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Review: Henry Grimes at Cafe Oto

Henry Grimes at Cafe Oto, 12th December 2011
Drawing by Geoff Winston. All Rights Reserved

Henry Grimes / Paul Dunmall / Roger Turner
(Café Oto, Monday 12 December 2011.  Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Still waters run deep. There is something special about Henry Grimes. It’s in his eyes. It’s in his playing. It’s in his poetry. Determination and belief are embedded in his bearing, yet there is a poignant, distant aspect to his gaze, hinting at an entirely different landscape, reflecting, maybe, his hand-to-mouth existence, working as janitor and labourer, and sustained by writing poetry during all those years. Then, suddenly, he’d beam with great warmth at the end of a set, when he allowed his concentration to relax.

Tracked down in 2002 by long-time fan, Marshall Marrotte, after 35 years away from the music he played with Ayler, Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Monk and a host of other key players in the 60s, and encouraged by William Parker, who donated bass and bow after Margaret Grimes had put out the call, Grimes has thrived ever since. Asked about the years in the wilderness, Grimes rationalises obliquely – “I stopped playing in order to eyeball my own perspective better.” *

This was an evening of contrasting sets, the first with Henry playing solo on bass and violin, the second, a renascence of The Profound Sound Trio (recorded by Porter Records in 2008), with heavyweights Paul Dunmall on saxes and Roger Turner, taking over Andrew Cyrille’s spot on drums.

Henry Grimes’s performance was a meditation on the double bass – no more, no less. He worked with the instrument, bringing out its rich, chestnutty resonances right from the start, exploring its possibilities with a quiet clarity of intent. A combination of his huge experience and a wonderful openness.

Henry Grimes at Cafe Oto, 12th December 2011 Drawing by Geoff Winston. All Rights Reserved

In preparation for the performance, Grimes, wearing a jet black headband and elegant grey attire, sat at the back of the stage, attuning himself with the room and the arriving audience. His onstage entrance revealed a diffidence, a shyness, in the delivery of one of his poems, before he picked up the bass (not his now legendary green ‘Olive Oil’) and his first pizzicato notes resonated marginally with the onstage snare, before the drum was attended to – in an interesting parallel, just as the musical bass notes in Anri Sala’s recent film installation intentionally caused a snare drum to vibrate in the Serpentine Gallery.

The pace was even, there were no pyrotechnics, nothing gratuitous. No licks, no riffs, no easy catch phrases – just Grimes plucking or bowing the instrument. With strong, nimble fingers, which he’d always exercised throughout the lean times, he communicated a deep inner equilibrium, a rare link with a darker, personal zone, where words are left behind. And that steadiness has always been with him, as clarinettist Perry Robinson has recalled: “Henry said that when he played he used to imagine himself walking on an endless conveyor belt, just constantly moving forward at a regular pace. … It’s a magic momentum that’s always moving; you’re walking, but at the same time you’re being conveyed because the rhythm is carrying you.” **

Grimes thinks in structures, and hints of Bach – linking back to Grimes’s classical training at the Juilliard – reconciled his innate feel for abstraction with a gently expressed mathematical precision.

Henry Grimes at Cafe Oto, 12th December 2011 Drawing by Geoff Winston. All Rights Reserved

In an exquisite interlude, Grimes, on violin, was joined by singer/voice artist, Elaine Mitchener, for a glittering, exotic musical conversation, a complex, witty emotive discourse, close to the high-pitched calls of animals and birds – their second performance together – the first one having been the night before in Ghent, Belgium (with David Toop).

With Turner, who turned from power percussion to the softest of touches with mallet and brush, and Dunmall, whose muscular delivery drew on Rollins and Coltrane, Grimes quickly found his level. Their thunderous opening threatened to engulf Grimes, but he quickly responded as the sound levels were adjusted. When they picked up the pace, Grimes defined the rhythmic route. Intense passages, recalling Ayler’s groups, were interposed with muted pauses where each played off the other. Dunmall’s light soprano sequences and Turner’s games with hand-held cymbals were the counters to the hardball assaults, and gave Grimes the space to make his core connections right down in the depths of the music.

Henry Grimes: double bass
Paul Dunmall: tenor and soprano saxophones
Roger Turner: percussion
Guest: Elaine Mitchener: voice

* ‘ A fireside chat with Henry Grimes‘ by Fred Jung at All About Jazz, 13 November 2003

**Perry Robinson: ‘The Traveler’ by Perry Robinson and Florence Wetzel

henrygrimes.com

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