Jim Grant – You Go To My Head (2014)

If there’s a real-world sensibility to this record, a firm grasp on the passion it takes to withstand hard times, you can credit Jim Grant’s resume as a working man. If there’s a remarkable eloquence to his phrasing, look to this Chicago vocalist’s time at the Bloom School of Jazz. That voice, though? It’s a chocolate-y wonder, with all of the complexities that implies: dark and brooding one moment and bursting with soaring bliss the next. Well, that voice is all Grant’s. Pair it with a West Coast jazz-inflected trio and You Go To My Head sets up as an intriguing juxtaposition of styles and substance.

The opening “Close Your Eyes” begins with a ruminative bass signature from Geoff Lowe, before Grant slips in – offering the lyric first with a whispered confidentiality before descending into a girder-shaking baritone. Jim Sellers adds a spritely piano figure, over the lightest of brush strokes from drummer Sam Pincich, and the template for You Go To Me Head is set: Smoothly sophisticated swing running like a current underneath a profoundly suave, midnight blue singer in the manner of Johnny Hartman. A stutter from Pincich opens up into a crisp cadence on “Big City,” as Grant proceeds to give his whole heart over to a metropolis’ hustle and bustle. Sellers offers a series of playful retorts, while Lowe and Pincich keep a brisk time – deftly mirroring the city noise. Grant, however, strides confidently through it all, connecting his passion for the urban landscape with a life’s love. The joy in his voice is palpable.

“Ain’t No Use” is the first inkling that Grant and this group can go deeper into the R&B-inflected soul that marked Hartman’s best sides. Singing with an ocean-bottom’s depth, Grant throws his arms around heartbreak, even as his band makes full use of the track’s darkness and space. When they grind this sad and lonely exploration to a sudden halt, Grant makes the word “please” sound as awful as anyone ever has. They return then to the album’s principal atmosphere of sleek urbanity on “Gentle Rain,” with Grant exploring the middle area of his range while the trio of Sellers, Lowe and Pincich delve into the kind of air-filled, almost confectionary lines that were the hallmark of Bill Evans’ trios. There’s not as much meat on this song’s bones, at least compared to the devastatingly confessional “Ain’t No Use,” but that takes nothing away from its enduring loveliness.

Grant next takes on a couple of charting pop songs in a row, first making an energetic, rhythmically assured run through “The Letter.” Whereas the radio hit boiled with emotion, Grant and Company reshape it here as a rapturous up-tempo piece – made complete by lock-step performance by guest saxist Eric Schneider. “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” follows, and this time they approach this old favorite as a sublimely attenuated ballad. It’s a masterpiece of shading, quietly assertive where another singer might have fallen into easy melancholy.

“Getting Some Fun Out of Life” arrives then like a sunburst. Powered along by a walking bass line from Lowe, Grant tosses aside all of that introspection for an unvarnished bit of fleet-footed cheer. Sellers plays, too, with a winking charm – adding a just-right accompaniment for the lyric.

Grant closes with an intimate take on the oft-sung title cut, ending an astonishingly consistent album he co-produced along side David Bloom with one more impeccably executed, cliché-free performance. In that way, Grant brings to mind Billy Strayhorn, as well. When Grant pauses midway through the title as this song concludes, it’s both a heartbreaking moment of realism and a final example of a complete command of his vocal instrument. This one will, in fact, go to your head.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.