Steve Grossman was, simply put, a child prodigy. I remember seeing a photo of him at summer band camp (or was it Tanglewood?) when he was 13 years old, standing with Peter Erskine, who was around 10; Steve’s face was so pure and angelic but at the same time had seriousness of intent, even at that age (as did Peter’s). Then just a couple years later, I started hearing about this 15-year-old alto saxophonist who was sitting in regularly with the Elvin Jones trio at Pookie’s Pub, a small bar across the street from the original Half Note on Hudson Street, where I was playing regularly with either the Clark Terry or Duke Pearson Big Band on weekends. Some of us would head over and hear Elvin during the breaks, and Grossman at 15 was already fully formed as a player—and soft-spoken and shy, as kids that age could be.
Then, after high school, he was on the NYC loft-jazz scene. There were two main hubs: Dave Liebman’s loft on 19th Street and Gene Perla’s loft under the Williamsburg bridge. Two trains of thought. At Lieb’s place the playing was mostly free, and at Gene’s it was more structured, in “Miles-ian” mode with Don Alias and Jan Hammer on the scene, who were also often living there. We frequented both, to get the best of both worlds, so I got to watch Steve’s development first-hand, and he quickly came up with his own sinewy lines and concepts. He also became one quarter of the Grossman/Liebman/Mike Brecker/Bob Berg tenor saxophone “squad,” who practiced and played together regularly and kind of captured the tenor saxophone territory in that moment within their confines. I remember the three others giving Grossman his just kudos for having the most developed lines and original vocabulary, which was all his own. He took over Wayne Shorter’s place in Miles’ band at around 19 or 20. We all knew he would be “The One.”
I remember having a long talk with him after he joined Miles, outside my brother’s loft on 18th Street. I asked him if he had any thoughts about doing a solo record yet, and he quietly answered that he wasn’t ready yet, that he needed more “experiences”—so artfully put, and he was still all pureness of heart and intent. Then some years with Elvin Jones’ classic Live at the Lighthouse band with Liebs, Perla, and (sometimes) Hammer led to his first record as a leader on Perla’s PM Records, Some Shapes to Come, in 1974, followed by many great records with Perla and Don Alias as Stone Alliance. His playing was full of urgency on these records, and the band had a way to improvise that was full of forward motion yet they could disguise any tonal center, or rather it sounded like they were playing in all the keys at once while pushing the envelope. I hadn’t heard these records in a long time, and their intensity brought chills up my spine.
A cautionary tale, though: Somewhere along the line—and, admittedly, as it did with most of the rest of us—drugs caught up with Steve, and that was something he for one could not overcome. He became the last unabashed stoned holdout. His personality, even his physicality changed. He moved to Italy and recorded frequently in more of a Sonny Rollins stylistic conception for the rest of his life—a strange musical move, since he had his own style as a younger player, coming more out of Trane than anyone else. The records were blowing-type jam sessions for the most part, without much forethought, and the urgency wasn’t quite there as before, but recently during the pandemic they’ve been a godsend for me, since they’re all swinging, with great players (like McCoy’s trio, Cedar’s trio, etc.) and mostly standards. So I’m still playing with Steve Grossman these days, at home in my studio. And he’s still, and will always be, one hell of a player in any context, and his music will always be an inspiration for the rest of us … always.