Pasquale Grasso Embraces a Bebop Aesthetic

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Pasquale Grasso looks to address bebop pianism on guitar.

(Photo: Deneka Peniston)

Growing up in Ariano Irpino, Italy, Pasquale Grasso regularly listened to foundational recordings of the bebop era. And by the age of 6, he was practicing guitar 12 hours a day.

Solo Standards, Vol. 1—Grasso’s Sony Masterworks debut—focuses on solo guitar, and finds the bandleader assimilating and extending the music’s zigzagging melodies and complex chords with elan. It seems as if all that practice paid off.

At a recent Sunday gig at New York’s Mezzrow, Grasso and his quintet blew a hurricane of bebop, ballads and standards. Utilizing classical guitar position and technique, Grasso—who took top honors at the 2015 Wes Montgomery Jazz Guitar Competition—essentially performed as a piano player, plucking chords with his right hand while fingering chords and solos on his left hand. (The fingers on his left hand are a half-inch longer than those on his right.) In any configuration, Grasso’s playing is practically faultless, his hands darting over the instrument like hummingbirds.

“I am always rooting for new players that come along, particularly folks who can answer questions of their own design that may not have been addressed before,” Pat Metheny, a mentor to the young guitarist, wrote in an email. “In Pasquale’s case, he set out on one of the most difficult treks imaginable on the instrument—a quest to deeply address the specifics of a post-war piano style that has eluded several generations of musicians. ... The depth of his vocabulary and stunning virtuosity on the instrument feels open-ended to me in the best possible way.”

Quiet and soft-spoken, the 30-year-old guitarist continues to practice up to six hours a day, even amid a schedule that’s included residencies at New York clubs like Django in TriBeCa and Tartina in Harlem.

“My goal was to play what I love, all the songs I grew up with,” Grasso explained at a West Village coffee shop. “Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Art Tatum are my idols. I wanted to play like Bird, but it’s hard, because the guitar is such a weird instrument, especially for articulation and the sound and the fingering; there’s 10 ways of playing the same scale different.”

Sony Masterworks is matching Grasso’s dedication to bebop with a novel approach: Rather than release a single full-length album, the imprint’s releasing Grasso’s solo guitar work as three digital-only EPs: Solo Standards, Vol. 1 (currently available), Solo Ballads, Vol. 1 (currently available) and Solo Monk (Oct. 11), with the goal to popularize Grasso’s music in the world of streaming playlists and heavy headphone rotation.

“I wake up, and the first thing I want to do is practice,” Grasso said. “Today, I played some technique, some scales and arpeggios, then I played in different keys and played one song for 20 minutes. I spend my day for the music; I love doing this.” DB