stops are very low on the instrument, but they’re really powerful.
I love these low double-stops, because usually we don’t play down there. They’re harder to play, because the spacing is pretty big. The notes are low, and there are some really close minor-2nd intervals. I like that sound of the bass. I was trying to find different sounds to provide a pathway, a journey for the listener.
You also recorded a Gershwin tune. Why did you choose “My Man’s Gone Now”?
I love that song so much; I love the minor blues vibe in the first part, and how it goes to another key in major. I like the movement. I’ve always loved Miles Davis’ version with Gil Evans, and this one has subtle references to different Miles versions. The first time I heard that tune was when I saw Miles he came back in 1980 or ’81, and Marcus Miller was playing; there’s one Marcus bass line I play, because it’s so great. That was such a great band, but it’s kind of ignored now. People don’t really talk about that period of Miles.
“Compassion/The Owl of Cranston” combines a John Coltrane tune and a Paul Motian tune. How did that come about?
The ’Trane tune is from the Meditations Suite, which is a piece of music that I love. I thought, “Oh, this could work.” Then I used it over the C# pedal, access that low note as a drone when I wanted — not constantly, but referencing it as something to play against — so it has that two-voice thing occasionally. That helps a lot when you’re playing by yourself, and it worked with that tune. Also, the way ’Trane was playing at that time was inspiring. His sound had changed, and his vibrato changed on the later records. I just love that period of ’Trane.
Paul’tune was something I had played with him The two pieces work well together. It wasn’t planned to be a medley, but they were in the same key, and it flowed. Paul’s writing is great because it’s so open to what the soloist wants to donce the melody stopsyou’re left with this beautiful melody that becomes the source of the solo. ometimes would write changes to some of his tunes, but they were never referenced at all. Everything came out of the melody and the rhythm of the melody. I love that way of playing and the way the time flows. It hasmovement, but it’s not in a specific tempo.
I guess I did that with the Pettiford tune: playing through the changes, but more freely, and then finally getting the tempo to another point. That’s a way of implying time in a forward momentum, but not being in a strict tempo. I knew I didn’t want to do a solo bass record and play a bunch of tunes in tempo with the bass playing the melody, then soloing, and then playing the melody. So, everything was kind of counter-that.
The “Pettiford” track is because I can hear Pettiford in your performance, but it has your stamp on it. It’s not “I’m gonna play a few choruses on ‘Laverne Walk’ and then a couple O.P. licks, and then see what happens.”
That would be cool, too.
Well, yeah, because they sound good [laughs]. But you made it your own thing, which is hard to do when playing tribute to a bass player like Pettiford.
Thank you, man!
The last track is “A Novel in a Sigh,” which is a great title —it implies a long story told in a short breath. The vibe on this track is heavy because ita very impressionistic sound that takes over quickly, and then it quickly dissipates.
[Composer Anton] Webern was somebody I’ve been listening to the past few years. I tried to listen to his music many years ago, and I couldn’t find my way. Now I can hear him and say, “Wow, that’s amazingly beautiful and skeletal and bare-bones, with just the essential things.” The seed of this little vignette comes from one of his pieces. I tuned down. I just wanted to see how low I could go.
Is that a low B? Wow!
I think I recorded it maybe five times or so, just to have the thick sound of that note. It’s one of those fun things you can do in the studio, to take advantage of a big room. –BM
Basses used on The Gleaners Arco, German bass played by Grenadier since 1994; pizz, bass made by Benedict Puglisi of Melbourne, Australia
Strings German bass (for pizz): Gerold Genssler Gstring, D’Addario Helicore Hybrids D, A,E strings; Benedict Puglisi (for arco): Original Pirastro Flexicore Gstring, Kaplan D& Astrings, Thomastik Estring
Live amplification Schoeps CMC6, Grace Design mic preamp into a powered 12″ monitor.
Listen to Larry Grenadier’s ECM album The Gleanerson Apple Music: HERE
Listen to The Gleanerson Spotify: HERE