Friday, 20 February 2009

Steve Grossman Quintet in Newcastle...

The rather flat and ambiance-free zone that is the Corner House Hotel provided a pretty apt setting for this gig in so many ways. I went with few illusions, knowing that the Grossman who breathed fire with Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Stone Alliance in the '70s was a thing of the past. I had my points of reference in the form of those dreary records he made for Dreyfus Jazz in the '90s, and even a gig I saw him play in Glasgow around a decade ago. That night he kept it tight and smouldering, backed by John Hicks, John Webber and Idris Muhammad. The Grossman of that event was a rather gaunt and sickly looking man, looking for all the world like he'd just been released from jail or demobbed from the military, wearing an ill-fitting suit and appearing in desperate need of daylight. The music though needed little stimulus.

I thought it only right to let Louise hear another former Miles Davis sideman, after the Scofield gig we enjoyed last year. Surely it would be great to get so close to such a legend in a such a small performance space? In some ways, yes, because the venue lends its self well to getting up close to the music. Yet for the most part, I was pretty underwhelmed. Grossman is certainly a man who has had his share of health problems. The fast lifestyle during his peak years in the '70s brought with it the usual addictions, and more recently his physical health has been challenged after an accident left him with three badly damaged vertebrae. The Grossman who stepped out to perform in Newcastle last night looked physically as though he was in much better shape than he'd been in Glasgow, but musically his powers had waned considerably. The Glasgow Grossman soloed at length and with lots of fire, whilst the Grossman of last night had the kind of frayed-about-the-edges sound of the late Lester Young and at times you'd even call him stuttering.

The material was hardly fresh either. The first set consisted entirely of bop and early hard bop standards, pre-modal and very, very chordal. To my ears, attuned as they are to almost nothing but free and modal jazz, it came as something of a shock. The second set at least saw the group, basically a quartet led by exciting British trumpeter Damon Brown, warming up and gelling as a unit. By the end of the night they managed to move into the '60s and tackle a modal 'tranish inspired piece ('Take the 'D' Train'), and even the bop somehow seemed to have a bit more spark (Monk's 'I Mean You' was nicely done). Interestingly Brown stuck entirely to cornet, an instrument rarely used in modern jazz by anybody other than Nat Adderley and on the face of it another retro nod. Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan (Joy Spring and Ceora were both part of the set) were Brown's main touchstones however, and both he and drummer Sebastiaan De Krom were for the most part in inspired form and took it to the limit.

Although I love hearing the electric piano in jazz, particularly the Rhodes, I detest modern digital pianos. Once upon a time the Corner House had an old upright, but these days a little Roland digital seems to be on hand whenever a piano is needed. It sounded flat and did Robin Aspland few favours. I know that the economics of providing a decent piano work against most promoters at anything other than concert hall level, but I find it sad when somebody like Grossman visits that there needs to be so many musical compromises made. A shadow of his former self with very little to distinguish him musically, this seemed almost to rub salt into the wounds. That said, I wonder why he's stepped back from the heady music he once made to settle into comfortable mainstream blandness? Younger guys like Eric Alexander do it so much better, and much as I love those Grossman landmarks of the '70s I find it sad to see him like this. Even a Steinway wouldn't have rescued this one.

The musty surroundings, the music of yesteryear, and a one time 'legend' well past his best and clearly in some discomfort whilst performing all came together with a poignant but surely unintended synergy. I'm sure there's a story to tell about the sheer hell Grossman goes through to hold it together and perform, but listening earlier to Stone Alliance at their brilliant best, and to Terra Firma, I have realised that I need to be selective in the memories I keep of this extremely important but for some time lost in the wilderness post-Coltrane voice.

On the plus side it was good to get out, see a full house for Jazz North East, see lots of familiar faces lapping it up, and also to have at least the chance to see somebody of this stature performing on Tyneside somewhere other than at The Sage. I don't know whether to pleased that the audience loved it, or despair at their lack of critical discernment. Yes, let's be charitable...

Fred Grand.

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