What are the qualities I look for in instrumental music? As with vocal music, it must reward close listening. But instrumental must also be pleasant as background music. And, for me, there is one more test. Too long ago, I lived in a space that allowed me to indulge my love of oil painting. I also used to write fiction, and very occasional poetry. For all of these creative endeavors, I found that music helped. There could not be any words to distract me. And, the more finely crafted the music was, the more it enhanced my own creativity. Mozart and Miles Davis were favorites for this. And now, David Grier’s album Evocative must be added to that list. As I gave this one repeated careful listens to prepare for this review, I actually had an idea for a painting pop into my head. Sadly, I cannot do anything about it.
It is a not very useful fact, when listening to Evocative, that David Grier has won awards for his bluegrass flat-pick guitar playing. There is very little trace of bluegrass in this music, and none of the flashy playing one might expect from an award winner. What Grier does show here is his skill as a composer and arranger, and his generosity as a band leader.
The band is Grier on electric, acoustic, and baritone guitar; John Gardner on drums; Paul Franklin on pedal steel; and Jeff Taylor on electric piano, organ, accordion, and pennywhistle. You may have noticed that there is no bass player. There are guests on bass on six of the album’s ten tracks. Two more are solo guitar pieces. But that still leaves two ensemble pieces with no bass. And, on those tracks, the bass is not missed. That is because Grier gives each arrangement just what it needs, never cluttering matters or piling on instruments. Grier calls on other guest musicians to provide color and texture, and does a great job of varying these elements.
The album opens with Meditate. The acoustic guitar introduces a simple repeating pattern. Soon the drums, electric guitar, and electric piano join in, each adding to the pattern and expanding it. But the time the solos start, the original pattern has become more complex, but it is still recognizable. This builds to a climax, and then comes down just the way it built up. The same simple pattern on the acoustic guitar is all that remains at the end.
The harmonies on the album belong firmly in folk/ country territory. But many of the songs are built like jazz tunes. There will a statement of theme, usually by the acoustic guitar, followed by variations played by the other solo instruments, and then a restatement of theme in the guitar, to finish. The instruments providing support and rhythmic motion often vary their parts in subtle ways in response to the soloists.
Grier is equally adept at slow or fast numbers. Road to Hope is a beautiful ballad for guitar, accordion, bass, and drums. Four Dogs Jogging takes off at a gallop, with fiddle and banjo joining in. This may be the most purely exciting piece on the album. And Grier also paces the album well, placing As Easy As Falling Off a Log, a bluesy solo piece played on baritone guitar, in the middle of the album for a quick breather.
I should take a moment to praise the quality of the soloists. In my review of George Strait, I talked about the sweet sound of Stuart Duncan’s fiddle playing, and that is equally true of the three tracks he plays on here. Scott Vestal only plays banjo on only one track, but he displays a great talent for switching without seeming effort between rhythmic background playing and solo turns. And Grier himself gives his electric guitar a smooth singing voice, while playing parts on the acoustic clearly state his ideas while also helping to provide a solid rhythm to build off of.
So here is a wonderful set of instrumental music. The moods and textures vary, but never sound fussy. The whole thing sounds like a coherent whole. And this is music that takes me places, probably a different place each time I listen. Regardless, I look forward to making my next trip.
David Grier: Road to Hope
David Grier: Four Dogs Jogging
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