Conventional wisdom says that if you want to play jazz, New York City is where you have to be. Yet after a decade of NYC life, pianist, composer, producer and all around jazz renaissance man Darrell Grant made a strong move west ending up in Portland, Oregon. A teaching stint at Portland State University got him there, but the city's character is what's kept him.
"It's idiosyncratic," says the 37-year old. "Somehow, the people in Portland have maintained a strong sense of individuality. In New York there are so many cliques you have to contend with. Out here, anyone plays with anyone. It means the art's not stale."
To ensure it doesn't get so, Grant's going national with his new recording called Smokin' Java, a homage to his adopted homeland and coffee capitol. "The disc contains the feeling I have for Portland," he continues, "and some of the people I've come in contact with." The pianist, who apprenticed with jazz characters Woody Shaw and Betty Carter, has laid out a storyline that incorporates many of the Rose City's oddest pioneers - from "expose yourself to art" bartending ex-Mayor Bud Clark to Thomas Luaderdale, leader of the now internationally know trendier-than-thou lounge band Pink Martini.
He does this by concocting a fictional narrative for the CD's liner notes - a short story about a man named Langston who runs out of coffee one sad day and must take to the streets in search of some. What he finds is companionship and a cast of characters that surround him in this comfortable city.
Before you wince and say "ouch, a jazz concept album", let me assure you, it works. Grant has selected a series of standards and originals that could be a soundtrack of sorts for the story line he's invented. But the music is by no means a background to the plot - it serves as its catalyst. So Bill Lee's (Spike's dad) "Little Jimmy Fiddler" acts as a bouncing tribute to the late great bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who retired to Portland and who Grant (ur, Langston) meets up with. The standard "If I Should Lose You" works as Langston's lament for his gone lover. Michel Legrand's "You Must Believe in Spring" - played beautifully by Grant & Co. - is offered as sage advice from a homeless street poet.
Of course, if the music didn't cook... With the daring unorthodox tandem of saxophonist Donald Harrison, vibes man Joe Locke and Grant as the front line, it couldn't help but. Locke is astounding throughout, even making the cold chill of the vibraphone sound hot and gritty in spots, and Harrison sounds tougher here than he has on his recent Impulse! recordings. Grant rotates between solid accompaniments and sweet, gospel-tinged soloing while bassist Bob Stata and drum phenom Brian Blade move things along. In the frontline trio samba on "You Must Believe in Spring" you here the intuitive comfort this group finds together.
"One of the cool things about jazz is that you establish relationships," says the leader. "The music comes from that." From the sound of Smokin' Java, Grant has managed the difficult trick of making new relationships and maintaining the old. He just may make his new Portland home a household jazz name.