One Track Mind: Jerry Granelli and UFB, "Brilliant Corners" (1995)

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photo: Catherine Stockhausen

by S. Victor Aaron

When I think of a drummer of one of the most familiar-sounding trios in all of jazz who is still pushing out the boundaries of the genres, Paul Motian is the first name that comes to my mind. So much so, I easily confuse Jerry Granelli with Motian, and that’s a big injustice to Jerry.

For those of you asking “Jerry who?”, Granelli was the guy beating the skins for Vince Guaraldi, including on the famed The Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Granelli’s stint with Guaraldi was followed by an assortment of sideman gigs with such artists ranging from Mose Allison to Jane Ira Bloom. He’s also taught jazz in places like Berlin, Seattle and Boulder, Colorado and has been involved in other works involving jazz music outside of performing.

Granelli has also taken time to record his own records, and like Motian, these records reveal an artist who’s more adventurous than his stint toiling under a piano legend would suggest. He isn’t afraid to incorporate more contemporary sounds and trends into his music, while still minding tradition. Little wonder, then, I keep confusing him with Bill Evans’ drummer.

Granelli has been on my mind of late, and it has nothing to do with Charlie Brown or even Motian; rather, it’s because of a certain Thelonious Monk composition and Granelli’s marvelous take on it.

“Brilliant Corners” is the title song of the first Monk album I bought and a heck of a way to get indoctrinated to the twisted musical mind of that mad genius pianist and composer. “Brilliant Corners,” the song, with it’s maddenly shifting time signatures and odd repetition of figures at different speeds was so complex even by Monk standards that the original version is actually an edit of different takes. When guys like Rollins, Roach and Pettiford can’t get you all the way through a song without hitches, that’s the very definition of tricky, folks.

Also an indication of how difficult this composition is to play is the relative dearth of covers on it despite universal praise of the song itself. It seems that more musicians were willing to take a stab at it on after the Kronos Quartet interpreted it back in 1984, though. Eleven years later, Jerry Granelli took his turn.

Granelli’s take is on his album News From The Street, which was backed by his 90’s electric band UFB. It’s a Bill Frisell-esque mix of bop, blues, folk, rock, and general quirkiness. Sometimes you get one style per song and sometimes you get a mish-mash of styles within a song. It’s unpredictability combined with Granelli’s malleable, risk-taking approach to his kit makes this album a great listen.

Monk’s deceptively meek piano intro is replaced of Granelli crashing about, in pretty much the cadence. Rollins’ and Ernie Henry’s angular horn lines are represented by the twin imposing electric guitars of Christian Kögel and Kai Brückner. When the song shifts into the main section where the main melodic line is stated with a conventional double-time 4/4 rhythm, the first solo is done with an amped up rock guitar and the second one with a jazz guitar. In showing the contrast in style for the guitar solos, Granelli and his band reminds us of the adaptiveness of a good tune, by deftly shifting styles within the same tune.

In the meantime, Granelli is adding fills and breaks that seem chaotic on the surface but he always seems to know where the song is going when it’s all said and done. If anything, it’s the old guy who is bringing the punk attitude to this fifty-year-old bop classic.

Bringing the “punk” to Monk. Indeed.

Oh, and guess who else covered this song four years later, by also using two electric guitars? That’s right, Paul Motian.

Sample: Jerry Granelli & UFB “Brilliant Corners”

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

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