From wedding bands to modern dance, from Dixieland to free jazz, Lou Grassi is the drummer for any job.
The Nu Band is facing a dilemma that might make other musicians storm away in a huff. The quartet, which includes drummer Lou Grassi, is scheduled to play at the University of Pittsburgh’s Public Health Auditorium on this Tuesday night. But it’s 7 p.m., and a university club has started screening Edward Scissorhands in the lecture hall that usually serves as the performance space. With an hour to go before the alleged show time, the promoter hasn’t arrived yet, and no one is sure what to do.
The band, in the middle of a 10-day tour that had them in Buffalo last night, takes it in stride. Bassist Joe Fonda laughs a raspy laugh when he hears the story and heads back to the van to rest. Saxophonist Mark Whitecage and trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr. head down the street into Oakland, the university’s neighborhood, to find dinner. Grassi leaves his cell phone number with the opening band and heads out for some coffee and an interview.
This has been a busy year for the Lou Grassi. A month prior to the Nu Band tour, the drummer landed in Pittsburgh with multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel and clarinetist Perry Robinson, playing to a small but enraptured audience. In the following months, he traveled to Europe with the Hampel Trio, made an appearance at New York’s VisionFest with Hampel’s larger Galaxie Dream Band and went into the studio for a handful of recordings with other artists.
The PoBand, Grassi’s free-improvising group that invites a guest musician to their recording sessions, suffered a major setback last year due to the death of one of its driving forces, bassist Wilber Morris. But Grassi plans to revamp that unit in the near future as well. In addition to excelling in these freer forms of jazz, the drummer is also continuing to play Dixieland music, leading the Dixie Peppers, which he founded in 1984, and he frequently performs in the company of dancers.
He might now be one of the busiest drummers affiliated with the New York avant-garde, but 10 years ago Grassi had little connection with that pocket of musicians.
Lou Grassi began playing drums at age 15. After joining the Army in the mid-’60s he attended the Navy School of Music in Norfolk, Va., and later served in the 328th U.S. Army Band before being discharged in 1968.
After hanging around New York City’s early 1970s loft scene, Grassi dropped out and went back to school at the end of the decade. Upon graduating from New Jersey City University with a B.A. in music, Grassi played in wedding and lounge bands and accompanied musical theater and modern dance groups. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after getting involved with William Parker and Patricia Nicholson Parker’s Improvisers Collective in New York, that he became reacquainted with free improvisation.
Since then, Grassi has been making up for lost time as a prolific leader, co-leader and sideman in concert and on recordings, primarily for Cadence’s CIMP imprint. Not one to fret over lost years, Grassi sees his time off as part of the process that’s made him a more durable player. “I feel like I’ve done a lot of things I needed to do to be a more complete musician and to really have a story to tell,” he says. “I really developed my way of telling it.”
It’s clear as Grassi talks about his different projects that he revels in the flexibility it gives him. “I’ve been a freelance musician so long, I’ve worked in so many commercial areas where you have to please the bandleader or conductor,” he says. “Those are the two things I think about when I’m a sideman: giving the leader what they want-helping them realize their vision-and serving the music.”
Although he wasn’t playing improvisational music in a jazz setting while working as a dance accompanist, Grassi was able to develop a strong approach toward group interaction. The experience included work with choreographers Bill T. Jones, Arnie Zane and Richard Bull, who set up structures that required dancers and musicians to improvise within a framework.
Grassi is still playing with dancers today. At this year’s VisionFest, the Galaxie Dream Band’s performance, a memorial to the late poet-vocalist Jeanne Lee, included a performance by Prince Alex, a Russian breakdancer who has performed with Gunter Hampel in Europe. Hampel’s son Romi also got on the floor for the performance. The dancers worked off the melodic information as well as rhythmic cues. Grassi says, “I’ve worked as a dance accompanist for more than 25 years, so I’m accustomed to being connected to their movement and having somewhat of an intuitive sense of where they’re headed,” he says. “[We’re] interacting and, hopefully, inspiring one another.”
When he’s playing free, Grassi’s style boils. Between a steady stream of rolls on the snare and toms and a sustained ring of the cymbals, the steady sounds flow over the rest of the music, providing a pulse and playing off the melodic aspect at the same time. The sound calls to mind Elvin Jones, and it comes as no surprise that Grassi cites him as his favorite drummer. “The emotional impact he has on me is very strong,” Grassi says. He adds that mainstream drummers have influenced him more than avant-garde drummers, and rattles off Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes among his other favorites. But the years spent in what he calls an “old-fashioned apprenticeship,” aided by a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, with the late Beaver Harris, the drummer on seminal works by the likes of Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor, did a lot to shape his style.
