Justin Grinnell performs lessons in entertainment

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Justin Grinnell is a teacher. He is also a jazz musician. The weaving of those two strands of professional accomplishment account for the entertaining and educational performance of his Justin Grinnell Quintet at Grossmont College on Nov. 30.

The evening concert kicked off with Grinnell saying unassumingly, “We’re just going to start.” The group launched into the classic “Black Nile,” with Grinnell laying down a strong, mellow bass line, accompanied by impressive riffs and smooth hand-offs of leads between the musicians.

Justin Grinnell is a teacher. He is also a jazz musician. The weaving of those two strands of professional accomplishment account for the entertaining and educational performance of his Justin Grinnell Quintet at Grossmont College on Nov. 30.

The evening concert kicked off with Grinnell saying unassumingly, “We’re just going to start.” The group launched into the classic “Black Nile,” with Grinnell laying down a strong, mellow bass line, accompanied by impressive riffs and smooth hand-offs of leads between the musicians.

True to the improvisational bent of jazz, Grinnell admitted with amusement to the audience and to his band mates that he had settled on a “last-minute decision” that the concert would feature the music of jazz great Wayne Shorter, who at 81 years of age is still composing and playing saxophone. Shorter has been recording since the 1950’s. Many of Shorter’s compositions have become jazz standards, and music historians and critics describe him as among the greatest living composers of small-group pieces.

Grinnell performed solely on acoustic bass for this concert, although he plays electric bass as well. Interspersed between the tunes, Grinnell switched into instructor mode, making remarks on Shorter’s musical career development and the nature of the music he wrote. “Shorter was clearly in the jazz tradition, with swing rhythms,” Grinnell noted midway through the concert. “And you can tell his music is a little on the dark side.”

Fellow Grossmont College music department faculty members performing in the group that night included Grinnell’s wife, Melonie Grinnell, who plays piano, and Derek Cannon, on trumpet and flugelhorn. Guest musicians Tripp Sprague, on tenor saxophone, and Richard Sellers, on drums, rounded out the quintet. The band plays in this particular five-member configuration six times each year. Their tight musicianship yielded a performance sound akin to that of a group playing together much more frequently. Their mutual respect and admiration for each other’s skills were readily evident during the performance. After pronouncing Shorter “still awesome,” Grinnell continued, “And he surrounds himself with awesome musicians, like I have tonight.”

The quintet played seven compositions during the hour and a half concert, which was staged before an audience of about 75 attendees and was intended to both provide relaxing holiday entertainment to East County residents and offer Grossmont music students the opportunity to fulfill a common class requirement to write an essay on a specific, live music event. Roughly three-quarters of the crowd members were students, in Grinnell’s estimate.

Grinnell earned bachelors and master’s degrees in jazz performance from San Diego State University. He has been teaching jazz history and music appreciation classes since 2005. He appears around San Diego County as a freelance musician, most often in a trio with his wife on piano and a percussionist.

He said of his dual performance roles, “When the students have only seen you lecturing, then see that you are actually musicians, they are more receptive.”

Six of the concert pieces were from Shorter’s career. Grinnell noted that the music was mostly from the 1960’s. Second on the playbill was “Mahjong,” which Grinnell described as modal jazz, lingering on a single chord and “making that interesting.” Next up was “Night Dreamer,” notable for being a jazz waltz in 3/4 time. Grinnell pointed out that Wayne Shorter penned several compositions in this “unusual tempo.” From there, the horn players retired off stage, as the remaining trio moved into a bossa nova featuring pianist Melonie on melodic lead, in “Pensativa.” The flugelhorn and tenor sax took first crack at “Infant Eyes” and then on “Witch Hunt.” 

“You can tell what’s distinctive in Shorter’s music,” Grinnell instructed. “He starts with a melody that’s simple, catchy and easy to remember. Then he adds weird intervals and makes it beautiful with all the notes stacked under the melody.” The performance concluded with “Yes or No,” an up-tempo piece with the horns again central and a late drum lead.

The seventh piece, written more recently, was next to last on the program. This was Grinnell’s own tribute composition to Shorter, entitled “Circular Reasoning.” “This is my ode to Wayne Shorter,” Grinnell said to introduce his composition.

In a post-concert interview, Grinnell reiterated that theme. “It’s important to me,” he said. “That in trying to put my own stamp on the music, I pay homage to the influences that have had a big impact on the way I write, on the aesthetic, grounded in history. I enjoy playing here. It’s open, and I get to play what I want. This is the freedom of playing on campus.”

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