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Pasquale Grasso: The Pianistic Guitarist

On an astonishing series of solo EPs, the Italian virtuoso presents a distinct approach to his instrument

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Pasquale Grasso (photo: Deneka Peniston)
Pasquale Grasso (photo: Deneka Peniston)

As I absorbed Pasquale Grasso’s performances seriatim on the Sony Masterworks digital EP releases Solo Standards, Solo Ballads, Solo Monk, Solo Bud Powell, and Solo Bird, two aural illusions emerged. Frequently, it seemed that a pair of virtuoso guitarists were in synchronous dialogue. A less frequent but equally palpable trompe l’oreille was the sensation that Grasso’s nimble fingers had prestidigitatiously transformed his guitar strings into 88 piano keys, all the better to apply his comprehensive, creative refraction of the language of Art Tatum and Bud Powell: the long arpeggiated runs, the harmonic extensions, the disjunctive comping, the complex rhythmic shapes, the impeccable pocket, the poetic sensibility.

In point of fact, Grasso, who recorded the tracks in 2017 and 2018, generated every note, chord, and voicing on his signature Trenier guitar, unmediated by post-production overdubbing or sonic manipulation. His tonal personality is unique, not only for the abundant imagination and prodigious execution with which he tells his stories, but also for the aesthetic focus that they signify. 

Grasso’s wheelhouse is prebop and bebop. He uses a restored 1953 Gibson GA-50 amp. He eschews the postbop harmonic extensions that inspire the preponderance of Millennial, Gen-X, and Boomer jazzfolk. He shuns the plugged-in onomatopoeia—feedback loops, distortion-skronk, alternate tunings—that so many post-Miles Davis guitarists customarily deploy in their narratives. Although he grew up on a farm in Ariano Irpino, a hillside town of 20,000 in Campania, three hours from Naples and four hours from Rome, where his grandmother made olive oil and raised pigs and chickens and lambs, Grasso, 32, conjures the notion of a missing link: a heretofore unknown mid-century virtuoso who’d developed a fresh, original bop argot in contemporaneous response to his heroes’ terms of engagement.

“The only pedal I have is my footstool,” Grasso told me at the dinner hour in early April via Zoom, on which he’d spent the day teaching students at SUNY Purchase. Restored by a pre-conversation walk and an espresso, Grasso related that the EP project began to gestate in 2012, soon after he received his degree in classical guitar from Bologna’s Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini, obtained an artist visa, moved to New York, and took a solo Sunday cocktail-hour engagement at Mezzrow, the Greenwich Village duo room.

“I did that gig for a few years, and got together some repertoire,” Grasso said, in fluent, lightly accented English. “I transcribed some piano solos by Tatum and Powell, as well as Thelonious Monk, Billy Kyle, and some 

Teddy Wilson, just to see how they were doing it. I love Joe Pass but was never a big fan of solo guitar—the jazz style. I always loved piano players. My ears wanted that sound.”

A few years into this Sunday sinecure, Grasso was still operating in relative obscurity. But his peer group knew what was what. One admirer was Peter Bernstein, himself a master bebop practitioner, who played several two-guitar quartet gigs with Grasso in 2020. 

“Guitar players like Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow really absorbed the bebop language,” Bernstein says. “To different degrees, so did everyone from Kenny Burrell to Jim Hall to Grant Green to Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t as much of a direct translation from Bud Powell. Pasquale has really figured out the linear part of bebop (Bird), and what Bud Powell did (and Barry Harris) in playing pianistic voice-leading things, the way he wrote out for bass lines and all the contrary motion in his approach. I love that music, so to hear a guitar player get so deep inside it—what’s not to love? Pasquale is an example of someone who’s like, ‘What obstacles?’” 

