One That Got Away: Steve Grossman, 1951-2020 (by Mark Stryker)

I was saddened to learn that tenor and soprano saxophonist Steve Grossman died last week at 69. Yet I also confess to thinking that, given the broad outlines of his peripatetic life and issues with substance abuse, it was also an honest victory that he almost made it to 70.

Grossman was one of the most remarkable prodigies in jazz history. Lee Morgan is an apt comparison for a horn player who also had a personalized sound and command of the musical language of his day while still a teenager. Born in Brooklyn, Grossman started on alto at 8. Under the tutelage of his older brother, Hal, who played trumpet, Steve shot out of the blocks like a jackrabbit. At 10, he was transcribing Charlie Parker solos. At 16, he was fluent in Coltrane’s language, from “Giant Steps” through “Impressions” and “Afro-Blue.” At 17, he was studying at Juilliard with Joe Allard, a guru of the mechanics of the saxophone sound (who also taught Dave Liebman, Michael Brecker, and Bob Berg). At 18, Grossman recorded on soprano with Miles Davis at the Big Fun sessions in November 1969. He turned 19 in January 1970 and was back in the studio with Miles in February, March, and April. Grossman recorded A Tribute to Jack Johnson with Miles on April 7 and made his debut in the trumpeter’s working band, replacing Wayne Shorter, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco from April 9-12.

Grossman was baptized in Bird and Trane but came of age at the dawn of fusion. Like many of his peers, he was comfortable in multiple sound worlds, from the swinging post-bop he played with Elvin Jones on Live at the Lighthouse, to the progressive jazz-rock of his own records like Terra Firma and the similarly eclectic spirit that animates his work with the underrated co-operative Stone Alliance with bassist Gene Perla and drummer-percussionist Don Alias. 

Grossman’s basic harmonic and rhythmic conception was Coltrane-derived, but he was pushing toward a unique voice in the 1970s. He was going for something, even if it wasn’t always clear what exactly it was. His playing was loud, relentless, athletic, audacious, arrogant. It had a vibe. Grossman always had his own distinctive tone, especially that violent squall on tenor when the spirit welled up inside of him. When he soared ecstatically into the altissimo register above the standard range of the horn, or his sound exploded into raucous overtones in the midst of a blazing run of intervals, Grossman gave the impression of a hippie jazz musician speaking in tongues. His passion and intensity made you want to shout.   

Listen, for example, to his soprano solo, on “Satsuki” from 1970 on Terumasa Hino’s Alone Together (issued in Japan on Takt). Over a furiously boiling and broken rock beat from Harold Mabern, Richard Davis and Motohiko Hino, Grossman’s soprano just destroys. All his calling cards are here: Harmonically dense, inside-outside pentatonic and chromatic lines played with precocious authority and an ear for unique note choices; casual dissonance and a play of tension and release; sheer technical command of the horn; a screaming altissimo; offhanded dollops of free rhythmic and melodic abstraction; a wild abandon in his sound and attack. All this from a 19-year-old? Holy shit!

Beyond the Coltrane roots, his soprano owes something to the Wayne Shorter of Miles’ “Lost Quintet.” I think there might be something of Lee Morgan’s fire and go-for-broke attitude in Grossman’s mix too. The whole Grossman-Liebman-Brecker approach in the 1970s has influenced multiple generations of saxophonists (for better or worse), especially as the harmony and scale-based lines became codified and disseminated via jazz education. It’s such a ubiquitous sound in contemporary jazz that it’s easy to forget that Grossman was out in front of his peers in 1970. Yet a decade later, he was basically nowhere.

What happened?

Drugs were a key factor by all accounts, although the story is surely more complicated. I don’t know all the details of his personal life: his goals and ambitions; his mental outlook; his network of friends and family; how he judged his place within the jazz ecosystem; the nature of his relationships with peers and the elder statesmen like Miles and Elvin, who called him up to the majors when he was so young. Human beings make jazz, and human beings are complicated. Luck and fate can be fickle too. So, I have no idea what Grossman saw when he looked in a mirror later in his life; but from the outside, the reflection I see looks like a cautionary tale.

