THE JEFF GRASSL TRIO • Reshaping the Contours of Contemporary Jazz

    Additional Reporting by
    icon Feb 22, 2024
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When asked the very first memory he had of music the late great American composer & conductor Leonard Bernstein reflected how it was the first time his mother touched a piano key, because the tone coming out of it sounded like it was coming from heaven, adding how the more he learned about & studied music, the more he realized how music in essence is a language as much as a tool given to us by the grace of God to communicate with the highest aspirations of heaven.

In many ways jazz saxophonist, instrumentalist, vocalist, and composer Jeff Grassl shares similar goals when it comes to exploring the creative vistas offered through the idiom of contemporary American Jazz.  Born and raised in Minnesota, he moved to Michigan at the age of eighteen to study music & composition at Western Michigan University, and is a relative newcomer to the Great Lakes Bay Region, having migrated to the Midland area only two years ago.

Recently he decided the form a new Jazz Combo with the goal of cultivating all the discipline, fluidity, and freedom packed within its legacy of creative expression that he was eager to see pop into new directions. Called The Jeff Grassl Trio, which also features respected veteran keyboardist Pat Cronley and drummer Doug Cobb. 

Fresh off a debut performance at Creative 360 back in January, they will also be one of the featured performers at The REVIEW’s upcoming 38th Annual Music Awards Celebration, which is happening April 28th at The Westown in Bay City.

Although they share similarities, Jeff’s earliest memories of music differ somewhat from Leonard Bernstein’s.  “My earliest memories of music are either my Mom singing lullabies or my Dad playing either Led Zeppelin or The Dave Brubeck Quartet,” he reflects. “Those were  my formative origins - being 4-years old and playing with toys and hearing Zeppelin’s riff from Heartbreaker or Brubeck’s Take Five coming out of the stereo.”

“As I grew older, the artists that really got me focused and more into jazz were Louis Armstrong along with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, because to this day I love and am a deep fan of Paul Desmond’s saxophone playing. Then when I was around 10-years old, my Dad got me a CD of Count Basie and Lester Young, and then later Coleman Hawkins, and I am also heavily into New Orleans Jazz & Swing music.”

“When my family moved to Michigan when I was eighteen I remember sitting in my new house thinking what am I going to do with my life,” continues Jeff. “I wanted to go to school for music and at the time I was playing a lot of guitar & Blues Rock, so decided I wanted to go to a school for music and learn Jazz, so started playing sax instead.  Sax was actually my first instrument, but I kinda got away from it, so thought I would really learn to play this instrument,” he laughs.

In addition to sax & guitar, Jeff also plays bass and has done some singing; but in terms of influential saxophonists that he finds inspiring, he also reaches into the deep, stratospheric, albeit oft times inaccessible talents of such Jazz luminaries as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Saginaw’s own Sonny Stitt.

“Those guys came later,” continues Grassl. “When I got to Western University and started studying Jazz, those guys opened the floodgates for me, although I didn’t like those players initially. But the more I listened the more I realized they were two of the most profound musicians that ever walked the earth. Trying to dig into their music can be hard, but for me Sonny Stitt is much easier to dig into. He has the most pristine lines that I’ve ever heard and never flubs anything, or sounds like he’s working hard in any of his recordings.”

Jeff says it wasn’t until he graduated from college that he started playing in this region thanks to his good friend Rhett Yocom, an award winning guitarist & vocalist with The Rhett Yocom Blues Band, who invited him to start playing saxophone and occasionally bass with. “Because I spent most of my time in Michigan down in Kalamazoo and attending school, I wasn’t playing in this area much, which is why now you’re hearing more about me. I’ve done a lot of playing with Rhett and he got me started in the area. I’ve also worked as a gun for hire playing Blues & Soul music with The Voortex Jazz & Blues Band.”

In terms of how Jeff got the idea for forming his new Jazz trio, he says that for a long time he’s had a profound love for organ trios. “It’s something that’s been on my mind for the last 3 or 4 years and I’ve always wanted to do one. What gave me the idea was getting hired by Pat Cronley last summer for a gig, and I thought to myself - I bet he plays organ as well as piano. I wasn’t sure because not all keyboard players are organists, but Pat is an organist. An organist needs the right touch because a B3 organ can get cluttered fast and make a mess of things, but Pat has a great touch and knows when to stick out and when not to. In fact, the first time we played together as a trio I thought he kicked my ass.”

When asked about the musical goals he’s seeking to achieve working with this newly formed trio, Jeff quickly responds: “To swing hard, play the Blues, and sneak some fast tempo Bebop in there, too, for good measure.  Right now we’re mainly an instrumental group, but I might experiment more with vocals later on.”

“A huge inspiration on the horns for me right now is a relatively obscure artist named Leo Wright,” notes Jeff. “He played with Dizzy Gillespie and is one of the most soulful sax players I’ve ever heard, plus he did a bunch of stuff with organ accompaniment in the 1960s, so I have that particular sound rattling round in my head with a goal of blending all those elements together with this new trio.  We do a few of my originals as well, so right now our show consists of a mix of jazz repertoire with a few of my originals thrown in there for good measure.”

“I actually write quite a bit, but it depends upon who I’m writing for,” he adds. “I wrote a lot of music while in school and would sometimes be enlisted to write an instrumental or a Blues song, but for right now I’m through about five original songs we’re developing.”

When asked the most challenging component involve with developing his Jazz trio, Jeff references humility. “You have to be honest with yourself, about where you’re at, and what needs to be done,” he states.

“It’s easy to get caught up with whatever one is involved with in life and not put the time in to do what you need to do, but Bebop takes a lot of stamina and a particular musical language, so you almost need to train like a prize fighter.” 

Jeff says another big goal with the trio is to obtain bookings at some of the old Jazz haunts down in Detroit such as Cliff Bells and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, along with the Detroit Jazz Festival, and notes how he has an unrelated gig at Baker’s later this month with a fusion group somebody is putting together and getting off the ramp and onto the runway with.

“It’s a very collaborative process when we play together,” concludes Jeff.

“I come into each show with a plan and then open it to input and feedback from Pat & Doug. The more answers I communicate to them the better feedback they provide; but yeah, improvisation is a lot of what jazz is about. Generally you set things up with a general structure of melody, allowing space for everybody to do a solo, closing with the melody because it allows more structure and makes it easier for everybody to process musical information and make tasteful decisions. Keeping up with Pat & Doug can be a daunting task, ,but we definitely have some amazing music in the works.”

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