Steve Grover Trio: Breath

Drum machine

Steve Grover takes another Breath

There should be a box on your tax forms that you could check each year to allow some of your hard-earned dollars to go toward paying Steve Grover’s taxes — income, property, sales, whatever. Anything to keep this guy in Maine. Not that he’s thinking about leaving: He’s happy teaching jazz and the history of pop music at UMaine/Augusta and, every few years or so, putting out a jazz record to document his time spent here and the compositions that have bounced into his head. But, damn, what a treasure.

grover-breathGo ahead, try and find other drummer-led jazz trios and ensembles. There aren’t many. I do know of the Daniel Glass Trio (which features an upstart vibist), Peter Erskine (who heads a piano trio), and the Whit Dickey Trio (which features an alto sax). Plus, I found a cool recording of Paul Motian leading alto saxist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell.

Notice that variety, though. Drummers playing with vibists, organ players, guitarists, pianists — we should encourage this drummer-led trio thing. Every jazz band has to have a drummer, right? And if every drummer can produce a record like Steve Grover’s new Breath [*This was originally published in November of 2003], we’d be doing pretty well. With the help of friends Frank Carlberg on the piano and Chris Van Voorst Van Beest on the bass (and a cameo by tenor saxophonist Andrew Rathbun), Grover has put together a wonderful album of jazz that ranges from the neo-classical “Intrinsic” (a “free” ballad, with no meter) to the “typical thing to do” eight-bar exchanges of the opening “Underdog.” Listen for Carlberg’s difficult rhythm exchanges between his left and right hand, and Van Beest’s aggressive high-end break, on “Apprentice.” That’s how a trio should work.

“For years I always said that my favorite thing to do was to work with three people and it didn’t matter what instruments,” says Grover of his choice for the new record. “I’ve done some stuff with guitar and saxophone and no bass. And Tony [Gaboury] and I would work in a trio from time to time. It’s just a different environment. I can take more solos and not feel like I’m sticking out.”

Which is strange, isn’t it? The bandleader not wanting to stick out? Can you imagine Benny Goodman saying, “yeah, I didn’t want to stick out on that last record”? But, of course, Grover’s playing does stick out. It’s just too good not to. Also, Grover says that he’s a bit higher in the mix than normal here, and bounces around to both sides of the stereo.

Check out his big, forceful, floor-tommy, bassy drum solo on “Spherical,” over quiet jabs by the piano continuing the melody: “I’m accompanied,” says Grover, “so I don’t have to fill everything up all the time.” It’s just great integration of the band’s talents.

He’s also accompanied for his solo on “Holiday,” where he breaks out the mallets for a Latin/samba thing. But he’s all alone on “Underdog,” where he works his snare in alternately halting and fluid gaps and rolls, and he goes full steam on his open solo during “Balance.”

The finisher, however, the beautifully intimate “Portrait #4,” featuring Rathbun, is the total package. Grover is a monster here, building anticipation while the sax takes a leave, then providing cover when it reenters with some dark swagger, and providing a crackling energy through Rathbun’s precise, ebullient phrases around the 5:20 mark. Finally the tune crests and releases, a fitting finish for a terrific disc.

Steve Grover Quintet: Between Now and After

Some mid-winter jazz

Steve Grover heats up again

Steve Grover’s newest [*This originally published in January of 2008], Between Now and After, has made its way into the public consciousness with a slow burn. It’s his fifth full-length as a bandleader/composer, his first since 2003’s Breath, and it continues his record of releasing supremely listenable and musically engaging collections of original work.

Grover-Between Now and AfterThis time, he’s assembled a quintet, with Tim Sessions on trombone the voice you probably haven’t heard before. Well, unless you’re a little bit old-school — Sessions’s tenure in Maine lasted from 1981 through 1990 before he left for New York City, where he now finds himself as part of the orchestra accompanying The Producers on Broadway. His work with David Wells, on tenor sax, really drives the new release. Yes, both solo with the best of them throughout the disc, but it’s when they explore Grover’s frameworks in tandem that you get a real treat.

They seem to be the protagonists of “The Poets Agree,” where often when the two horns are playing together they’re split between the two channels so you can focus your attention appropriately. After initial introductory phrasings, like MCs trading warm-up riffs before a battle, they truly engage, sometimes mimicking, sometimes in call-and-response, sometimes seeming to have no knowledge of the other. There’s a lot to follow here in general, but don’t miss the drum break at about 3:00, snare and cymbal heavy, with some toms coming in as Grover works up a head of steam, finally going almost all cymbal before the rest of the band returns.

Grover also re-employs long-time collaborators Tony Gaboury on guitar (his Empathy features Grover and Grover’s compositions) and Chris Van Voorst Van Beest on bass (Van Beest taught with Grover at Augusta before leaving for NYC’s larger pastures). Van Beest is impossible to miss, with a never predictable bottom-end presence that sometimes takes over songs by default. His work on “Part Time,” for example, isn’t intimidating in its difficulty, but everything in the song feeds of his repeating six-note phrases that finish up, then down, up, then down, a spinning wheel of progress, understated like the movement of history. Overall, it’s probably the best tune here, with a noirish swagger, the two horns battling it out for who’s got the biggest gun, the sharpest crease in the pants, and the most beat-up fedora.

Gaboury’s presence is the subtlest on the disc. Often, you barely notice he’s there, especially since his tone might remind you of an organ player from time to time. But his chords usually make up a song’s melodic underpinning, and his solo on the appropriately titled “One for Tony” is free and easy, like a bachelor out on a walk on a spring morning, feeling his oats, with some excellent quick moves up and down the fretboard, but still not much volume, remaining low in the mix, with the bass sometimes seeming to stand on top of it, Grover’s high hat always prominent in the right channel. Make sure to listen here for the sax and trombone feeling their oats as well, mid-tune, popping out staccato hits like fists jabbing the air.

Of course, Gover is a lover, not a fighter. No matter how many knockout albums he puts together.