Another fan was Pat Metheny, who told Vintage Guitar magazine in 2016 that Grasso was “the best guitar player I’ve heard in maybe my entire life.” “I am often prone to enthusiastic exaggeration … lol,” Metheny clarified in a recent email, before elaborating on Grasso’s qualities. He wrote: “Pasquale’s connection with a quite specific area of the music that had been largely defined by piano players is notable for the diligence that is required to achieve the level of fluency he has gotten to in that realm—difficult on any instrument, but especially on guitar. It puts him in a category of his own. But to me, those materials, as viable as they are, are secondary to what makes Pasquale so special. It is his innate musicality and musical spirit that shines through.”

Before that Vintage Guitar article appeared, veteran producer Matt Pierson (whose résumé includes multiple albums by Metheny, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Bob James) heard Grasso’s solo set. “I was like, ‘Why doesn’t everybody know about this guy?’” Pierson says. “I’d never heard anyone play guitar like this—the incredible ballad playing, the sense of melody and orchestration and storytelling, pulling off two and sometimes three things at once.” He adds that soon thereafter, during the “Who have you been hearing?” portion of a phone call with Metheny, the guitar icon told him, “Man, you’ve got to hear this guy named Pasquale Grasso.” 

Pierson faithfully attended Grasso’s shows, proposed they work together, and convinced Sony Masterworks to record him. “I wanted to release five solo tracks a month: an EP every month for 10 months, with one focus track a month for the streaming platforms, until we’d recorded 50 tracks,” Pierson says. “I thought solo was a great way to connect people to his personality. Also, it was affordable; we’d record 15 tracks at one session, then go in a few weeks later and do another 15. Once we released this string of recordings, we’d start recording him in other settings. For various reasons, it ended up as a two-year project, but that gave each issue a bigger window to find an audience—and when the pandemic came, we had material left to release.” 

“The only pedal I have is my footstool.”

New York Dreams

Before Pierson caught Grasso at Mezz-row, he’d seen him at Smalls in a band that included saxophonist Chris Byars, pianist Sasha Perry, and bassist Ari Roland. All native New Yorkers, they’d played together hundreds of times since their early teens, when they gleaned theory from Barry Harris and applied it in encounters with such no-nonsense bebop elders as C. Sharpe, Frank Hewitt, Jimmy Lovelace, and Leroy Williams. They were the band at Smalls in 2009 when Grasso, 19, on his first night ever in New York, came by with his alto-saxophonist older brother Luigi, whose devotion to Charlie Parker parallels Pasquale’s to Bud Powell. 

“We looked at each other and were like, ‘This is where we have to be,’” Grasso says. After he sat in, Roland, Byars, and Perry felt similarly. “It was like he’d been there with us the whole time in terms of what he was concentrating on, the deep dive he’d already made,” says Roland, whose deft arco improvisations match Grasso’s legerdemain. He and Grasso bonded—Roland estimates that during the past decade, when both are in New York, they play together, in one context or another, “a minimum of six times a week. 

“Pasquale was part of the group right away, so to speak,” Roland continues, noting Grasso’s seamless transition into this tight-knit cohort of Gen-X purists, as well as the bands of saxophonist Charles Davis and pianist Freddie Redd, themselves both master boppers. “I heard his existential affinity with Bud Powell, combined with the classical training that enables him to put it on the guitar.”

Grasso’s identification with Powell—and the New York gestalt—dates to early childhood. “All our lives we were listening mainly to music that was made in New York, by people who were either born there or migrated there,” Luigi says. “These people gave New York a lot of energy. It’s still there. You can hear it in Monk’s music and Bird’s music and Bud’s music—the tragedy and joy and strength of all of it. New York has its dark side, and their music has a dark side as well as light. But we always dreamed about New York, and tried to project ourselves into it, which is why we got so comfortable there.”

Luigi was Pasquale’s earliest inspiration. He started playing alto saxophone at seven at the suggestion of a pediatrician who suggested it might ameliorate his asthma. Luigi’s learning curve was rapid, and five-year-old Pasquale told his parents—his father, Rocco, was an auto mechanic; his mother, Anna, now a nurse, was then home with her children; both were informed fans of jazz and classical music—that he wanted to start playing. His father took him to the local music store to find an instrument.

