Friday, May 25, 2018

Dick Grove and The Unusual in Jazz Arranging

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dick Grove has an extraordinary flair for color and a variety of timbres in his orchestrations. By using a cluster type of voicing, Grove achieves special moments of rich orchestral texture which are skilfully interwoven with statements from the soloist. The sound of muted trombones that is actually played by four open horns, with a flugelhorn on top, two tenor trombones and a bass trombone is just one of his devices. Various other tonal colors are achieved by using the flute doubling the lead an octave higher, putting woodwinds above the brass, and adding warmth through the use of flugelhorns….”
- Leonard Feather, insert notes to Little Bird Suite on Pacific Jazz [PJ-74]

I have always had a soft spot for Jazz played with unusual instrumental combinations. “Unusual” in the sense of not often heard together. One of the recognized masters of using instruments in odd combinations was the late, Gil Evans.

Throughout his career dating back to his arrangements for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and his influence on the Birth of the Cool recordings in the late 1940s, on his orchestral collaborations with trumpeter Miles Davis on Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain in the late 1950, and on his own recordings for Impulse! such as Out of the Cool in the 1960s, Gil’s penchant for orchestrating rarely used piccolos, bass clarinets, and French horns in combination with the more standard sound of trumpets and trombones created unique sonic textures.

As Paul F. Berliner notes in Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation: “Significantly, the initial decision a leader makes about a band's instrumental, thereby determining the collective palette of sounds, is the first step in defining the nature of arrangements overall.”

Based in Los Angeles, arranger-composer Dick Grove had an appeal similar to that of Gil Evans with his use of the unfamiliar in his Jazz orchestration and those of us who were aware of Dick’s writing were very excited by the 1960 release of his Little Bird Suite on Pacific Jazz [PJ-74] hoping that it was a portent of things to come.

Sadly, with the exception of Big, Bad and Beautiful: Roy Burns and The Dick Grove Orchestra [FPM 1001] which was released in 1973, there was to be nothing else of Dick’s writing for his own recordings.

Over the years, Dick did television scores and produced studio arrangements for Nancy Wilson, Buddy Rich and Gerald Wilson, but from 1971 onward, Dick devoted much of his time to teaching.

Dick’s writing and Little Bird Suite [Pacific Jazz PJ-74] have always been among my favorites for another reason. As one performer noted in the Berliner book:"If you could only afford a few records, you learned them so thoroughly. You played them over and wand over, studying them for every musical detail, every bit of information you could get about the heads [the theme on which a Jazz performance is based], the solos, and the arrangements before you wore them out completely.”

This was exactly the same as my experience with Dick Grove’s music on Little Bird Suite [Pacific Jazz PJ-74].

In his always instructive liner notes, here’s what Leonard Feather, the late, distinguished Jazz author and critic, had to say about Dick and the recording after which you’ll find three videos featuring the Doodad, Circlet and Nighthawk tracks from Little Bird Suite. See if you can hear the unique sonorities in Dick Grove’s writing. Paul Horn is the alto saxophone soloist on both cuts.

“It seems that there is always a stage in the career of every major artist at which the remark is made by surprised listeners: "Where has he been all these years?," or
"Why hadn't I heard of him before?" With the obvious exception of child prodigies, most of the important contributors have to go through this phase; in the case of Dick Grove there can be no doubt that it will be the near-unanimous reaction to this album.

As was the case with Clare Fischer, Gil Evans and others now recognized as important arrangers, Dick Grove had to wait until he was in his thirties before he could make any impact on the jazz scene. Unlike the others, he is a latecomer in the actual craft of writing. “It’s only in the last three years,” he says, “that I’ve really learned to write, to the point that I could say what I wanted to.”

Born December 18, 1927, in Lakeville, Indiana, he was not seriously interested in music until about 1942. “My mother and brother were both musicians; he was quite a bit older and played in movie houses, piano and organ. I didn’t study until I got out of high school and went to Denver U. for a couple of years. I'm mainly self-taught, trial and error style. I picked up piano and.used to double on vibes."

In 1954 he moved out to California, concentrating for the most for the most part on backing singers, writing and teaching. He played with Alvino Rey for a while (but then, who hasn't?), and lately has done some effective writing and playing (with or without and credit for the writing) on records with Mavis Rivers.

“Didn’t you ever try to submit anything to any of the name bands?" I asked him.

"No, I got into sort of a trap, by getting things going in my own direction. If I were to submit something to Harry James, say, I would have to write the way the Harry James band plays. Or if I wrote for Basie in the Basie style, it wouldn't be me at all. I almost got to the point where I was going to have to do something like that, but I feel I have something of my own to say and it finally dawned on me that anything I do is worth more to me under my own name.”

In this manner, the necessity for personal expression became the mother of orchestral invention and the Dick Grove Orchestra came into existence.

The band has been together, with a few personnel variations, for three years, but chiefly as a rehearsal group. Lately, there have been a few in person appearances at college concerts; the plan, now that the group has finally been committed to records is to keep together, play more concerts and go on the road if and when the demand warrants it.

Of his influences, Dick says: "Naturally I admire Gil Evans, mainly for the mature conception he has; but rhythmically, I write very differently.” An important difference also is that Gil's best known ventured have been arrangements of standard material, whereas Dick essentially is a composer-arranger who concentrates on his own original themes.

Of the instrumentation he comments: “I use the regular basic set-up of reeds, brass and rhythm, but I don't write by sections. There are so many ways to create variety through unusual voicings or instrumental combinations.

"All the trumpets double on fluegelhorn, which gives a better blend with the woodwinds. I use the piano occasionally, but only as an orchestral thing, not in the rhythm section.” ...

Repeated hearings of the album will reveal much more than can be outlined in any verbal summation. There are so many intricate or unusual uses of various tonal colors … that the whole set of performances takes on more interest at each hearing, both technically and harmonically.

Not the least noteworthy aspect of Dick’s success is his ability to achieve these results without resorting to such devices as atonality or continuous meter-shifting. “There are so many things that can be done within the present framework,” he says, “that my feeling is if you can’t hear it, you shouldn’t write it.”

Clearly there are so many things he can hear that the listener’s ear is engaged from the first moment and never allowed to wander as the album follows its polychromatic course.

If orchestral Jazz is going to survive, the strength of its will to live must depend on initiatives of men like Dick Grove. ....”


  1. Thanks for writing this! I was fortunate to study with Dick in the late 1980's. I miss that experience and I miss him as a mentor.

  2. I did too, and miss him just as much. He solved many mysteries. His chord families and chromatic tonal music ideas are what else but music to our ears.

  3. Yeah, and he was the epitome of cool. But those cigarettes!


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