“He had an amazing sound on tenor. He was ahead of everyone…and he was the best one…he was the most advanced and the most… just he had that f…ing sound!” Pianist/composer Richie Beirach talks about the indelible mark left by Steve Grossman, who died two years ago this month, aged 69.
From the generation of Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, Dave Liebman and Bob Berg, Steve Grossman is frequently thought of as the greatest; he is certainly the most forgotten. And yet his story continues to resonate among his surviving friends and contemporaries.
This conversation with Richie Beirach is the first of a five-part series about Steve Grossman. Interview by Charles Rees.
American-born pianist, composer, educator and author Richie Beirach has enjoyed an eventful career in jazz over the past fifty plus years. After graduating with a composition degree in 1972 from the Manhattan School of Music, he quickly found himself in a rhythm section with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette touring with Stan Getz. He went on to compose several tunes for Chet Baker, who he would go on to tour with, as well as touring and recording with guitarists John Abercrombie and John Scofield. His lengthly recording career includes albums for such labels as ACT and, most notably, ECM. Since the ’80s, Beirach has, focused on solo piano as well as working with players such as George Mraz, Billy Hart and Gregor Hübner. He is perhaps best known for his long running musical association and friendship with saxophonist Dave Liebman, with whom he has co-led bands including Lookout Farm and Quest.
London Jazz News: Tell me a bit about how you first met Steve Grossman?
Richie Beirach: I met Steve in 1968 through Dave Liebman, who he was very close with and who I’m still close with every day. They were buddies, like sax buddies, you know. When Steve turned 18, he got the call to play with Miles [Davis]to follow Wayne [Shorter], which was amazing. Then he joined, and that’s a whole other story, but I was there and I knew Steve to be brilliant, precocious, genius… he was sounding like Charlie Parker when he was 14 or 15. His big brother Hal played Bird for him and he absorbed it like a sponge.
I remember him at jam sessions all over Manhattan, especially in Lieb’s loft on 19th Street. We played a lot of stuff together; a lot of free music, a lot of improvised music, some tunes. He had an amazing sound on tenor. He was ahead of everyone, I must say. It was him and Michael [Brecker]Lieb, [Bob] Mintzer, Bob Berg; those were the guys, and he was the best one. I mean, best is a horrible word, but he was the most advanced and the most… just he had that f…ing sound! It was Sonny and Trane. Grossman was just ahead of us all. He was getting his own sound, his own way of playing.
LJN: Did he ever talk to you about his time with Miles Davis?
RB: He had a hard time with Miles. It was not easy walking in after Wayne, because Wayne was there six years and Wayne is Wayne; the composer and genius improviser. And the rhythm section, I mean with Chick [Corea], Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave Holland; they were into their own thing, I must say. I love that rhythm section, I knew all those guys and played with them, but they were not so supportive of Steve, I must say. I remember they didn’t treat him with as much respect as they should have. Of course, Wayne was the top of Everest, and then there was this young kid.
Miles loved him; he used him on five recordings. Miles understood, he knew he wanted Steve. But Steve was 18, and Miles’s band was the most important in the world, really, in terms of forward and innovation and new shit. It wasn’t nostalgia bebop, it wasn’t Dexter [Gordon] and wasn’t crazy free shit; it was still tunes, compositions… and the beginning of fusion.
Steve was just natural, that’s the thing. He was a natural player, you could hear, like Herbie [Hancock]Mozart, Elvin [Jones]. Not everybody that was great sounded so natural, like Bill Evans didn’t sound natural; he was great. Miles too. Hear Miles when he first played with Bird when he was 19. No! Trane didn’t sound natural at the beginning. Those are late bloomers. Steve was an early Bloomer, like Mozart, like Yehudi Menuhin, like Tony Williams, like Schumann. They’re not really children, they’re adult geniuses in children’s’ bodies. Anyway. Steve, he was kind of overwhelmed with Miles, like he couldn’t believe it.
LJN: So, after he left Miles, Grossman joined Elvin Jones’s quartet. Could you talk a bit about that?
RB: What happened was Steve went with Miles first, Lieb went with Elvin first. And then Steve went with Elvin after he left Miles, and Lieb went with Miles after he left Elvin. By the early ’70s, they were both with Elvin and Gene [Perla]. In terms of how I felt about the band with Elvin, obviously it was great music with Elvin and Gene and Steve and Lieb, but I gotta say, and everyone knows I feel this way, that after 10 minutes, without any harmony instruments, I ‘m bored. I don’t care who’s playing, you’re leaving out a total, entire important element of music; Melody, rhythm, harmony, form, colour. You leave out rhythm: Pretty hard. You leave out melody: Pretty hard. You leave out harmony: No!
The point is, that really doesn’t matter because that’s just me. I mean, ask those saxophone players why they like playing without a piano: They have more room, they have much more room to play; There’s nobody to get in the way. There’s also no one to support you in terms of comping.