“As soon as I saw the guitar, I was in love,” Grasso says. “It was a normal-sized guitar, but my dad got it for me after I promised to practice. My mom learned music with us—she bought a book and taught us solfeggio, how to read music. She’d show us the notes on the piano, then tell us to turn around, [and then] play a note and have us identify it. She discovered that we had perfect pitch; we were lucky to have good ears, because that’s what’s important.

“I had a cassette of George Benson, which I played so much that I ruined it. At some point Luigi told me, ‘No more George Benson; here is a recording of Bud Powell—listen to this!’ I loved it. That’s when I decided what I wanted to do in life. Later I remember getting the first volume of Art Tatum’s Solo Masterpieces, and I listened for 24 hours. It was so great I couldn’t stop.”

Pasquale Grasso. (photo: Deneka Peniston)
Pasquale Grasso. (photo: Deneka Peniston)

Travels with Barry

By the time Luigi was 11 and Pasquale was nine, they were performing locally—repertoire like “My Little Suede Shoes,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “’Round Midnight” (“my father’s favorite”). Their parents’ proactive ministrations further accelerated their development.

“My dad recorded Sonny Rollins concerts that RAI-TV broadcast in the middle of the night for us to watch, and he got records every month by people like Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Byas,” Grasso says. Circa 1997, Rocco and Anna initiated a Saturday ritual of picking up the boys after school for a 3½-hour drive to a suburb of Rome to take a lesson with Agostino Di Giorgio, a New York-born guitarist and pedagogue who’d studied with bop master Chuck Wayne. Di Giorgio had been part of Barry Harris’ circle before moving to Italy, and at his urging, in the summer of 1998, the Grasso family drove 14 hours to Switzerland for a Harris workshop.

“I remember that Barry played ‘I Want to Be Happy’ as soon as we got to class,” Grasso says. “We were so happy; it was the best feeling I ever had. Barry was coming to Europe once a year—we attended workshops in Spain and Holland and Switzerland. Then he started doing the workshop in Rome twice a year. That was a little better, because it was closer. The workshops lasted a week; Barry taught 12 hours a day. Great musicians came from all over. We’d record everything with a MiniDisc player, then transcribe and practice everything he’d taught when we got home. That was our game. All I did was go to school and practice guitar. I couldn’t wait to get out of school because I wanted to transcribe a Bud Powell solo.”

There’s a YouTube video from 2004 in which Harris, playing a concert in Verona, introduces Pasquale and Luigi—who by then were functioning as teaching assistants at his workshops—as “the two best young musicians in the world.” Both brothers regard Harris as a surrogate grandfather. “I think our relationship got so good because we love Bud Powell in the same way,” Pasquale says. “He figured out Bud’s stuff but has his own sound, his own touch, his own phrasing. He wasn’t trying to transcribe every little thing. Barry says that sometimes you couldn’t get what Bud was doing because your ear was too slow. So everybody would come out with different stuff.”

“Jazz guitarists play chords or play melody, but the classical guys play chords and melody together—like a piano, like a small orchestra. I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do with jazz.’”

Grasso began the process of actualizing the sound in his mind’s ear after viewing a video of the eminent classical guitarist David Russell. “I was shocked because of the amazing sound and touch and the way that he was playing,” he recalls. “I thought I should study classical guitar to really learn the instrument. Jazz guitarists play chords or play melody, but the classical guys play chords and melody together—like a piano, like a small orchestra. I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do with jazz.’ My technique was okay, but there was something missing.”

Again following the lead of Luigi, who had already matriculated at the Bologna Conservatory, Pasquale enrolled in 2008. “By my second year, I started to see that my hands worked better,” he says. “I was more coordinated. My touch improved. The hard thing is how to play legato on the guitar, how to finger the pianistic stuff. That’s the challenge for art, to find a way that makes it work. But that’s just practicing and trying to figure it out.”

