Nick Grondin Promotes Cultural Diplomacy

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Nick Grondin’s new album is titled A View Of Earth.

(Photo: Mark Wilson)

At last year’s Umbria Jazz Festival, Nick Grondin made his mark without even lifting his guitar. He served as the conductor for an ensemble of six Italian guitar students expressing themselves on John Scofield’s “Do Like Eddie” and two of his own tunes.

A Berklee College of Music guitar faculty member for the past seven years, Grondin serves as an instructor at the Berklee at Umbria Jazz Clinics, whose participants traditionally strut their stuff in a performance at the end of the annual festival in Perugia, Italy.

“For two intense weeks before the show, we built the repertoire and then worked on how to create the music in new and exciting ways with rhythm cycles, harmonic changes, improvisation and dynamics,” Grondin said from his home in the Boston area. “But the most exciting thing is showing the beauty of combining elements and learning how to play together without border crossings.”

The student band played the journey-like “Softline” from Grondin’s new album, A View Of Earth (Everybody Wins Music). The 10-song collection melds rock, folk and contemporary jazz, layered with luminous colors, time shifts and plenty of saxophone gusto. The styles move fluidly, such as on the melodic gem “Ships Passing” with wordless vocals by Aubrey Johnson, followed by “Everybody Wins,” which opens as a bluegrass-tinged rockabilly cooker with skipping drums before settling into an intriguing arrangement for piano, trumpet, saxophone and guitar.

Grondin also sings and scats Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”

“Jimi was my original guitar hero,” he said. “I admired him so much, the way he innovated. This may be his deepest song. So, we had to be cautious in honoring his spirit, but I did add my own ideas to make it more jazz, to swing it with a half-time feel and extend the harmony.”

Grondin has an impressive academic resume, too. He attended the EDIM music school in Paris, earned his bachelor’s from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master’s in jazz composition from New England Conservatory of Music in 2008. This spring, he earned his doctorate of musical arts from NEC.

Grondin also spent two years at Harvard University teaching jazz harmony and jazz improvisation classes, where he learned a valuable lesson from Herbie Hancock, who was delivering a lecture series there: the importance of jazz being an art of cultural diplomacy.

“At Berklee, I applied for a grant to record an album,” he said. “In my application, I wrote about my conversation with Herbie, as well as my experience at the Panama Jazz Festival, where I coached and mentored Panamanian students, as well as taught them a master class.” Grondin received the grant, which set into motion two days of studio time (with engineering thrown into the mix) with an ensemble that included many of his Boston friends, as well as guests.

Valuable support on A View Of Earth came from pianist/keyboardist Jon Cowherd, who appears on six of the 10 tracks. “I had known Nick for a few years before he called me to play and help produce this session,” said Cowherd. “Nick surrounded himself with the perfect folks for the job—great soloists but also team players, which is what it takes to pull off a project like this: musicians whose goal is creating beauty together and not merely to impress as individual soloists.” DB




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April 2020
Gregory Porter
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