LJN: You and Grossman both appear on George Ohtsuka’s album Maracaibo Cornpone (1978). Tell me about that…
RB: So this guy [Masabumi] Kikuchi was a piano player – good friends with George Ohtsuka – came to New York and hired us and [John] Abercrombie and Miroslav [Vitous], and we just got together and George didn’t have any real tunes. He said “what do you wanna do?”. It was like a record date, you know, one day in the studio, two days… it was so much fun. In those days, in the ’70s, there were record dates all the time; once a month, twice a month. One time there was one month we did four record dates, as a sideman! Me and Dave [Liebman], Dave by himself… our own records. We would change musical chairs who were the leader. And in New York City there were twenty clubs that were operating every night of the week where you could go and hear, you know, McCoy [Tyner], or hear Mingus or Bill Evans, and then we would sit in. It was a big community hang; it was wonderful.
But this record date: so it was guitar, piano, bass, drums on those tunes, then there was electric tunes with another piano player. George wanted [Steve] to play tenor, but it was so heavy with the piano and the guitar, Steve said “no, I’m gonna play soprano”. Of course Steve was right. I love Steve’s soprano playing. Just that sound; I get chills listening to it. And this tune is my tune called “Who Got?”, an E-flat minor blues, and it just takes off. This was the first take. Bang! And, when you’re recording, if you can get a good first take, that’s got the fire, and it has surprise because there’s only one first take. Luckily the first take was happening, and there’s so many moments in it.
Also Steve, the way he plays, he doesn’t follow the rules. Like for example: the first chord, E-flat minor-major 7, obviously has a flat 6. So what does Steve does? His first phrase has a C natural someplace. It says flat 6, but so what? It was brilliant because he’s starting in a different way. Anyway, I’m following him and his sound. He’s got Trane vocabulary in his lines, in his heart, of course, but the passion and the sound and his time feeling and the placement of the rhythm… it’s just a great flow. It swings by itself, and then the rhythm section, of course, is happening. It’s a little loud and a little bit over recorded, but I don’t care.
LJN: The piano on the recording sounds a bit funny…
RB: I’m playing this piece of shit Yamaha electric grand piano. I don’t think they even have it anymore, it was just in the studio. The acoustic piano there sucked; it was way out of tune, so that wasn’t possible. There were no Rhodes, and then here is this thing. It’s ugly, but it was loud and it was clear and it was in tune. But you can hear it sounds funny, right? Anyway, it didn’t matter coz it was an inspired take.
LJN: By the late ’70s/early ’80s, Grossman’s career was largely abused by his substance and addiction. Did you ever notice it becoming a problem for him?
RB: Steve was a very complicated guy. There was a dark side to him. I don’t really wanna talk about it, but I think it needs to be talked about because I want young cats to hear it.
Steve’s life, in my opinion only, could have been very different. He had too much too soon because he was eighteen and went to the top. After you climb Mount Everest, what are you supposed to climb? Something happened to him with insecurities, and with lack of guidance he got into drugs. Also, he was around drugs all the time. Junkies, dope dealers, they were all around; not so much now, but then, all the time. And, you know, the same thing happened with Bill Evans.
Also, Grossman was super sensitive. You don’t play like that without being sensitive. And I don’t just mean sound, you know, and love the ballad, I mean sensitive to events going on around you; people, things… And all of a sudden he was thrown in, and then he was not. He wasn’t fired, because he was there for a while. Wasn’t like ‘oh he was terrible’. It was just Miles’ last trip changing, you know.
After he left Miles and Elvin, then he was supposed to have his own band. That’s what Lieb did; that’s what you do when you have the reputation of playing with Elvin and Miles, then you have a band: ‘Steve Grossman Quartet’. Did he ever do it? No. Why not? Why not? Of all the cats, he had the ammunition, he had the goods. Of course, he had the name! I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, I’m not gonna try and bullshit that, but I’m just saying something happened. He was getting stressed, okay. So… dope. With dope have you an out. It took away your pain, it took away your stress. It’s terrible, but it worked.
But the thing is you get strung out and you get sick, and then you don’t get high anymore. Then you’re just sick if you don’t have it. So Grossman, he lost himself. He got very troubled with drugs and it became more important to him than his playing, of course, and he never made the step like Lieb made or Mintzer made or Bob Berg made, with his own band. And then, he was still great, but he lost that advantage. His life was tragic because you can’t help but think what could have happened with his musical career if he hadn’t been destroyed by drugs. For a while there, with Steve, he had all of our dreams and he had our hearts. He was the man.
LJN: You clearly believe that his legacy is not what it could have been, and we agree on that, but what do you think his legacy looks like today?
RB: His legacy is of extreme talent, brilliance, accomplishment and passion. He was a great player, he was a good jazz composer, but he never made it. Whether he wanted to or was capable, he never made it to that next level where he became Steve Grossman. I don’t think it was that important to Steve. He just developed to a certain point and then stopped, for whatever reason; drugs, insecurity, fear… It’s human, you know. So, I don’t judge him, but I’m just observing how far he went. He seemed to have enough talent and brilliance to go all the way, but he didn’t. It’s tragic, but I’m very happy for those things that he did.
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