Friday, January 20, 2012

Graydon Peterson on his new band, and his goals

Graydon Peterson by John Whiting
In late April 2011, I went to see Connie Evingson sing at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul. In her band was Graydon Peterson, a first-call bassist for many vocalists in the Twin Cities.

Afterward, while waiting to pay our tab, I ended up standing next to him at the bar.

“This is a bands town,” I said. “When are you going to start your own band?”

It was a casual, making-conversation question to which he replied, in all seriousness, “That’s one of my goals for this year.”

When Peterson sets a goal for himself, he follows through. The Graydon Peterson Quartet played their first public gig at the Shanghai Bistro in Hudson, Wisconsin, on October 7. From there, they moved to Jazz Central in Minneapolis on October 25 and The Nicollet Coffee House on November 15.

On Wednesday, January 25, they will make their debut at the Artists’ Quarter, the nationally known jazz club in St. Paul. From zero to 60 in four steps.

It won’t be the first time the individual musicians—Peterson, Adam Meckler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Vincent Rose on guitar, Adrian Suarez on drums—have played the AQ, but it will be their first time as a band.

I was at Jazz Central on October 25 and liked what I heard. I’ve seen Peterson play many times, mostly for singers, and until now he has been in the background. Leading a band playing his music, he was in charge and enjoying himself.

The music was diverse and engaging, sometimes playful, sometimes moody and beautiful, and—the best word I can think of—optimistic. Not upbeat, which sounds like trying too hard, but definitely not a downer.

It was also demanding, both rhythmically and melodically. During the second set, which was stronger than the first, Meckler and Rose were sweating.

Back in April, I asked Peterson if we could talk once his band was up and running. We spoke by phone on the Friday before the AQ date.

PLE: Why did you decide to start a band?

Graydon Peterson: I wanted to express my creativity in a different way. As a sideman, you play your role. Now that I’m in charge of the band, my name is on the front line, I’m writing the tunes, and it’s a different perspective. It feels more open to me.

PLE: Why did you choose these musicians?

GP: They’re all good friends of mine. I knew that in a band, we would push each other to become better musicians and make the music better. There are a lot of fantastic musicians I would like to play with, but I knew these people were also looking to be in a group instead of just getting together and playing tunes. I knew the four of us wanted to have a group and make a group sound.

PLE: Do you have a particular sound in mind?

GP: Not really. It’s more about having our ears open and trying to make it work. We’re all listening at the same time, trying to figure it out.

PLE: You play only original music, specifically your original music and arrangements. Why no standards?

GP: I made a decision to not play standards. I want all of us to be taking a fresh approach to the music. If you’re playing a standard, everyone knows the intro, everyone knows the chorus. You know that Miles played it this way or someone else played it that way. It’s easy to play a solo—you end up quoting it by accident.

PLE: At Jazz Central in October, you played your own arrangements of two covers, “Velveteen” by a grunge band called Sponge and “The Working Hour” by Tears for Fears. How do you decide on covers you want to arrange?

GP: The ones you heard were tunes from the past that have been stuck in my brain for years. Sometimes I’ll remember every note of a particular tune. Obviously, something is sticking with me. To remember a tune that way means we should probably play it. For newer stuff, if something grabs me, I might want to arrange that. I was listening to something the other day and one track immediately pulled me in.

PLE: What was it?

GP: It was something by a band called Rubble Bucket. Really poppy.

PLE: What kinds of music do you listen to?

GP: As much diverse stuff as possible. If I find myself getting into a rut and only listening to jazz, I know it’s time to switch to classical for a bit, or electronic, or pop—anything. What I listen to affects how I play. If I listen to jazz constantly, I play too much bebop.

PLE: Is the Graydon Peterson Quartet a jazz band?

GP: I wish we didn’t have to label music. It locks you into a specific sound. But I guess we do. There are so many elements of improvisation in our band that I guess we would call it a jazz band. But not everything is going to be swing, which usually defines jazz. I would like to use the general term “music.”

PLE: What brought you to jazz? Was there a special moment or a turning point for you?

GP: I played electric bass in high school, in pep band, but I didn’t know anything about jazz. I played rock music and fooled around at home. Then the jazz band director at my school saw me at pep band and said, “You should play bass in the jazz band.” I told him I didn’t know anything about jazz, and he said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll figure it out.” I went in and we played a couple of tunes and I liked it. I liked how it was free.

From there, the band director pushed me. “You should try out for the all-state jazz band.” I didn’t know anything, but he said I should do it anyway. The audition was almost all ear. “Play something underneath this … Give me a different beat to this … Now we’re going to play a blues.” There was no music. That was interesting. 

I made it into the band, and I loved it. That was probably the moment—when I went to the first rehearsal for the all-state jazz band and thought, “Holy crap, this is fun.”

PLE: What kind of sound are you going for in your quartet?

GP: There are plenty of bands I like, but I’m not trying to sound like any of them. When I’m writing music, I’ll take the approach of a certain band. If I’m listening to The Bad Plus, I’ll try to write a tune in that style. But I’ll make it sound like our band instead of The Bad Plus.

Lately, the music of [trumpeter] Ambrose Akinmusire has been extremely influential to me. It’s mesmerizing.

PLE: Do you find any bass players especially inspiring?

GP: I haven’t listened to bass players specifically for a while. But I do have some favorites. Larry Grenadier. The Fly trio, with Grenadier [and Mark Turner and Jeff Ballard].

PLE: What is it like to play your own music, and to hear other musicians play it?

GP: It’s the same as playing any other music—I know how it goes because I wrote it. At the same time, I’m still using my ears to figure out what everybody else is doing and make it all work as a group. Listening to other people play it is fun. They’ll play stuff I wasn’t thinking about. That’s the whole point, the reason I chose these guys.

PLE: Are you happy with your group sound?

GP: Oh, for sure. We have a long way to go, and we have to play a lot more, but some of the tunes are really taking off.

PLE: What will we hear at the Artists’ Quarter?

GP: Lots of new material. My goal last year was to write 20 tunes. I made it to 17 by the end of the year. I’m working on another now, and a new arrangement. So I’m close to 19.

PLE: What are your goals for the band?

GP: I want to get these tunes sounding good enough that we can make a CD. I would like a document, a time stamp, something that says, “This is what we sounded like then.” It’ll be fun to listen to years from now, when we’re doing completely different stuff.

PLE: So you see this as a long-term band?

GP: I hope so … Another goal I have: I would like any person who likes music to come down to hear us and take something away, have an experience they can relate to, find something they like. Not just jazz people. Anybody who likes music.

I’m trying to make the music very emotional. When I write, I’m going more by instinct and trying not to use my brain so much. I’m using my ears and not thinking so much. I still want to make the tunes interesting, but not to the point where it’s all numbers and math. I’m trying to tap different emotions.

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