In our growing series in which jazz musicians do a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, composer/arranger, saxophonist and LondonJazz contributor Charles Rees looks at the legacy of one of the leading lights of the post-Coltrane generation, Steve Grossman (1951-2020).
Steve Grossman was born in New York into a middle-class Jewish family in 1951. His mother was an amateur pianist, his father was president of an audio company, and he also had an uncle who was a former professional saxophonist. The Grossman brothers were thus encouraged to learn instruments, and Steve especially displayed great musical ability from a young age. It is said that he was transcribing Charlie Parker when he was eight or nine years old, and that he was fluent in John Coltrane’s improvisatory language at sixteen; he was arguably the first saxophonist to truly assimilate and master it.
His first break came at eighteen when Miles Davis hired him to replace Wayne Shorter. He toured with and recorded several albums with Miles, most notably Tribute to Jack Johnson in 1969. Following his departure from the Miles Davis group, he was hired by Elvin Jones as the second saxophonist in his quartet. He made several more recordings while with Elvin, Live at the Lighthouse being the most widely acclaimed. He also released his debut as a leader in 1973 and went on to form a group of his own with bassist Gene Perla and drummer Don Alias, adopting the collective name Stone Alliance.
Grossman continued recording through the latter years of the ’70s, but was also developing a pernicious drug habit in this era. This seems to have eventually caught up with him around 1979, at which point he all but disappeared off the scene for roughly five years (especially as a leader). To everyone’s surprise, when he reemerged in 1984, he sounded like Sonny Rollins! Sadly, with players like Michael Brecker emerging at this time, Grossman became peripheral in the minds of the generations that followed. And, though I cherish many of his later records, I acknowledge that he was rapidly passing out of his prime.
He passed away nearly two years ago, aged 69. I have become incredibly influenced by his playing in this time, connecting with it in a way I can only compare to how I connected with Charlie Parker’s playing. This sense of connection has led me to spend the last few months interviewing his surviving friends and peers. Those will form part of future features. My hopes in doing this are that his significance will be better understood, and that posthumous recognition will be raised.
In the meantime, I have compiled a list of my ten favourite Steve Grossman tracks. For anyone unfamiliar with his music, it should serve as a decent introduction to, and overview of, his music:
1. “Slumber” from Chick Corea‘s The Sun (1971)
The lineup on this record – Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (plus Grossman) – is borrowed from the Miles Davis group of the late ’60s/early ’70s (Corea having hired his fellow bandmates for this, his fourth album project). Interestingly, the album ends up sounding more akin to the John Coltrane quartet of the mid-60’s than any Miles project; chief among the reasons is Steve Grossman, whose tone, language and presence here absolutely radiate Trane. My pick from the album is a Dave Liebman tune called “Slumber”. Grossman’s solo is best described as burning and is especially unbelievable when you consider that he was just 19 at the time of this recording!
Sadly The Sun is a hard album to come by, having never (to my knowledge) been released digitally. Vinyl copies are few and far between and unaffordable to most. Though hopefully this will be corrected in the near future, for now the easiest way to listen to this track is via the YouTube video above (skip to 06.44 minutes in).
2. “Bright Piece” with the Elvin Jones Quartet, Live at Carnegie Hall (1973)
The lineup here is the same one Elvin Jones recorded his famous Live at the Lighthouse album with. This particular track, captured live at Carnegie Hall, is – incidentally – another composition by Dave Liebman, who plays soprano here. Additionally, on bass is Gene Perla, who (so the story goes) convinced Jones to hire Grossman, on tenor here, for the quartet. Elvin worked with many saxophonists in the ’70s and beyond, but none ever really came close to unleashing the kind of raw emotion and energy in his playing that Coltrane could; except arguably Grossman. This tenor solo is another example of him channeling his hero, but this time, with the addition of Elvin, one could almost close their eyes and imagine the soloist to actually be Trane! (Though, the language is a little more post-Trane than the previous track.)
3. “Haresah” from Some Shapes to Come (1973)
Some Shapes to Come was Grossman’s debut album as a leader. It was difficult to pick between a couple of its tracks – thus “Pressure Point” deserves a special mention – but, in the end, I settled on “Haresah”.
It is a fairly simple tune, but certainly one of Grossman’s most memorable compositions: the vamp in the bass (Gene Perla) and keyboard (Jan Hammer) parts is absolutely infectious. While the melody is equally catchy, the tune is probably more a vehicle for solos than anything else – the screaming soprano blow is archetypal Grossman. Interestingly, as it also features Don Alias on drums and percussion, this album is in many ways not only Grossman’s debut, but also Stone Alliance’s.
