Friday, February 25, 2011

Introducing the Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society (GRASS): Brooklyn Jazz Collective Play Jamaican Riddims

One of the new features of this blog in 2011 will be to highlight current ska and reggae artists from around the globe that you might not be familiar with, but who deserve your attention. The first artist that I want to profile is the Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society (AKA: GRASS) who take their name from the neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York where they live and rehearse. The band is an 11-piece collective featuring a who's who of jazz and instrumental musicians, who originally came together for impromptu jam sessions that lead to a one-off show to perform 'The Harder They Come' soundtrack in its entirety in 2009.  Based on the positive response they received, the collective decided to carry on and have dedicated themselves to bringing the sounds of classic ska and reggae with a jazz twist to Brooklyn and beyond.

GRASS has released two albums, the most recent is 'GRASS On Fire' which is an instrumental jazz-tinged take on Bob Marley & The Wailers 1973 classic 'Catch A Fire'. Imagine if The Skatalites had all gone to the best jazz and music programs in the U.S. and you get a sense of the GRASS sound. To that end, the album received a sterling review in All About Jazz  this month, 'The band makes it quite apparent, from the opening track 'Concrete Jungle,' that the musical structure is of its own invention. The underlying reggae beat drives the music but the soloists bring their own sense of development to the table. It is fathomed in the arms of bop, free charging jazz harmonies, rock improvisation and swing, to make the whole a tantalizing sweep of giddy delight.' 

I recently connected with band leader and bassist J. A. Granelli to learn more about GRASS and their approach to performing classic ska and reggae.  I was pleased to learn that Granelli was initially inspired by 2-Tone before discovering the classics of the genre.

Were you a fan of ska and reggae music growing up?
Yes I was. Although at the time my exposure to ska was through the English version (The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat). I had also gotten some Aswad records as well as getting really into Sly & Robbie via the Grace Jones classic 'Night Clubbing'. I was always a Bob Marley fan even though I didn't really know much about his story or importance to Jamaican music. Later in life I became very interested in the Jamaican roots of the English ska I had loved.

Do you remember the first ska or reggae single or album you bought?
I think it was the sound track to the movie 'Dance Craze.' I also had a Specials record and I bought 'Special Beat Service' at some point shortly after it came out.

What is it about ska and reggae that inspired a group of trained jazz musicians to start a band?
Although we are all primarily from a 'jazz' background, we are also all students of American musical genres. I for one have spent a lot of time playing blues, old school R&B and funk. All of this music and   ska/rocksteady/reggae share many of the same musical roots and influences so it was not a very big stretch to get into Jamaican music for us.

How did you get involved with GRASS? What brought all 11 of you together?
The band started as a series of what we called 'big ass play dates' over at Nate's house (keyboardist Nate Shaw). We would all bring the wives and kids, barbecue and jam on a few reggae tunes that we all agreed to learn beforehand. After a few of these Nate and I decided that we should sort of formalize the band. We then had the idea of creating a Society of sorts kinda based on old scholarly societies that would be devoted to the study and preservation of a particular subject. So the thing just grew because liked minded people wanted to get together and learn how to play this music. It was a very organic process.

For readers living outside New York, can you explain a bit about Gowanus and why you chose it as part of the name of the band?
Well we chose it for a few reasons. We mostly all live in neighborhoods around the Gowanus canal in beautiful Brooklyn. The canal itself is a very interesting place surrounded by old factories and is very beautiful in a kinda strange faded industrial kind of way. Did I mention that it is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the county? But seriously I think the vibe in this part of Brooklyn is about working hard and striving to do something really well, kind of being very focused on one thing and doing that thing as well as possible. We very much are like that with old school ska and reggae.

What is it about ska and reggae artists from the 60's and 70's that have served as inspiration for the songs the band performs live?
There are so many things. Music from that time was played by a cast of really amazing musicians, much like what was happening at Motown or Stax/Volt or Muscle Shoals around the same time. These were really masterful musicians who could improvise on a very high level and would just churn out great song after great song for years on end. There is a certain looseness but deep groove that is very inspiring to us. We also really like the freedom in the music to be able to play specific parts as well as do your own thing within the form. Basically this music just really speaks to us and inspires us to play it as much as possible.

Tell me about the approach you have taken to the recording of your most recent album 'GRASS On Fire'. What is about 'Catch A Fire' that inspired the band to cover it?
'Catch A Fire' appealed to us in a couple of ways. First off, it was the album that put reggae on the musical map internationally. Most people know some of the songs form the album and for lots of people this album was the first time they ever heard reggae. We felt that it was a great vehicle to do our thing to and to help people re-visit the album that they remember.

Also the album is a really interesting mix of Jamaican and rock influence due to all of the overdubs done in England to make the music more acceptable to rock audiences. We spent a lot of time with the original Jamaican versions of the music and tried to cop that vibe as well. We also made sure that we recorded and mixed using all vintage gear, as well as mixed to tape to get as much of the warm fuzzies as we could. When we recorded we were all in the same big room and payed the whole thing down live.

Does the band have any plans to cover other classics of the ska and reggae genre? Any plans to write any original compositions?
Other than the 'Catch A Fire' music our normal book consists of tons of ska, rocksteady and early reggae tunes that we have learned from records. Our current favorites are Alton Ellis and Hugh Mundell. We have also done a concert of all of the music from the 'Harder They Come' soundtrack. Currently Nate and I are really into dub and have been working on doing that in a live setting. Original music will come I think, but right now there is so much great music to learn and play.

GRASS has been performing shows around New York City. Check out the band's web site for details and gig dates. Please give the GRASS version of 'Catch A Fire' a spin below and if you like it please purchase it directly from the band via Bandcamp.


Mark aka Kip Pullman said...

This is incredibly good stuff. This band does justice to a man whose music is often over-represented through others covering it. Here, the band focuses on his first US, Island label release, and my favorite Wailer's album. Nice laid back, interpretations, with some excellent horn work. The trombone on "Concrete Jungle" is incredible and hits highs that I didn't think were possible. Overall, an excellent addition to Marley tributes but also a fantastic addition to any music collection. Big UP!

Jacob Wake Up! said...

Great band. I try to catch them any time they're at Two Boots in Park Slope Brooklyn. Their long sets there are so good. Must listen for fans of NY Ska-Jazz Ensemble for sure.

NATE SHAW said...

Marco On the Bass!! Thanks much for the great article. A heads up to all your readers: G.R.A.S.S. will be tackling the entire record @ The Apple Store in SOHO on March 22nd.
7pm & FREE
Come on out!

All the best-Nate Shaw
Society founder and member