Steve Grover Quartet: Haiku

Short and sweet

Steve Grover brings his Quartet back for Haiku

Do the kids still read Jack Kerouac? Is he still a favorite of high school English teachers who want to see which kids have potential?

Let’s hope so. His was an electric intelligence that flowed unpredictably and burrowed into a subject.

Drummer/composer Steve Grover, who does happen to teach at UMaine-Augusta, Bowdoin, Bates, is doing his best to keep his memory alive. He referenced him with two songs on 2011’s Statement, and now calls his latest work, Haiku (his tenth full-length, available at CD Baby and at iTunes), inspired by Kerouac and fellow mid-century poet William Carlos Willams.

Of course, it’s On the Road those high school teachers assign, but Kerouac was a deep examiner of Buddhism and embraced the haiku, writing hundreds in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His and Williams’ “American haikus” expanded upon the natural association of the form, etching thoughts on seasons, the landscape, and the outdoors, but also the human condition and what it all means (there’s some debate about whether they were actually writing senryu, but that doesn’t seem overly important).

Try to forget all that horrible haiku you were forced to write in English class, and the horribly tone deaf uses of the form for humor or faux intellectualism (I’m looking at you, Peter King). And try not to just put this record on and then proceed to do something else. It wants your full attention.

The list of hyperbolic things I’ve written about Steve Grover is already embarrassing, but he deserves all of the accolades, for the pieces he puts together and the musicians he coaxes great things out of.

In this go-round of his clean, classic, bop-styled jazz, he’s got three long-time partners making up his Quartet: bassist Chris Van Voorst Van Beest, who goes as far back as 2000’s Remember right through to Statement; pianist Frank Carlberg, who also was on Remember, and with Van Beest again on Breath, in 2003, plus Blackbird Suite (1997) and Consideration (1999); and tenor saxophonist Andrew Rathbun, who was on Breath, as well. 

They were comfortable together 15 years ago, so it’s no wonder they sound effortless now. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the album is the anticipation of who’s going to be featured on which song and what each player is going to do with that freedom.

Allen Ginsburg went so far as to say in The Paris Review of Kerouac that he was “the only master of the haiku” in the United States (talk about hyperbolic), but it’s certainly true that the form played to Kerouac’s desperate need to boil a subject down to its essence. Similarly, Grover and company are masters of saying much with few notes. The drum break in “Soup” rolls and skips in the snare and toms, but is really all about the nonchalant cymbal work, unpredictable like a flickering fire. “Waning Moon” opens with Rathbun tossing notes into the air only to let them drop with parachutes attached. And Van Beest finishes it with a spare solo that’s sublime in its reserve.

[Editor’s Note: Steve took down the original piece I had embedded from the album, so here’s a tun he still has up, called “Don Won.”]

There are any number of nods to nature and the seasons here, too. The album’s opening tracks, “The River’s Edge” and “The Waters,” are both full of raging rapids, Rathbun firing into “Edge” and hopping from rock to rock in “Waters.” Grover is particularly lyrical in the latter tune, using his sticks on the cymbals to introduce the piece like a Greek chorus and then guide it to a sputtering halt at the finish, the stream never quite making it to the ocean.

And in “Little Birds” Carlberg’s high-up piano work is every bit the delicate and wet sparrow feet of zen poet Shiki, oft-referenced by the beats.

Rathbun’s sax there might be a touch over the top, squawking like a seagull, and the pull back four minutes into “Mist” is more movie-soundtrack than you’d normally hear on a Grover album, but the conversation between Rathbun and Carlberg in “Mist” is like something out of a David Mamet script and Carlberg’s open of “The Delusion of Existence” is Kerouac’s wildflower on the side of a mountain, humble and meditating and maybe just a little bit glum.

Yes, Kerouac was fond of pondering solitary items against the backdrop of wide expanse, and perhaps what Grover does best in his composition is create moments where you can’t imagine anything else going on in the world but that particular instrument being played at that particular time.

Seventeen syllables? That’s more than enough.

(Special thanks in this piece to Penguin’s Book of Haikus, by Jack Kerouac, edited by Regina Weinreich.)