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Dave Grusin

Dave Grusin

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Dave Grusin Biography

When legendary Grammy winning composer Henry Mancini died in 1994, he left behind an incredible legacy of film and television music whose jazzy and orchestral innovations inspired a whole generation of film scorers and jazz performers. Among his great friends and admirers was Dave Grusin, who drew upon the early Mancini influence to carve out his own Oscar-winning niche as one of the premier movie music writers of the past thirty years, as well as a prolific career as a contemporary jazz pianist. In the tradition of his popular recent tribute recordings The Gershwin Connection and Homage to Duke, Grusin reaches into Mancini’s vast, eclectic catalog for Two For The Road, a definitive retrospective which rings brightly both as a memorial and celebration of the man and his music.

I didn’t choose to do this project as part of an ongoing tribute series, but rather because I have always loved Hank’s material and felt it would be a great focal point for some unique interpretations, says Grusin, who first met Mancini in the mid-60’s, just before launching his own career with the scores to Divorce American Style and The Graduate. The key was to approach it as an overall concept, not re-doing his classics as much as finding the fine line between personalizing the songs my way and being true to the source harmonically and dramatically. Embracing these pieces was very natural for me because they were instrumental in convincing me to go into film in the first place.

Recording the basic trio tracks over a period of three days with longtime cohorts John Patitucci and Harvey Mason, Grusin’s greatest challenge aside from creating unique arrangements was weeding through the massive Mancini songbook to find ten songs which best captured the man and his music. While classics like Peter Gunn and Days of Wine And Roses are included in all their glory, Grusin is proudest of his choosing more obscure gems like Dreamsville and Soldier in the Rain (both of which were sung by Impulse! artist Diana Krall), as well as the theme from Hatari.

When I was sifting through all the volumes, I happened upon some great songs from lesser known films that I had never heard covered before, Grusin recalls. He was one of the first composers to capture a kind of West Coast jazz vibe, who didn’t always favor wall to wall strings but instead more organic jazz twists, motifs and undercurrents. ‘Moon River’ would have been an obvious choice for this project, but some of these other themes better exemplify this approach. Another consideration was making sure each track was suited to have the acoustic piano as the centerpiece.

It’s fun to go through your memory and remember the tunes you like, then figuring out new ways to approach them without denigrating the original intent of the material, he adds. All of the tunes here are ones I had deep feelings for at one point or another.

For several years, Grusin was one of the leaders of the GRP All-Star Big Band, and he turns bandleader again for a jumping, brassy rendition of Peter Gunn, which features the fiery horn section of Jerry Hey, Gary Grant, Dan Higgins, Andrew Martin, Eric Marienthal and Tom Scott. The lighthearted, romantic Dreamsville features the smoky vocal emotion of Diana Krall, while the trio piece Mr. Lucky is given its happy go lucky due with a classic Patitucci acoustic bass solo. After the reflective, orchestral grandeur of Moment to Moment, Grusin digs deep into the heart of New Orleans for the cocky strut of Baby Elephant Walk, which features the brass as well as the harmonica graces of Tollak Ollestad.

Grusin gives two well known classics, Two For the Road and Days of Wine and Roses an elegant jazz intimacy, with the latter evolving from a moody beginning into a polyrhythmic fusion of styles. That sort of unpredictability forms the groove of Hatari, a mystery score with orchestral seasoning, off-meter percussion (courtesy of Paulinho Da Costa) and even a piano melody which borders on the avante garde. More conventional jazz club moods texture the Latin-flavored romance Whistling Away The Dark (from Blake Edwards’ 1970 Darling Lili) and the closing track, the melancholy story of Soldier in the Rain, with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman sung wonderfully by Diana Krall.

Growing up in Littleton, Colorado, Grusin credits his father, who played violin, with instilling in him and his brother Don an understanding of classical music and the literature of great orchestration. A piano major at the University of Colorado, he studied the classical repertoire but found a great affinity for the jazz greats of the time, from Shorty Rogers and Shelly Mann to Brubeck, Basie and duets by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. While still in school, he found time to play with visiting artists like Art Pepper, Terry Gibbs and singer Anita O’Day.

Grusin planned for a career in academia when he moved to New York in 1959 and enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music, but he soon found himself touring behind Andy Williams, moving to Los Angeles in the process. In Williams’ band, he met drummer Larry Rosen, who became Grusin’s partner nearly two decades later in launching contemporary jazz mecca GRP Records. He launched his recording career in the mid-60’s with two jazz trio albums, Subways are For Sleeping and Piano, Strings and Moonlight, which drew upon the influences of Art Tatum, Bill Evans and Red Garland.

Inspired by those like Mancini and Andre Previn, Grusin left his music director gig with The Andy Williams Show in 1964 and scored the Norman Lear/Bud Yorkin comedy Divorce American Style the following year. This marked the beginning of his career as a premier film composer, with over 30 scores to his credit. Among his Academy Award-nominated work over the years have been scores for Heaven Can Wait, The Champ, On Golden Pond, Tootsie (he co-wrote the Stephen Bishop hit, It Might Be You ), The Milagro Beanfield War (which won the 1988 Oscar), Havana, The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Firm. Other well known films include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Three Days of the Condor, The Goodbye Girl, And Justice For All, Reds, and Tequila Sunrise. In 1987, Grusin released Cinemagic, a compilation of new versions of his classic scores. Grusin also penned the theme songs for Lear-produced ‘70’s sitcoms Good Times and Maude, as well as the TV series Baretta and St. Elsewhere..

Launching GRP as a production company in the late ‘70s, Grusin and Rosen created what became one of the most popular labels of the New Adult Contemporary genre, with popular artists like The Rippingtons, Spyro Gyra, David Benoit, Lee Ritenour and Tom Scott. Grusin’s own hits for the label include Night-lines (1984), Harlequin (a duet album with Lee Ritenour in 1986), Sticks and Stones (a duet with brother Don in 1987), The Fabulous Baker Boys (a double Grammy winner in 1989), Migration (1989), and the tributes The Gershwin Connection (1991) and Homage to Duke (1993). He also participated in GRP all-star projects, Super Live, the NY/LA Dream Band and the three GRP All Star Big Band albums.

As an artist, I am signed as a pianist first and foremost, Grusin says. Therefore, I’m able to choose between recording albums of all original material, and doing these great tribute collections. It’s been an interesting double life, doing both film scoring and jazz recordings, with the chief difference being that in film you have parameters based on how the music will function with the images. With my own albums, it’s like a blank canvass, absolute freedom to create from scratch, and that presents its own set of challenges.

In his liner notes for Two For The Road, Charles Champlin writes: In Mancini’s lifetime, the two men were mentor and admirer—friends with a shared love of jazz at its most propulsive but also its most melodic. Come share the journey of this perfect pair of traveling companions. It’s a generational experience which speaks to the heart and soul of anyone ever touched by jazz or the flickering images in the dark. 

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