Grassi met Harris in 1973 at a practice session Roswell Rudd was leading with the Jazz Composers Orchestra at New York University’s Loeb Student Center, which was open to the public. Sheila Jordan, with whom Grassi and Jimmy Garrison played in a mixed-media project in the 1970s called the Innermost Society, invited the drummer in while she was recording a piece with Rudd. Grassi struck up a conversation with Harris there. Harris, who was impressed, told Grassi to take his place at the practice that was about to start. “Roswell Rudd’s got 40 musicians sight-reading his music,” Grassi recalls. “All of sudden, Roswell looks up and there’s this kid sitting on the drums. And he was beautiful; he didn’t even flinch.” Harris didn’t flinch either. He told Grassi to come back the following night for the recording session that produced Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Plays Numatik Swing Band.
From then on, whenever Harris was in New York, Grassi was with him, starting at 9 in the morning playing practice pads, up to riding with him to recordings, rehearsals or club dates. “Beaver was an incredibly generous person in all ways,” Grassi says. “He shared whatever knowledge he could.” Even at that time, Grassi was developing his own sound, and Harris made sure to point that out to him.
Experiences like these helped Grassi to develop a philosophy toward improvisation that is based on trusting the music and where it takes the performers. “Once you play that first note and you begin a free improvisation, music has a life of its own,” he says. “I’d even go so far as to say [it has] a consciousness of its own. And besides the trust you have to have in one another, it’s important to trust the music-that it will show you where it needs to go next. With a certain group of people you can just turn on a dime.”
The PoBand fits that description. When Grassi became a member of the Improvisers Collective and needed to produce a concert in 1995, he assembled a group that would play spontaneous music exclusively. The first lineup of the group included clarinetist Perry Robinson and Wilber Morris, with pianist Burton Greene sitting in as a guest. The band was encouraged by the quality of the performance, and Grassi sent a recording of the concert to Robert Rusch at Cadence, who insisted on releasing it.
Rusch also came up with the album title, PoGressions, and the band name, which initially didn’t sit well with the performers. Grassi wasn’t familiar with po, a concept created by Dr. Edward de Bono that states creativity could be expanded through lateral thinking. “We were all goofing on it. ‘Pogressions-we must be po’. Ain’t got no money,'” Grassi says with a laugh. “It was later that I learned about the whole concept of po, which was a po experience in itself. I came to it laterally, through the backdoor. So it seems right.”
After recording albums with saxophonists Marshall Allen (of the Sun Ra Arkestra) and Joseph Jarman as guests, the PoBand broke tradition on last year’s ComPOsed. The group-now consisting of Grassi, Robinson, Morris, trumpeter Paul Smoker and trombonist Art Baron-invited saxophonist John Tchicai to a session and agreed to work using his written ideas in addition to playing spontaneously on a couple tracks. The concept worked, from the boppish swing of “Daddy No Mana” to the calypso groove of “Tidens Tand,” which features Morris adding an improvised vocal to good effect.
ComPOsed turned out to be one of Morris’ final sessions. After successfully keeping his lymphoma in remission for more than a decade, he suffered a relapse and died August 8, 2002. “His playing was totally in service of the music, and he was always sensitive to where the music wanted to go next,” Grassi says. “I never saw Wilber impose his will on the music. He was one of the most connected and egoless improvisers I’ve ever played with.” Although he initially has reservations about continuing the PoBand without the bassist, Grassi says he hopes to put a spin on the guest members, which was Morris’ idea in the first place, by inviting different bassists to sit in with the core group.
The session with Tchicai led to another group that united the drummer with the Danish saxophonist. Last fall, they combined forces with Dutch guitarist Pierre Dørge for the CIMP release Hope Is Bright Green Up North. The album is remarkable not only for the rapport between the three of them but also because it marks Grassi’s debut as a composer. His “Ballad of 9/11” combines a tone row of pitches produced by metallic percussion with a two-bar melody, alternating between 9/4 and 11/4 time. A fitting tribute to the events of September 11, the composition develops slowly, shifting into a pensive swing before Tchicai and Dørge play it like a canon and then move into their solos.