When Grossman re-emerged around 1984, he had relocated to Italy and retired big chunks of his Coltrane-based style in favor of an older, bebop idiom leaning heavily on Sonny Rollins’ elastic, late ‘50s language. The transformation was truly odd. It’s impossible for me to communicate just how shocking it was to put on Grossman’s new LP Way Out East in 1985 and hear him playing “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “There Will Never Be Another You” like Newk in 1958. He recorded prolifically in subsequent decades, and typically sounds good, occasionally fantastic; but few dates command attention. One exception is Love is the Thing with the Cedar Walton Trio on Red Records (1985). It’s a bona fide 5-star record, an organic statement that hints at a new maturity; but most of Grossman’s work as a leader in the last 35 years of his life has the ragged feel of a jam session. 

Yeah, OK, “Star Eyes.” E-flat. 1, 2, 1, 2, 3 … 

Part of the disappointment is that while fusion had begun chasing its own tale by the end of the ‘70s, Grossman was a cat who had the potential to find fresh avenues of expression within the idiom. The best of Stone Alliance suggests a vast playing field of exploration that, to paraphrase a later title from Geri Allen, was open on all sides. Grossman was only 29 in 1980. Had he kept forging ahead, where might he have ended up? (Incidentally, it’s a shame that Stone Alliance never had major-label support.)

Still, the major issue with Grossman’s mid-career switcheroo has less to do with favoring a specific vocabulary or idiom than the sense that he simply lost interest in growing as an artist. He didn’t have to keep playing fusion. Love is the Thing contains seeds of an intriguing marriage of Rollins and Coltrane within the frame of the acoustic mainstream. I’m grateful that he gave us this special document, particularly the joyful melodic and rhythmic wit of “Easy to Love,” capped by a transcendent tag. There are welcome subtleties and dynamics here that were absent in his earlier work. But the truth is that he never really developed this direction any further either. 

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Grossman squandered much of his early potential. Maybe it all came a little too easily. Maybe playing with Miles at 18 was too much too soon. Maybe he was never cut out to be a bandleader or conceptualist. Grossman was tremendously gifted but lacked the combination of ambition, discipline, and temperament it takes to elevate natural gifts to a higher plane of creative artistry. Nor did he seem to have the personal constitution required to steady the ship when his life started to go sideways. Having said all that, survival is nothing to take for granted, especially in jazz. Like I said earlier, Grossman nearly made it to 70, and he found a way of life overseas that allowed him to work and record regularly for most of the last 35 years of his life.   

Comparisons, however, are revealing. In 1972-73 Grossman shared the front line in Elvin Jones’ band with Dave Liebman and the two were like twins — white, Jewish, Brooklyn-born tenor players, among the first of the younger generation of saxophonists to dive head-first into a post-Coltrane language. Since then, Liebman, famously driven and intensely self-aware, assembled one of the most diverse and productive careers of his generation as a player, teacher, and bandleader. Liebman was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2011. Grossman was the greater natural talent, but Liebman grew into the greater artist. 

Grossman left an important mark on the jazz of his time. The tragedy is that it could have been larger.

Five Key Recordings

Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia). Grossman makes the most of his relatively brief solos on Miles’ funk-rock knock-out punch from 1970.

Elvin Jones, Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note). Recorded on Elvin’s 45th birthday in 1972 with his working band of Grossman, Liebman, and Gene Perla, this double-LP remains a post-bop talisman for saxophonists. Grossman and Liebman stretch out for days. (Bonus tracks on the CD volumes.) 

Stone Alliance (PM). Recorded in 1975-76, the debut LP by the cooperative trio with Grossman, Perla, and Don Alias, released on Perla’s independent label. It’s amazing how much intensity and density these three players create at full throttle.   

