An Interview

Jerry Granelli & his V16 band

This interview with Jerry Granelli and his V16 band was conducted by email during February-March 2007.

Tony Reif: The first V16 record was done in the studio, this one was a live performance in the studio before an audience, as part of the Atlantic Jazz Festival, with no editing of the tunes. What made you decide to do it that way and in that space? Also, why release both nights as a double with the same program in the same order rather than selecting one version of each tune?
Jerry Granelli: Hmmm, why? Well, having recorded in the Sonic Temple before, I loved that space. Also, most live recordings seem to be done in spaces where it’s harder to get a great recorded sound – this situation had both. I’d thought for a long time about a live V16 recording, and David Hillier – who owns Sonic – always wanted to use the space that way, so it was just good timing. Also I think at this time in the business we have to look for new ways and places to present the music. We decided to do it both nights…no editing. There was a time when people went to clubs and heard a band 3 or 4 times in a week. They could hear the music grow and change, you could even hear ‘bad nights’ but there would always be something great. Now we seem to constantly search for perfection in music, rather than enjoying the process (nothing wrong with it being great music!). So we decided if we were going to do it, let’s let it be the way it happened. I think it’s pretty risky – or better yet shows some trust in the music, and each other. So both nights are complete in the order they were played.

Christian Kögel: To record in a great sounding room in front of a few people, you probably get the most concentration and focus on the music, even more than just playing for the music and the recording machine.

J. Anthony Granelli: When I joined the band, the original line up from the first project had never really played live after the recording. So this new version of the band was really about being a live band. We played a series of gigs, and while at first basing the sets on the material of the first record, the music soon began to change and as a band we began to find a new way to play. The old tunes stopped fitting our new approach and we added new material that fit with what we were trying to accomplish musically. The process was very organic. So the decision to record a live album was very easy. We felt that it was the best way to represent what we did and how the band played. By releasing a double CD of the same tunes we wanted to show how the music changes from night to night and how this band as an improvising unit dealt with the same music from show to show. This CD is like seeing us play two nights in a row, not a “best of” compilation. We felt it was important to show our process and not a sanitized, ‘virtual’ compiled concert.

TR: Like last time, the tunes were mostly composed by the performers – with one cover, a soul standard by James Brown done as a slow blues (on the first record the cover was the old standard “Temptation”). The first record had Anthony Cox on bass and several of his tunes. How did you develop the current program, and how large is the band’s book? And has there been a musical shift in the types of material (pop/rock/soul/blues/tango/folk-world/jazz/ambient/chamber music etc.) you’ve used as your jumping off point during the 5 years the band’s been in existence? This record definitely has a different overall feeling from the first one – seems there’s less of a blues-rock influence for one thing…

JG: Wow, I’d not realized it’s been five years. Well, since the first recording J. Anthony joined the band – also we have done some tours, and we spend two weeks together in Halifax each year teaching and playing. When you spend that much time together the music evolves, so this record should have a different feel…we are different. This was the first time we really sat down to say “this is the material”….up to then we’d introduced new pieces and let the music just go where it wanted. So this was a chance to perhaps crystallize a direction or some new starting points – which have already changed since the recording. The material is even more plasma-like, constantly shifting – pieces run into one another, and seem to be always in flux and development. So if you heard the band now you might recognize the piece but it would just have evolved. Not better or worse…

Dave Tronzo: V16 only convenes in person perhaps once each year, and usually at the Halifax Creative Music Workshop and Atlantic Jazz Festival. As musicians we are primarily developing individually and apart from each other’s influences. When we meet to play, it’s a singular event that doesn’t necessarily build directly on the previous experiences that we’ve had. But, because we have grown a bit, we bring new things back to the group each year.

JAG: We began to feel that instead of improvising around tunes we wanted to find a way to improvise within the tunes as a band. This is different than improvising on “solo” changes or specific sections. The band became more interested in playing each tune as if we were a single entity, like a big eight-handed musician. In this way the fabric of each song could be stretched and changed as we felt in the moment. I think that we wanted to play compositions that at the same time provided structure but could be deconstructed on the fly. We also started to use a kind of free counterpoint when we played, and the compositions that we were using started to reflect that shift.

