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Posts tagged ‘Henry Grimes’

Henry Grimes 1935-2020

Henry Grimes 2

Henry Grimes has laid down that dark green double bass for the last time. One day someone will make a feature film based on the life of a man who appeared at the end of the 1950s, appeared as a 22-year-old playing with Thelonious Monk in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, played on some pivotal recordings of the ’60s avant-garde (by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders, among others), and then disappeared at the start of the 1970s and was long presumed dead before he was found in Los Angeles, having spent 30 years working as a cleaner and a construction worker, sometimes homeless and knowing nothing about about the events that had occurred in jazz in the interim. Encouraged to return to activity, he spent the best part of 20 years playing as though he had never been away. Now he has died in a Harlem hospital, aged 85, from the coronavirus.

The photograph above is of the green bass that was sent him by William Parker, shipped from New York to LA as part of his rehabilitation. This was one snowy New York night in January 2016 at the Stone, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, where Grimes was appearing during a four-night season devoted to various line-ups curated by the saxophonist Matana Roberts. She had invited the man she described as “an inspiration for ever” to join an improvising quartet with two lesser known musicians, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride. Together they produced an exceptional set, bound together by Grimes’s strength and wisdom.

Those were the qualities he’d shown at Cafe Oto a couple of years earlier, playing alongside the drummer Chad Taylor and the guitarist Marc Ribot in the latter’s wonderful trio. There was also space for him to play a solo improvisation on the violin, his first instrument in childhood, filling the room with energy while maintaining his sphinx-like countenance.

It’s worth remembering that when Charles Mingus decided he’d rather be playing piano, he entrusted Henry Grimes with his seat in the band, and with his bass. Luckily, there are plenty of recordings by which we can remember him. Some are from the first phase of his career: Taylor’s three boiling tracks on Into the Hot, followed by Unit Structures and Conquistador; Ayler’s mighty Spirits and Spirits Rejoice; Sanders’s gorgeous Tauhid; the 1963 recordings with Sonny Rollins’s quartet (including Cherry and Billy Higgins); and Cherry’s own trio of sublime Blue Note albums, Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn?.  From his renaissance there are a couple of great albums with Ribot, Spiritual Unity (an Ayler tribute) and Live at the Village Vanguard, and an album of solo bass and violin improvisations from 2014, The Tone of Wonder.

Thank you for all of it, Mr Grimes.

* Barbara Frenz’s Music to Silence to Music, an excellent biography of Henry Grimes, was published in the UK by Northway Publications in 2015, translated from the German by J. Bradford Robinson.

Matana Roberts in Alphabet City

The StoneMatana Roberts was reminiscing about the first time she played with the great bassist Henry Grimes. It was during the New York blackout of 2004, when she was scheduled to appear at the Jazz Gallery with a group including Grimes and the pianist Vijay Iyer. She had been travelling on the L train from her home in Queens, and it had  just emerged from the tunnel under the East River when all power vanished across the length and breadth of the city.

The passengers were allowed to get out and clamber up to the surface, and she set off to cross Manhattan to the club, which in those days had its home on the west side. She got there to discover that she and Grimes were the only members of the band who had made it to Hudson Street. In response to the situation, they played duets for stranded workers. Afterwards she walked all the way back to Queens. “I would never wear heels again,” she said. “You never know when you might have to walk home.”

She told the story on Sunday, the last night of the season she was curating at the Stone, John Zorn’s bare-bones performance space in Alphabet City, on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street (seen in the photograph above). Twice nightly for six days, with a different line-up for each show, she invited groups varying in size from three to six members to improvise together for an hour or so. I made it to four of the shows, and some of the musicians I missed included the pianists Myra Melford and Jason Moran, the flautist Nicole Mitchell, the cellist Tomeka Reid, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the guitarist Liberty Ellman.