Steve Grossman, Terra Firma (PM). Grossman’s third LP as a leader, mostly recorded in 1976, adds keyboardist Jan Hammer to the Stone Alliance trio. En fuego! 

Steve Grossman, Love is the Thing (Red). A tremendous quartet date from 1985 with Cedar Walton, David Williams, and Billy Higgins. In part 2 of my Do The Math interview last year, I dissect Grossman’s playing on Easy to Love.” 

Deep Cuts

Chick Corea, The Sun (Express). A rare Japanese release recorded in New York in Sept. 1970. Grossman (at 19) holds his own with Chick, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, plus percussionists and a cameo by Liebman on musette. Talk about a vibe! Chick was on the verge of Circle, and the playing is open and loose — sometimes free, sometime vamping, sometimes swinging. Thank God for YouTube.  

Terumasa Hino, Alone Together (Takt). Again, thank God for YouTube. Incendiary Japanese LP from 1970 with nascent fusion crossing paths with blazing post-bop. Hino, Grossman, Harold Mabern, Richard Davis, Motohiko Hino.

Miles Davis, Black Beauty and Miles Davis at Fillmore (both Columbia). Exciting and raw live documents with Grossman in Miles’ working band. The former was taped April 10, 1970, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco with a sextet (Corea, Holland, DeJohnette, Airto Moreira). The latter comes from four nights at the Fillmore East in New York in June with Keith Jarrett added to make the group a septet.

Elvin Jones, Merry Go-Round and Mr. Jones (both Blue Note), Grossman shares saxophone duties with Liebman, Joe Farrell, and Pepper Adams on the former from 1971 — one of Jones’ finest LPs as a leader. On the latter a year later, Farrell drops out, and Grossman gets a ballad feature, “Soultrane.” 

Steve Grossman, Some Shapes to Come (PM). Also reissued as The Bible. Grossman’s 1973 debut as a leader with the same Jan Hammer-plus-Stone Alliance personnel as Terra Firma, but not quite as seasoned as the later record.

Stone Alliance, Stone Alliance: “Marcio Montarroyos;” and Con Amigos (both PM). On these dates from 1976-77, the core trio is augmented by a rotating cast of guests that broaden the palette with flavors of Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere Coda: The slimmed down trio can be heard in concert recordings from 1977 that Perla issued on PM about 15 years ago: Live in Amsterdam, Live in Bremen, Live in Buenos Aires.   

Steve Grossman, Born at the Same Time (Owl). From 1977 with a Paris-based rhythm section anchored by Swiss-born drummer Daniel Humair. A dark and mysterious record. Who knew the French could rock out like this?

Ray Mantilla, Synergy (Red). Grossman only appears on three tracks on this Latin jazz date in 1986, but he’s so inspired, especially mixing Sonny and Trane influences on “Star Eyes,” that he steals the record.

Steve Grossman, Do It. (Dreyfus): Grossman meets Barry Harris and Art Taylor. Ragged around the edges but fun. From 1991 with Reggie Johnson on bass. 

Steve Grossman, Time to Smile (Dreyfus). An engaging 1993 reunion with Elvin Jones, along with Tom Harrell, Cecil McBee, and Willie Pickens

Johnny Griffin, Johnny Griffin/Steve Grossman Quintet (Dreyfus). Grossman raised his game when he got to spar with another saxophonist, and there’s palpable chemistry with Griffin.  From 2000 with a swinging trio of Michael Weiss, Pierre Michelot, and Alvin Queen.

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press).

Also on DTM:

Interview with Mark Stryker — Part one about a career in journalism and Jazz in Detroit, part two is about saxophonists.

The Bard of Bebop: Ira Gitler (by Mark Stryker)

George Walker: Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)

Traps, the Drum Wonder: on Buddy Rich (by Mark Stryker)