CK: The band got its sound by playing live, the new record documents that. I hear it more like one giant guitar with drums than a double guitar with bass and drums band.

TR: Everyone agrees that improvisation is at the heart of jazz, but my impression is that for a long time a lot of the more traditional jazz groups have really only been paying a kind of lip-service to the concept. Performers work out their solos and once they’ve got something they like they pretty much stick to its overall form while varying the details more or less in performance. This reduces the risk of messing up and may well be
aesthetically more satisfying in some ways (as a realization of the performer’s interpretation of a tune) so I’m not necessarily making a value judgment on the result, but with jazz in particular I think it’s helpful for the listener to understand something about the process. This band, on the contrary, really tries to keep things in the moment, allowing the music to move pretty much anywhere it “wants” to be taken. Several related questions: how do you actually do that, individually and as a group? And are there any practical limits to where things could or do in fact go during a performance – isn’t there a ‘plan’ of sorts that gets laid down in your mind as the result of the history of performing a piece – another jumping off point? How much does intention have to do with where a particular performance goes and how much does it have to do with a kind of leaderless intuitive process of listening/responding?

Also, Jerry, it strikes me that this is a band that’s probably close to your heart as a musician – and as a father and teacher – that in some sense it’s a chosen musical family. With J. as your close collaborator (and producer on this record), Christian who you’ve known since the early 90s when he was your student in Berlin and who you’ve brought along from your previous 2-guitar band UFB, and Dave I guess being the most recent addition (how far back do you guys go?)….I’m wondering two things: what the interpersonal dynamics are like and how they contribute to or affect the music – how much the music is an expression of them – and whether the dynamic varies a lot from night to night. For example, Tuesday seems generally more laid-back and reflective than Monday.

JG: There seems for me anyway to be a couple of things about whether there are limits or
how it works. One is giving up the idea of SELF-expression…and being more interested, willing to let the music lead the way. So then the possibilities become much more open.
This is perhaps one’s primary skill as a spontaneous composer. And I think it takes years of practice – or better, doing – and the right players. That’s why this band is so close to my heart. I love them all as people, and we have a past together musically, of different lengths, but we share common feelings about the music – also even the differences are interesting. The process of course involves both listening and responding, but the intention or motivation has to, like I said, be serving the music, and enjoying the openness of the moment, so I guess there must be an element of fearlessness, and bravery…and trusting each other and the music.

JAG: To play this way you basically have to be willing to let go of a lot of the current concepts of “jazz” improvisation. There is a lot of lip service paid to the idea of “listening” and “interaction” in the current jazz vernacular, but these things are done within a very rigid framework because of the over-reliance on strict forms and roles that have become the default settings of the “jazz” cannon. We like to try and listen to the music and let the direction present itself as the music unfolds. This is a very different thing than listening to chord changes and plugging in the correct chord scale. It requires patience and a willingness to let go of one’s own preconceived ideas of how a tune should go. I think that we make a conscious effort to try and not repeat what worked the night before. This freedom within a piece gives us a lot of room to maneuver – I don’t really feel like there are any limits in terms of what can or should happen. Our only guideline is to try and convey meaning and depth in terms of the emotional qualities of the composition. I often compare composing to playwriting. The composer is trying to give the musicians just enough information so that they can breathe life into the feeling or character of the composition. Hopefully once the musicians add their voices to the composition, unexpected and wonderful things happen that the composer never even thought possible, but the overall idea and meaning are not lost. I feel that we try to approach music in this way. In terms of interaction, there is no interaction without clear intent on the part of the participants, otherwise you get what sounds like a bunch of non-sequiturs or aimless rambling. In order for this kind of music to work all the players must be able to generate forward momentum and logical musical thought with out having to rely on others for input or ideas.

CK: From my point of view, the goal is to be as deep and complete as possible in the music, that whatever I contribute to the music is the best choice that could be made at that moment. Also, I can’t play somebody else’s part and I am who I am, so interpersonal dynamics definitely affect the music!

