Reflections Blog

Jonas Grushkin's Gemini

Jonas Grushkin may be one of the best jazz pianists and composers you’ve never heard of.  If so, prepare to be surprised and intrigued by his just-released album, Gemini.  Evoking dark and light, tragedy and comedy, ying and yang, and two opposites forming a whole, this album showcases technically proficient jazz combined with the raw energy and passion of blues.

The album reminded me that the piano is a percussion instrument, and Grushkin is a percussionist from his ponytail to his boot heels.  He says his earliest memory of rhythm came from his father practicing drum rolls around the house.  Lacking a drum kit, Grushkin practiced beat and syncopation on an upright piano and taught himself how to play the instrument.  He is as capable as any pianist with the soft touch, but his métier is hard-driving virtuosity, playing the keys like drums and making resounding statements that linger in the mind even as the beat and melody advance.

Grushkin’s compositions come out of the honky-tonk tradition of Eubie Blake, Frankie Carle and Meade Lux Lewis.  And he’s reminiscent of Bill Doggett—but without the 12-bar constraints—and Henri Herbert’s energy and piano artistry (e.g., Pocket Venus).  He also reminds me of Silvan Zingg, the Swiss Boogie Woogie pianist (e.g., St. Louis Blues).  Zingg is argubly the finest living Boogie Woogie pianist and is a joy to listen to if you love that genre, but Grushkin plays inside and outside of that tradition, ably mixing Boogie Woogie, blues, jazz, Latin, and classical.  But what stands out in Gemini is the same spirit of play and pure joy of performing you hear in Zingg’s music. 

The opening track, Slippery Blues, is a jaunty tune featuring notes that slip off the black keys onto the white ones.  The mood is joyous and crazy, with tripping runs up and down the keyboard.  This track is like a carefree afternoon on the boardwalk or an evening in a honky-tonk before people are too drunk to discern the music from the magic. 

Some of the tracks on the album feature other musicians.  Adrift, which reminds one of a boat rocking on an endless sea, includes an ethereal flute, airy and light, anchored by deeper runs on the tenor sax, both played by Jeff Solon.  The reverb in this number emulates the fullness of a dance hall.  Like a meditation on the solace of waves and the bliss we felt rocking in our parents’ arms as children, Adrift is a dream you don’t want to end.

One of my favorite tracks is Aurora, which Grushkin says is a big, happy time.  He’s right but that doesn’t quite capture how big and blousy this piece is.  Think big band swing and everybody dancing their feet numb under the sweep of kaleidoscopic, eye-popping Northern Lights.  The catchy tenor sax melody is punctuated by a rousing, rambunctious piano and drums.  You can’t listen to this song without smiling.

In Free-fall, Grushkin displays the influence on his compositions of both Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) and classical music.  Close your eyes while listening to this number.  It could be a piece out of a Mozart piano concerto—but with the heart and energy of the twenty-first century.  Beautiful free-falling.

In his bygone days, Grushkin misspent his youth playing on an old upright at Apple Jack’s Bar in La Honda, California.  Visualize a crowded room, people leaning against each other, happy the lights are low.  Grushkin remembers shot glasses lining the piano, cigarettes in every ashtray, and low voices making choices.  Smokey Times is a fine blues composition, evoking hope and heartache, as blues should, with jazzy riffs up and down the keyboard, and underneath a soft brush drawn across a snare drum like a rake being dragged through sand.  This track is as sweet and smooth as scotch and as buttery as bourbon.

Moni’s Song is as beautiful a love song as you’re likely to hear.  There are echoes of Rachmaninoff in this one as well as Keith Jarrett, especially his Köln Concert.  Plaintive high notes from the right hand offer a recurring melody of longing and embrace while a solid foundation of love flows from the left.  As I listened to it, I felt a breezy infatuation in the higher octaves and maturity and grace in the lower ones.

Sevens is a pulsing composition of raw joy and musicality, written in multiple time signatures (7/8, 5/8, and 4/4).  To catch the time signature transitions, try tapping your fingers to this song as you listen to it.  Downshift reminded me of a Fifties beach party-style movie set at the Daytona 500—young, innocent, energetic, carefree, and fast.  Driving percussion and virtuoso horns overlay a jazz piano on steroids, downshifting to the bluesy aftermath of a race won by a heartbeat, then revving up to a post-race, champagne celebration with fireworks bursting overhead.  I loved this number. 

Sevens and Downshift are the heat to the final track’s cool.  Grushkin says the final song, Farewell, was composed extemporaneously at the end of the recording session.  Soft and contemplative, the prayerful side of Gemini, this track is a meditation on music, a requiem to the solemn business of life as the artist combines mood and imagination in a beautiful ballad.

Gemini displays both raw talent well developed in a self-taught musician and the technical proficiency of a seasoned jazz artist.  It shows the playful, rollicking side of Grushkin’s personality as well as the soulful, contemplative side.  Dark and light, tragedy and comedy, multiple facets forming a whole, complementary and interconnected.  This album is a pleasure from ying to yang.

You can listen to selections from this album and download or order the CD at cdbaby.

 

Comments

Ken

Sounds like it be a great 'listen'! I'll see if I can find a site to listen.

August 17, 2017, 6:57 PM
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