The first show I caught featured Roberts with Iyer and the koto player Miya Masaoka, creating three-part inventions of great delicacy and intricacy, the set culminating in a short piece in which they discovered a swelling, hymn-like lyricism. The following night I was impressed by the contributions of the trumpeters Nate Wooley, in the first set, and Forbes Graham, in the second.

Roberts was at pains to explain how important this season, first proposed two years ago, was to her. I suspect that the penultimate set, the one that featured a quartet including Grimes, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the drummer Mike Pride, offered particular satisfaction. Malone, she said, was one of the first people she played with after she arrived in New York. Pride had pointed her towards the paid work that kept her going. “And Mr Grimes,” she added, “has been an inspiration for ever.”

With Pride using bells and gongs as well as his regular kit and Malone flicking out fast-moving note clusters while Roberts deployed her throaty tone in a series of powerful incantations, the blend of textures and the rapt mood of the opening passages reminded me that Grimes had been a participant on Pharaoh Sanders’ Tauhid, a favourite (and nowadays somewhat under appreciated) album from 1966. But then the players stepped up their intensity, Roberts responding with passionate cries recalling Albert Ayler. It was a wonderful performance, full of wisdom and empathy, with Grimes — who turned 80 in November — a marvel throughout.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think very highly of Matana Roberts (I wrote about her last year here and here). At the Stone she led off every performance that I saw with great energy, and listened to her colleagues with the same intensity with which she played. She could be proud of the whole mini-season, but of that hour on Sunday in particular.

Ribot, Grimes & Taylor

Ribot Grimes Taylor 1

On a small table in front of the chair on which he sat to play guitar at the Cafe Oto last night, Marc Ribot had a large egg-timer. I’ve often wonderered how musicians — improvising musicians in particular — know when they’re reached the end of their alloted time. Most of them seem to have an internal clock, its calibration refined over the years. But I’ll never forget the morning after a particularly mesmerising performance by Art Pepper at St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith at the end of the ’70s, when a photographer came into the Melody Maker‘s office with a set of pictures from the concert, including one that showed the great saxophonist taking a surreptitious look at his wristwatch.

I’d be surprised if anyone was clock-watching last night. The trio of Ribot, the bassist Henry Grimes and the drummer Chad Taylor started with a medley of Albert Ayler tunes, providing the guitarist (who is probably best known for his work with Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull) with a canvas for the scrabbling, string-scrubbing, sound-splintering techniques that place him somewhere on the spectrum between Jimi Hendrix and Derek Bailey. As he eased away from adding country inflections to Ayler’s march-hymn structures and wound himself up into a state of near-catharsis, I was reminded of Robert Fripp’s startling solo on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tale” (from the album Islands), one of my favourite guitar improvisations.

There can’t have been more than a handful among the capacity crowd who were born when Grimes disappeared off the jazz map in 1970, having spent a dozen years establishing himself — via such important recordings as Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village — as one of the foremost members of an unusually gifted generation of double bassists. The story of his rediscovery more than 30 years later, living in Los Angeles, surviving on non-musical jobs, writing poetry and unaware of any developments in the music during the intervening period, has passed into legend. Now, at 77, he overflows with energy, ideas and purpose, the strength and fluidity of his playing absolutely unscarred by that extended lay-off.

The second tune of a long set began with a less than convincing rock beat but soon doubled up into fast bebop time and felt all the better for it. The third and last item opened with a slow, abstract passage in which Grimes played the violin, reminding us of his Juilliard training in the ’50s, before the adroit use of a volume pedal enabled Ribot to produce jolting note-cluster explosions. Taylor concluded the piece with a marvellous solo reminiscent of the immortal Elvin Jones, suggesting rhythm without specific metre or pulse and building excitement without the use of licks or repetition.

If Grimes’s tale reminds us how many years have passed since this music first turned the jazz world on its ear, a gig such as last night’s demonstrates how much scope it still offers to the creative mind.

* Before the first set, the audience was asked not to use recording or photographic equipment. The picture above was taken 20 minutes earlier, while the musicians were setting up their instruments. No protocols were breached.