Like most contemporary jazz artists, keyboardist Tom Grant was faced with a problem: how to make his music distinctive.

For the 40-year-old Grant, the solution was to put that warhorse of music, the acoustic piano, at the center of his group's sound.

"The piano's a voice that's in everything we do," Grant said in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Houston recently. "I rely on it. Of course, we have the blend of the individual instrumentalists, but the piano is the focus."

Grant, who started playing piano at 5 and spent seven years studying the classics, prefers the acoustic instrument to the synthesizers currently in vogue. "It's the instrument I still feel best about playing," he said. "Plus, it's an instrument you can squeeze a tone out of. It has a totally mechanical touch, as opposed to the kind of touch you get on synthesizers. The newer synths are touch sensitive, but not like a piano. You can't get that that range of dynamics from other instruments."

Still, Grant uses synthesizers on both his live gigs (he plays At My Place tonight) and LPs--the most recent of which, "Take Me to Your Dream" (Pausa), just hit No. 29 on the Billboard jazz charts. But he uses synthesizers sparingly.

"I like to use string and brass sounds sometimes," he explained, "and there's the Hammond organ effects from my (Yamaha) DX-7 that I enjoy. But I rarely solo on synthesizer because it just doesn't captivate me."

Even with what many might consider the anachronistic acoustic piano in the forefront, Grant's music, which he describes as "somewhere along the continuum between jazz and pop," has a 'today' feel to it. "I think the way everything we play comes together gives us a modern approach," he said. "Since I haven't heard a band that is quite like ours, it sounds very contemporary to me."

Grant, once a strictly mainstream player who worked with trumpeter Woody Shaw and saxophonist Joe Henderson, found that a late-'70s stint with drum great Tony Williams' then-jazz/fusion band paved the way for his current direction, which began when he debuted the Tom Grant Band in 1981.

"While I was with Tony," he said, "I really started thinking about how my jazz roots and jazz sensibilities could be used in a pop setting, and that got me more plugged into pop music."

Did Grant stray from the straight-ahead road just to make a buck? "No, it was a natural thing," he said. "It was just fun to do, fun to experiment with."

His "experiments" have paid off. His quartet (Dan Balmer, guitar; Carlton Jackson, drums, and Jeff Leonard, bass) has been on several reasonably lucrative cross-country tours, and his three previous Pausa LPs have sold solidly. "As the band jelled and our sound grew to be something identifiable as the Tom Grant Band, we've gathered a strong audience," he said.

Grant, an Oregon native who still plays mainstream style with various bands in Portland when he's not touring, ties his past to his present when his group performs. "We'll do a Charlie Parker or Miles Davis tune on most sets," the musician who lists Erroll Garner, Chick Corea and Horace Silver as major influences said.

Mixing mainstream and contemporary genres doesn't alienate his audience, Grant feels. "If people like the sound of the band, then it doesn't matter what category of music we play, as long as it's good and we get into it," he said. "We make converts to jazz by playing straight-ahead tunes."

Grant, who realized "jazz was something really important in my life" when he visited his brother in New York at age 17 and heard masters like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, is trying to get the same vitality that sparks his live shows onto his LPs.

"My records are not always representative of the fire we get in person," he admitted, "because we're definitely a 'playing' band--we don't offer gruel for the masses. But we're trying to close that gap. For instance on "Take Me to Your Dream," there's some hard blowing. But there's so much more that can happen live and I'm trying to get that feeling on record."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World