ECM is home to some of the finest solo double bass albums in jazz history. Numerous musicians associated with the label have done so, including Barre Phillips, Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Arild Andersen, Miroslav Vitouš, and Eberhard Weber. Larry Grenadier adds his name to that venerable list with The Gleaners. Grenadier -- whose decades-long partnerships with Wolfgang Muthspiel, Brad Mehldau, and the late Paul Motian have established his reputation as one of the finest bassists in jazz -- responded to a challenge by ECM founder and album producer Manfred Eicher (himself a former bass player) with The Gleaners, recorded in New York during December of 2016. In his short liner essay, Grenadier writes, "Performing solo music on the double bass precludes excess. The fat is cut away and what hopefully remains of the skeletal essence is direct and nourishing." The 12-track set, almost equally split between originals and covers, is delivered in arco (bowed) and pizzicato (finger-plucked) techniques.
Each track is performed as to be easily distinguishable from every other. The brief opener, "Oceanic," is played arco as bowed notes are doubled and offered in harmonic equanimity; it's a cross between a chamber piece and a folk melody. "Pettiford" is a tribute to bop master Oscar Pettiford. Its fleet bluesy runs are in perfect rhythmic cadences and they swing like mad. The title track is an arco piece inspired by Agnès Varda's 2000 documentary The Gleaners & I. Its sparse approach focuses on single notes as they bridge proceeding ones, with emotionally resonant yet irregular intervals articulated by harmonics. "Woebegone" is pensive and quietly dramatic in its pizzicato statements of theme, variation, and melody, and it contains elegantly and subtly overdubbed arco and pizzicato layers. "Gone Like the Season Does," was composed by singer/songwriter Rebecca Martin. It's outside jazz in its direct and empathetic articulation of the song's nuances and never sacrifices its tenderness and lyricism -- it remains steadfast even during improvisation. Other covers include a gorgeous medley of John Coltrane's "Compassion" and Paul Motian's "The Owl of Cranston." The arco opening is shadowy, spilling with abundant whole notes as harmonics alternate with rumbling phrases that give way to the brighter pizzicato of the other tune -- adding balance, yes, but also depth and dimension. Two brief pieces by Muthspiel ("Bagatelle 1" and "2") offer a compelling contrast of Grenadier's techniques with the bow and his fingers. It's answered with a reading of George Gershwin's "My Man Is Gone Now" that begins with a dramatic and improvised bowed intro before transitioning to the lithe, lyric line; Grenadier balances vulnerability and a commanding authority.
While solo double bass records are usually meant for a very specific group of listeners, The Gleaners proves an exception. It is so sensitive, creative, and stylistically diverse that it presents perhaps the first real opportunity for such a recording to engage an audience beyond the standard confines of aficionados and other musicians. The Gleaners is an inner exploration articulated with uncommon generosity, disciplined artistry, and a poet's gift for illumination.