Review of Steve Grossman/ Damon Brown Quintet by Frank Griffith
(Pizza Express Dean Street, September 15th 2009)
American saxophonist Steve Grossman, who has been resident in Bologna for 15 years, made a welcome return to London on Tuesday September 15th at the Pizza Express jazz club in Dean Street. Grossman's sideman credits include Miles Davis and Elvin Jones among many illustrious others. The very able leader, cornettist Damon Brown's quartet rose to the occasion magnificently, playing with fire and gusto while clearly deferring to Grossman -when necessary - and keeping a quiet eye on him at all times.
Dressed in jeans, dark T-shirt and a loose-fitting sport coat, Grossman carries a full head of dark hair and an amazingly youthful look, both of which belie his 58 years of age, not to mention his rather colourful and chequered past.
His playing also embodies a similar combination of seasoned experience with youthful vigour and creativity. This is achieved by his regular quoting of 1920s-1940s American popular song melodies coupled with a relentless driving phrasing, resulting in dramatic climaxes for audience and band alike.
Brown’s fine cornet work, stately and happily loping along, provided an effective foil to Grossman’s fiery and less predictable musings. His big sound, coupled with an “in the groove” onstage swagger engendered a comfortable pocket for the listener to settle into, before being taken to other parameters of convention via Grossman’s more extreme harmonic explorations.
Pianist Robin Aspland has never sounded better, not only in his exuberant and powerfully dramatic solo excursions but also with his sensitive comping skills. These was most evident on his light-fingered octaves in the upper reaches of the keyboard, as he serenaded bassist Mark Hodgson's Paul Chambers-like melodic solo on Lee Morgan’s Ceora.
Drummer Sebastiaan De Krom was equally effective as both the engine room of the band with his M25-wide beat as well as powerful soloist in his own right. His extended solo on Sam Dockery’s Cranky Spanky originally recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers went a long way to showing this.
Other highlights included a spirited uptempo version of Harold Arlen’s This Time the Dream’s on Me as well as the popular bebop vehicle, Star Eyes which closed the night’s proceedings. Grossman’s explosive solo on this changed direction suddenly midway through with four-bar exchanges with drums resulting in yet another example of Whitney Balliet’s term describing jazz as “the sound of surprise” -catching all at hand unawares and all the better for it.
The night was peppered with regular on stage banter between the horn players, providing light entertainment for punters as well as clarification of appropriate tempi and solo orders, etc. This banter was also evident in the music with frequent improvised duets between Steve and Damon (accidentally, in many cases) but always leading to musically enriching results.
A welcome return to these shores for this great saxophonist. Hats off to Damon Brown for making this happen.
(Photo credit: jazzeddie)