|For his third trip to The Spirit Room, Carl Grubbs (1944, Germantown, PA) decided to record for the first time on tenor. His aside to me on this subject was a very atypical challenge from a very modest and gentle man,"Maybe I can scare some tenor players." I looked forward to seeing in what context he meant that. I also looked forward to hearing how his signature sound/blend found in his soprano and alto sax would, or would not, translate when using the tenor sax. Not wanting to put all his notes in one horn, so to speak, Carl also brought along his alto and soprano.
Throughout his career, Carl has often paired with another sax, originally with his brother, the late Earl Grubbs and more recently at CIMP with Odean Pope. This time he's paired with Salim Washington (1958, Memphis, TN), a dynamic personality he has worked with over the past several years and whose issued discography is very slim (most notable, perhaps, for his 1997 Accurate release). Salim has recently been working with Ahmed Abdullah and teaching at Brooklyn College in New York. Completing the quartet is Steve Neil (1953, Dayton, OH) and Ronnie Burrage (1959, St. Louis, MO). Steve—a veteran bassist (who began working with Carl in 2003) best known for his association with Pharoah Sanders—last appeared in The Spirit Room back in 1997 as part of Frank Lowe's trio. Ronnie has been working with Carl for a few years and recently produced a CD featuring his own vocal abilities (Mimakalana Records).
By 2 p.m., everyone in the group had assembled with enough instruments to outfit a small orchestra: Steve brought two basses (trying out each in the room before deciding on one) mbiri and African harp; Ronnie brought his full kit; Carl, three saxes; and Salim was set up with oboe, flute, and tenor sax. Sound checks and placement were uneventful. Just before we began the formal recording/concert, Ronnie asked us all to hold hands and spoke a prayer to summon the spirits to speak through the music and effect positive change.
Ready for action, Carl counted off Gordon (his oldest son) and ripped off on alto, his shiny new tenor sitting on the sidelines. Interesting how Carl's writing and a joyful effervescence more often than not still evokes the harmonic blend that made his first recordings—(1971) as part of the Grubbs Brothers—so notable. Even Smile, which is often and effectively taken way down to a worrying-the-pathos-out-of-it tempo, is given a rather jaunty reading here on this Chaplin-meets-Grubbs romp.
It was on Neptune, a piece from the early Grubbs Brothers period (1971), that Carl finally introduced his tenor sax. Carl's instructions to the quartet were to allow the piece to work itself in a natural fashion. Following Salim's strong flute outing, Carl entered, Coltrane- (with whom there was a familial relationship) fashion and proceeded to build a fine bold solo during which Salim, inspired, walked across the room and produced a set of bells, adding an appropriate and enriching color. Steve and Ronnie maintained the saunter, allowing the listener to reflect on Carl's preceding solo and catch back up to the music. One take—pretty effective.
Carl switched over to soprano, Salim pulled out the oboe, and Ronnie began handling various percussion instruments in preparation for the next tune, Pygmy Music. There was much discussion on how to bring out the nuances of this music which Carl characterized as a simple piece with a deliberate hypnotic pulse that in turn brings about the piece's movement.
Barbara Dear is Carl's ode to dear Barbara, his wife and partner. It was the first piece to be addressed on the morning of the 21st (the start of summer). Midway through a second take, during a particularly nice solo by Salim, Ronnie called a halt, feeling the group was not coordinated nor in harmony. He asked for another group circle and invoked the spirits for humility and insight to deliver the message of the music and let it come forth. What before had sounded good to me quickly regained its pacing and lovely ambiance. Hard not to be enveloped by the tune and impressed by Salim's oboe work; he really makes the instrument comfortable in this Jazz setting. And the spirit was coming through.
Reaching for a Star, another of Carl's catchy compositions, took awhile to get right as there was much discussion on achieving the dynamic balance and flow that Carlrightly insisted upon. After numerous takes, it all fell together and whatever agitation had preceded it was pushed back as the music rose up, took charge, and inspiration became the dominant attitude.
Steve brought a bit of exotica for it utilized Steve on mbira (thumb piano), Salim his bag of bells, Carl on soprano, and Ronnie on all other percussion, who commented, "Oh, this will be cool." Completely extemporized, its zephyr-like quality made for a nice aperitif to both what came before and what follows.
Perhaps the most dour piece here is Brother Soul ("For all the Brothers going through Hell"), quite atmospheric with Carl doing the eulogy, reflective of his past and mindful of his responsibility to the future.
This recording is Carl's gift from the past to the present and for the future. Accept it on its own terms.
Robert D. Rusch - June 21, 2005