I did not know (until I read the publicity material for this record) that Manfred Eicher, founder and chief producer of Germany’s ECM jazz and classical labels, was a former bass player himself. He certainly has set the standard for recording the difficult double bass on so many ECM releases. Case in point is bassist Larry Grenadier’s debut solo disc The Gleaners, which Grenadier says was born of a seed planted by Eicher.
Grenadier, known for his fine tonality, has been a bassist of choice for artists ranging from Paul Motian to Pat Matheny, and he has long working relationships with pianist Brad Mehldau and guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel. For The Gleaners he drew inspiration from other ECM releases of bassists such as Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland and Barre Phillips, as well as solo work by other instrumentalists such as jazz saxophonists Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins, and classical violist Kim Kashkashian. It doesn’t necessarily follow that even the best of bassists ought to record a solo album, but Grenadier seems to have loads of ideas that translate well to such a project.
The album’s 12 tracks include two pieces written for him by Muthspiel; Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now” from “Porgy and Bess,” a bit of a tribute to the Miles Davis/Gil Evans production of that show’s tunes; Grenadier’s interpretation of a song by his wife, singer Rebecca Martin, “Gone Like the Season Does”; and a medley of John Coltrane’s “Compassion” and Motian’s “The Owl of Cranston.”
“ ‘Compassion’ comes from Coltrane’s Meditations suite, an important piece of music for me,” Grenadier says. “It flows into Motian’s ‘Owl of Cranston,’ which I used to play with Paul. His tunes are just fabulous – they’re so melodic, but the flow of the rhythm, often out of tempo, is the thing.”
It’s the longest piece on the album and in some ways its centerpiece, the former piece played mostly in classically influenced arco with some occasional pizzicato, playing up and down the fretboard in a physically impressive performance; the latter moves to pizzicato entirely, its stretchy melody hanging on a deep droning note.
The two Muthspiel pieces are titled “Bagatelle 1” and “Bagatelle 2,” perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to their short length (about two minutes each) but neither is the trifle implied by the title. The first is a somber, tonally rich arco piece, the second a bop-influenced uptempo pizzicato. It leads right into that Gershwin-by-way-of-Davis tune “My Man’s Gone Now,” the lyrical pizzicato bass interpretation capturing the song’s essential loneliness.
The bulk of the album, though, consists of sterling Grenadier originals. Among the most engaging are “Pettiford,” his tribute to fellow-bassist Oscar Pettiford, which has some impressive implied swing; the gently loping “Woebegone” featuring a little bit of double-tracking; and the melancholy “The Gleaner,” inspired by a documentary film from 2000, “The Gleaners and I” by the French director Agnès Varda, who was in turn influenced by Millet’s 19th-century painting The Gleaners, of women harvesting in a field. “For me, as a musician, you glean things from the people you play with and the music you listen to, but it takes work to get the most out of everything, to harvest the things you can use yourself,” Grenadier says.
It’s a short piece but lyrical and to me inspirational. Just one reason that The Gleaners is one of the most engaging solo recordings I’ve come across in some time.