Monday, June 2, 2008

Grant Green's trilogy of early 70's live albums.

I've always been a huge Grant Green fan, but I've revisited these three albums recently and they struck me in a different way than I remember previously. They just seem to capture that window of time where playing funk in a jazz idiom didn't mean dumbing anything down and it actually meant something that went beyond just the music. You can hear it the way the band plays each of the songs like it's the last time they'll ever be heard. The albums I'm referencing are:

Alive! (1970)
Although it's probably his most recognized album of his funk period, I would say Alive! is probably my least favorite of the these albums. The formula that Grant would follow for his next few live albums is certainly in place here: covers of current r&b and pop hits, funkdafied beyond belief and the grooves played to simmer on for extended periods, but never allowed to boil (in fact, that integral restraint shown throughout is part of what makes these albums so good). The original album has a funk monster followed by a more reflective piece on either side (indeed, organist Neal Creque provides the only original tune here with his introspective toned 'Time To Remember' — more on that in a minute). Opening up side two of the album is Grant's famously scorching rendition of Don Covay's 'Sookie Sookie.' As far as just jamming out and playin' some downright nasty, funky ass shit, you can't do much better than this one. And while his studio playing of the time was somewhat sporadic, Grant seems inspired by the audience and all of his lines are clean and straight in the pocket. His entrance into his first solo after a few choruses on 'Sookie Sookie' is literally an 'awww shit!' moment. The reissued CD version of the album adds three extra tracks, making for the definitive version of the record. Among the three tracks, the treat among them is the extended take on Herbie Hancock's 'Maiden Voyage,' one of Grant's rare ventures into post-bop during this time period. Although this album does contain more than its fair share of groovers, with the previously mentioned 'Time To Remember' and 'Maiden Voyage,' along with thoughtful run throughs of Lalo Schifrin's 'Down Here On the Ground' (this band playing what I feel is the definitive version of the tune) and Jerry Butler's 'Hey Western Union Man' and the qualities given to these tunes by the guitar/oragn/vibes frontline, this album has a sort of sad overtone to it. Rounded out by Claude Bartee's fantastic performance on tenor (just check the portion on 'Hey Western Union Man' where he feels the groove so heavily he just creates a near raga-like trance-inducing line) and perfectly anchored by Idris Muhammad, it set the table for the next two live albums...

Live at Club Mozambique (1971)
This one sat in the Blue Note vaults for 35 years before it saw the light of day in 2006. It was recorded in Detroit, Grant's home base at the time. The liners (by Bob Belden) speculate on why Blue Note chose to record Grant at this time, just under six months after Alive! had been recorded and just over a year before Live at the Lighthouse would be recorded, perhaps explaining why it wasn't released at the time (in addition to these three live albums, Grant had studio records coming out just about every ten months). As it stands now, it's an invaluable document of Grant's playing and his reperetoire. The only holdovers from Alive! are Idris Muhammad and Ronnie Foster on organ who is here for the duration (he played on most of Alive!, laying out on two tracks to make way for Neal Creque) and of course Grant on guitar. The music here is given an entirely new texture in comparison to Alive! because of two things: the group is only a quintet (as opposed to the sextet on Alive!) and there are two horns (Clarence Thomas on soprano and tenor and Houston Person on tenor). This gives the music a much harder edge, leaving those rough corners smoothed over by the ballads and bypassing the gloss added by the vibes and congas. There is a slight shift in reperetoire here as well, with the first three tracks being basically obscurities: 'Jan Jan' (an instrumental funk 45 by the Fabulous Counts), Clarence Thomas' original 'Farid' (basically the album's highlight) and an uncredited composition titled 'Bottom of the Barrell.' The one ballad on the album —a soul drenched rendition of 'Walk on By'— is right in the middle of the affair, providing a chance to catch your breath in between the funk workouts. And I mean WORKOUTS. I could be wrong, but I think this album is the fastest I've heard Idris Muhammad play for this long. In comparison, his cascading, rolling backbeats on Alive! seem like funeral marches compared to the tempos on this album. This album provides the neccessarry link between Alive! and Live at the Lighthouse.

Live at the Lighthouse (1972)
Even though the only returning player from the Club Mozambique album is Grant, Claude Bartee is back on tenor and soprano, making a show-stealing appearance (allmusic has some interesting info on this underrated horn player). Shelton Laster is on oragn and Gary Coleman is on vibes, perhaps hinting that the album may venture back into the smoother territory that had already been covered on Alive!, but Wilton Felder is brought in to play electric bass, which gives the band an entirely new platform. Filled out by Greg Williams on drums (faster and more cymbal-favoring than Idris Muhammad, giving the songs a sense of urgency) and Bobbye Hall on other percussions (normally a studio session player only), the rhythm section on this album works the grooves like no other group. Where other crossover jazz funk projects were venturing into jammy territory, these three players dig in and show that there is a difference between a jam and groove. Never once do these sprawling tunes feel monotonous or noodly. Originally a double album on vinyl (one record of that dedicated to two sidelong epics), this thing is gargantuan (unfortunately, mood was sacrificed when the CD issue trimmed off the Hank Stewart and Ed Hamilton introductions to fit all of the music onto one disc — a rare case of the vinyl containing more music than the CD). At this point, Grant's live reperetoire was like a well-oiled machine. Making those extended workouts segue seamlessly into a cover of a pop song (the opening transition of Neal Creque's 'Windjammer' into an amazing rendition of the Stylistics' 'Betcha By Golly Wow' illustrates this perfectly). From there, it goes the deepest into Grant's heaviest funk of any of these albums. Whether it's Shelton Laster's original 'Flood in Franklin Park' a unique revision of Donald Byrd's 'Fancy Free' or a scorching run through of 'Jan Jan' (which, at this point, was Grant's tune in all but name), this album's deep grooves and numerous "Right on!" shouts from the audience extend into something far more than a group of musicians making a record. As Junior Walker's 'A Walk In the Night' closes out the album on a wonderfully bittersweet note, I'm always reminded why this album continues to be my favorite of this period in Grant's catalogue. It would be his last truly cohesive, fully realized and... well, in all honesty, his last good album.

All three of these records are able to find that often looked for, but rarely found, meeting point where complicated be-bop solos crash head-on with funk backbeats and simmering grooves, making their way into the promised land. More than that though, they convey a vibe of good grooves and a heartfelt soulful meaning in the music. Whether you're listening to set the vibe at a summer get together, looking for funky loops to feed your sampler, want to hear some heated technical riffing or just want to groove, these albums will provide those vibes and much more.



John Harris said...

This is a really nice summary of three under-rated albums from Grant's later period. You show a real depth of understanding and obviously have a great ear.


Austin said...

Thank you for your compliments and for stopping by, John!


Simon Thomas said...

Have to agree with John - well written stuff - thanks for bringing this guitarist to people's attention!