"The pianos in jazz clubs usually suck," jokes Darrell Grant, the prodigal son of jazz. "Everybody knows churches have the best pianos."
While Grant's seamless and innovative fusion of pop, classical and jazz may not appeal to purists, its accessible melodicism and emotional intensity have helped to establish the versatile pianist as of one the genre's most gifted musical storytellers. On Jan. 23, Grant, a Colorado native, will return home to present Spirit: An Evening of Music from the Heart, at the All Souls Unitarian-Univeralist Church as part of their Journey to Community Performance Series.
Even prior to leaving Colorado as a teenager to study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Grant had realized the piano's vast potential as a storytelling tool.
"When I was 8, and I heard Harry Belafonte singing 'Erev Shel Shoshanim' in Hebrew, it was one the most beautiful things ever, and it convinced me that music had an unmatched ability to bring people together."
Though Grant studied classical music and played piano for rock bands while in high school, his stylistic deviance was always motivated by a desire to become a better jazz player. By the late 1980s, Grant had gained international recognition as the pianist in famed jazz singer Betty Carter's trio, and he continued to tour and release solo albums throughout the '90s.
"In jazz, I'm creating in the moment, and playing whatever the spirit of the piece dictates. To stay in one particular stylistic tradition is to deny parts of myself," said Grant. His unique approach to performance is made most evident in his solo rendition of the African spiritual, "Balm in Gilead," which Grant magically morphs in the slow movement from Johannes Brahms' F minor piano sonata.
"For me, jazz isn't about what notes you play, it's about how you play them," he said.
Grant, who is also a professor at Portland State University, is the sort of artist whose playing defies facile categorization, and yet always manages to evoke something familiar within his listeners. On his latest album, the 2002 release, Spirit, Grant absorbs world music and folk-pop references into his unmistakable, nimble-fingered approach to jazz.
"For Spirit, I only recorded songs that made me cry," said Grant. "Hopefully the emotion carries over to the listener."
The album, which features versions of both the Curtis Mayfield hit, "People Get Ready," and James Taylor's "Shower the People," is as a much a celebration of humanity as it is a vivid testimony to the stylistic ingenuity of the pianist.
"If my music can have an effect on people that goes beyond the night that I play, then what I'm doing is a success," said Grant, who is performing in Unitarian churches across the country for his current tour. "I feel like the Unitarian church does a great job of supporting diversity, building community, and of course, they have good pianos."
By donating most of the proceeds from his concerts to Unitarian community arts projects, Grant believes he is making an impact that will ultimately outlast the music.
-- Joe Kuzma
Darrell Grant presents Spirit: An Evening of Music From the Heart
All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 730 N. Tejon St.
Friday, Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m.
General admission: $10 Seniors, students,children: $8