Luigi adds: “Pasquale came up with something that mixes his classical playing with jazz picking with the right hand, which comes from Chuck Wayne and Agostino Di Giorgio. He amazed me, because when he transcribed something, he would stay on it and investigate it for months and months. It was obvious that what he was doing wasn’t easy, and it was remarkable to see how strongly he wanted to get that sound and find the gestures on guitar.”

Pasquale Grasso (photo: Deneka Peniston)
Pasquale Grasso (photo: Deneka Peniston)

Freedom and Romance

It’s interesting to contrast Grasso’s spring release, Solo Ballads, culled from the 2017-2018 sessions, with its June 2021 followup, Pasquale Plays Duke, which features five of the earlier solo tracks and seven songs that he cut in March with his working trio, comprising bassist Roland and drummer Keith Balla. Sheila Jordan, 93, channels late Billie Holiday on a haunting “Mood Indigo”; up-and-comer Samara Joy, 23, sings the bittersweet, soigné lyric of “Sophisticated Lady” with nuanced optimism. A different version of Grasso’s trio, with Kenny Washington on drums, accompanies Joy on her own eponymous, Pierson-produced debut, and later this year, Grasso and Pierson intend to record trio interpretations of “hard bop” repertoire—Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Elmo Hope, perhaps even John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice.”

“I want to play more with the trio,” Grasso says. “I love playing solo, but trio with bass and drums is what I like most. Luigi and I always played without piano when we were growing up. I was stubborn that I wanted to do the piano part. Playing trio, I can float on the time, play a melody with chords without interfering with the pianist’s chords, play certain voicings, and nobody will be bothered. I can be free to play whatever I want. Playing in the style of a pianist from the ’40s and ’50s—with the arrangement—is the sound I like.”

In Pierson’s view, Grasso’s preference for vintage repertoire does not constitute stylistic conservatism. He recalled challenging Grasso early in their relationship on his indifference to the glories of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, and Kenny Wheeler. “I said, ‘That’s all so advanced, it’s so modern,’” Pierson says. “Pasquale said, ‘What’s more modern than bebop?’ And he’s right—tritone substitution, melodic minor scales and all the parts that go into playing bebop constitute a very advanced harmonic concept. Now, is it polychordal tonality that Wayne wrote? No. But if you mention that to Pasquale, he’ll say, ‘Yeah, but here’s what Bud Powell played—that’s polytonal.’ He’s right. If you look at a Woody Shaw line with all those fourths in it, I don’t think it’s fair to say that’s more modern or more advanced than bebop. Those elements were being played by bebop musicians.”

I mentioned to Grasso Metheny’s praiseful observation in the aforementioned Vintage Guitar piece that Grasso doesn’t reference such 21st-century jazz guitar signposts as Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, or Kurt Rosenwinkel. “I really respect them; they’re all great musicians,” Grasso said. “But my favorite guitar players are Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore, and Tiny Grimes. If I want to hear some jazz guitar, that’s who I like to put on. I still think Charlie Christian is the best guitar player—nobody plays like him. What I really like about swing music and bebop and hard bop is the feel people had, the story they tell—and the fact they played for people to dance. It’s important to know the story of a song, and I love to hear the lyrics from the ’40s and ’30s. People were so romantic, so dreamy, so nice back then. I am like that. I am a dreamy person. I am a romantic guy. I love Love.”

Grasso reflected that, as he matures, his focus apparently is morphing away from overall execution and toward the specific components of the feel to which he refers: the flowing phrasing, the passion, the bounce, the melody. “During my twenties, I played unconsciously,” he said. “But over time you realize that some things work and other things don’t. I’ve changed a bit. Maybe before I would play more things. Now maybe my taste in music changed too—but I still love Art Tatum. Guitars are sensitive. If the weather changes by five or 10 degrees, or if it’s dry, it becomes a different instrument. One day you feel confident and you play more notes, more double-time. Another day you’re like, ‘I can’t do that, let’s not do that today.’ One day, if I feel anxious, I’ll play more; another day, if I feel everything is okay, I don’t play as much. The beauty of music is that every day is a little different.” 

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Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.