The ballad reveals how much feeling Grassi can convey without ever playing too loudly. Whether he’s performing in a small group-like the trio with bassist David Wertman and saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase that recorded North Country Pie (CIMP)-or the PoBand, which might have three or four horns blowing at once, Grassi plays with authority yet he never threatens to drown out his peers. “It’s like having a big family dinner with six people at the table,” he says. “There may be a particular topic of conversation at some points that everyone is involved with, and there may be times when there are four conversations crossing over one another. Yet you’re still noticing stuff that goes on in another conversation that catches your attention.”
Dixieland might seem like the antithesis of Lou Grassi’s other work, but the drummer has long been a champion of the music. He immersed himself while playing in a workshop ensemble directed by valve trombonist Marshall Brown. “Mostly, when you think of Dixieland, you think of the sing-along, hokey stuff,” he says. “But there’s a great body of repertoire of that music. Once I became aware of that, I became interested in playing the music, and I researched it a bit.” (He also toured with ragtime pianist Max Morath in the mid-’80s.)
Grassi played with Warren Vache Sr. and the Syncopatin’ Seven, which lead to the drummer’s first European tour in 1989. It was during that trip he met German pianist Andreas Bottcher, with whom he has recorded two CDs. (Another German pianist, Ursel Schlicht, has recorded with Grassi as well, on the Cadence release Sound Quest.)
While he loves Dixieland, Grassi’s reputation has grown due to his work in freer settings. One of his most enticing groups is the Nu Band, which came together when Grassi and trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr. discussed the idea of forming a group made of players who don’t normally perform with one another. Bassist Joe Fonda and saxophonist Mark Whitecage quickly filled out the lineup, and by the Nu Band’s third performance, in early 2001 at Rochester’s Bop Shop, they had a recording under their belts, Live at the Bop Shop (Clean Feed). “It’s about teamwork, everybody being there for the music, not for their own purposes,” Grassi says. “This band is definitely that way.”
Grassi is also featured on saxophonist William Gagliardi’s new Nhlahla (The Miracle Child) (CIMP) CD, along with guitarist Ken Wessel, bassist David Hofstra and trumpeter John Carlson. (A second CD recorded at the same time as Nhlahla (The Miracle Child) will be released soon.) All but Carlson appeared on Gagliardi’s 2002 debut, Music Is the Meditation (CIMP).
Gagliardi is even more of a latecomer to the scene than Grassi, since his debut didn’t come until he was 54 years old. “He was off the scene for 20 to 25 years,” Grassi says. “He worked in wedding bands but was still writing music everyday.”
After the coffee and chat Grassi makes his way back to the Public Health Auditorium to reconvene with the Nu Band. A handwritten sign taped to the front door indicates the concert has been moved to an auditorium a few blocks away and pushed back an hour. The confusion resolved, the Nu Band’s van casually follows a concertgoer who offers directions to the Frick Fine Art Auditorium.
At 56, Grassi is grateful that a group like the Nu Band can hit the road and find places to play its music, which makes nuisances like this delay seem minor. After years of playing out of the spotlight, the drummer seems excited whenever he finds a receptive audience waiting to hear him.
Whether it’s called creative improvised music avant-garde jazz or free-Grassi doesn’t mind-this is the style he loves best, but it isn’t all he wants to play. “I love to swing hard, too,” he admits.
“I play differently in all the different projects that I’ve done. To me, it’s all about serving the music.”
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“Yesterday, I listened to Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. A lot of the time I end up listening to things that I’m working on, my own projects. As I’m preparing for a record date, I’ll listen to rehearsal tapes and try to improve my approach to the music.”
Lou Grassi has two drum kits-one by Sonor that dates to the late 1960s and one by Gretsch. Both are the same size: 18-inch bass drum, 8-inch x 12-inch mounted tom, 14-inch x 14-inch floor tom. He has a Gretsch Gladstone snare drum, “probably from the ’30s or ’40s,” that is 14-inches x 6 1/2-inches.
Cymbals: His setup uses two ride cymbals, a crash, hi-hat and a couple of small splash cymbals. Grassi uses and endorses Paiste, but he also has some vintage K. Zildjians. “They say ‘Made in Turkey,’ then it’ll either say ‘Istanbul’ or the ones that are even older say ‘Constantinople.'”