DT: Since improvisation is still composing, we can re-compose (improvise with) the form of the tune in various ways or alter our strategy from one performance to the next. Any strategy or ‘plan’ is acceptable. Most of the decisions are intuitive but all faculties can be involved in the decision process. We are limited by taste, interest, skill, beliefs etc., but even our limitations help to focus the process, and we must accept that before we can alter those limitations.

TR: There seems to be less of the electronic drums on this record, but this time Jerry you were also playing a steel sound-sculpture that an artist created for you (what’s his name?). So much of this music is at one level about sounds and how they can be created/manipulated/overlaid/recycled in the ongoing transformation of a performance…I’m interested in how everyone in the band thinks about their ‘sound’ and how its various aspects mesh with everyone else’s. Also (if you want to get into it) what gear, strategies or extended techniques you like to use.

JG: For my part yes, this CD has no electronics; the sculptures I play were made by Peter Englehart – the master, who is an old friend and lives in San Francisco. These instruments are part of a larger set of pieces he made for me. I am always collecting 
instruments – and I guess you have current favorites, or ones you can hear in the band. This band offers such a rich sound palette, I think of everybody as sound artists, rather than just musicians, that seems like such a limited label…

CK: I prefer to not think about my sound and how it contributes to the band sound, it would pull me away from the music and the process of creating it.

DT: Sound is everything – the sound allows the idea to exist. My sound range involves slide guitar with all types of slides, extended slide techniques involving counterpoint playing, advanced rhythmic, harmonic and linear ideas, stylistic cross-breeding, and all forms of prepared guitar (objects on the string which alter the timbre acoustically).

JAG: Personally I am after a group sound as opposed to the listener being able to say “oh that’s the bass or that’s the guitar” etc. There are basically two components to a player’s sound. The first is gear, i.e. instrument, amp, effects etc. The second is that player’s personal technique for making the instrument reflect what they are thinking in real time. Of these two factors, the second is the most important by far. A great musician will sound like himself on any instrument regardless of the gear. I feel that we all share this idea and it makes getting a band sound really easy and natural. We are also all very comfortable with the idea of using our instruments in a textural way. This is an important element of composition, but can be overlooked in terms of an improvisation. Since we approach our playing as if we are composing, but in real time, this textural use of sound is very important to our process.

TR: In some ways I think of V16 as an avant jamband – working a lot with rootsy, ‘common language’ genre materials but pushing the envelope way farther than the term “jamband” usually implies. Which raises the question – what potential audiences do you think are out there who aren’t aware of the band because in the end it’s classified/ghettoized as jazz for marketing purposes – because that’s where most of your history as musicians lies and because it’s still perhaps the best single term to describe what you’re doing? What different kinds of venues or audiences would respond positively
 to this music and how do we reach them?

JG: Hmmmm, you know I don’t really know how you classify this music, on one hand it’s very traditional in its roots in jazz, or really world music, in the sense that we all have these vast musical lives we’ve led and that’s what we bring with us. So I think you have to decide what to call it….Sorry, I know that makes your life hard. But you can be sure it will be spontaneous, and going forward. ENJOY, or at least give it a listen.

DT: The problem with the jamband audience is primarily that to grow this audience one must tour and perform live for them constantly…they are a loyal “live concert” audience and all of the digital infotainment communication that takes place is about the live show (downloads, set lists, chats, blogs). I’m not in a position to tour as much as would be necessary to grow this audience with any of my projects, so I’ve had to let go of the expectation of developing that audience via live performance frequency.

JAG: I think that young people in general are very open to this music. Because of the hyper-availability of all recorded music, people are more open today than ever before. Will people into Britney Spears get off on it? Maybe not, but they are not into music in any real sense anyway. Will hardcore jazzbos be into it? Probably not, because they are looking for music that will reinforce their outmoded view of what music is and why nothing makes sense to them anymore. Well, I think that leaves everyone else, and I think they will dig it. In terms of a one-word description… I think we need to make one up. If we can tell people what our music is then they will say “oh, alright, cool.” From a marketing standpoint I think it would be really good for us to have our own term. I’m open to suggestions.