4. “Duet” from Stone Alliance (1976)
Many of the jazz musicians who came of age in the ’70s honed their crafts on what has become known as the ‘loft scene’. Though some lofts became clubs, the loft jazz I refer to essentially involved jamming at apartments (or ‘lofts’) with the musician who lived there; Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Jerry Bergonzi and many others developed their respective playing in this setting. In particular, many sax players would jam one-on-one with a drummer; sometimes just two sax players who would each alternate on drums and sax (drummer Jeff Williams seemed to recall Grossman doing this). Though this recording features an actual drummer (Don Alias), its true charm to me is how it really sounds like an authentic representation – a documentation – of what these sax/drum jams would have been all about.
5. “Sweetie-Pie” from Stone Alliance (1976)
This Don Alias composition has to be one of the grooviest recordings ever made. The tune is markedly simple, only really featuring a single bar of writing which is looped and vamped (plus blowing over a short bridge). Rather than being about complex writing, it is all about the feel and attitude… Grossman, Perla and Alias have no problems there. Sadly, in an era where fusion bands like Weather Report and the Brecker Brothers were dominant, Stone Alliance became largely overlooked. Their work never achieved the institutional support from labels and promoters that it deserved, and was instead produced and released on Perla’s independent label, PM Records. This track, and its origin album as a whole, is a good reminder of how great Stone Alliance really was.
6. “Enya” from Terra Firma (1977)
Terra Firma is essentially another Stone Alliance record, except, just as on Some Shapes to Come, with the addition of Jan Hammer on keyboards. Unlike many Grossman fans, the album is not my favourite. It pushes more towards funk and, personally, I feel it sounds more dated than his other records. Even this track, a Grossman composition, has a slightly cheesy bridge. Nevertheless, I do love it for one simple reason: multi-tracked Steve Grossman… what a sound! Not to mention the PHAT fourths effect in the bass.
7. “Who Got?” from George Ohtsuka’s Maracaibo Cornpone (1978)
Richie Beirach introduced this track to me just a few months ago, but Grossman’s solo on it has already become one of my favourites. The tune is a 12-bar minor blues based around the symmetrical augmented scale (made up of minor thirds and semitones), originally written by Richie with Dave Liebman in mind. From the first note of his solo, Grossman completely disregards the suggested harmony, coming in on the natural 6… it sounds fantastic! …especially with the band reacting so fast.
8. “Easy to Love” from Love Is the Thing (1985)
Grossman recorded nothing as a leader for five years after 1979. During this studio hiatus, a developing obsession with Sonny Rollins materialised in his playing, by 1984 leading him to his homecoming record Way Out East. The title and its tenor/bass/drums lineup is obviously a tip of the hat to Rollins’ Way Out West, which, though a nice homage, doesn’t quite live up to the heights he achieved in the prior decade. The album that followed, however, was Love Is the Thing, and it’s arguably Grossman’s finest work after the ’70s. This track is, in my opinion, the best the album has to offer; I even believe it’s a strong contender for his best recorded solo. The ending in particular puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.
9. “Star Eyes” from Ray Mantilla‘s Synergy (1986)
By this point in 1986, Grossman’s Trane and Newk influences really seemed to have come together… case in point, this version of “Star Eyes” with Ray Mantilla. Comparing it with his version on Way Out East just two years earlier, his evolving influences are especially noticeable. And the latin feel on this version actually seems to work better for his ideas, which flow more naturally than before. The recording quality leaves something to be desired, causing both Grossman and Dick Oatts‘ tones to be negatively impacted. Nevertheless, they both sound to be revelling in the opportunity to stretch out on this standard, making for a most enjoyable listening experience.
10. “415 Central Park West” from Time to Smile (1993)
Time to Smile was the first Grossman recording I heard. It doesn’t necessarily represent what most fans love about his music, and he is probably not in his prime by this point, but it still hooked me from the moment I pressed play and heard this first track. Returning to his side is Elvin Jones, who plays superbly throughout (even more than usual), driving Grossman closer to what he was doing twenty years earlier than any one else ever did. Tom Harrell, one of a handful of trumpet players to be booked on a Grossman recording, complements the setting nicely with his characteristically warm, lyrical, and harmonically precise style. The album is a little disorganised, but the playing from all around more than makes up for any shortcomings. I would go so far as to say this was probably Steve Grossman’s final great record.
RELATED ARTICLES: Damon Brown’s tribute to Steve Grossman (1951-2020)
Steve Grossman full discography
Categories: 10 Tracks I Can't Do Without