Monday, December 13, 2010

Matt Grondin: The RA Source (2009)

The Ra Source, the debut album from New Orleans based musician Matt Grondin, heralds the arrival of a new talent of range and prowess. As a guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader, Grondin has taken his love of funk, jazz, and blues and produced an instrumental album so versatile that it manages to pull off an almost impossible task – taking what have become traditional forms and making them his own.
Grondin is a musician’s musician – a guitarist whose skill is recognized by those who know playing – and The Ra Source showcases that skill amidst a myriad of twists and turns. The album’s opener, “Apocalypse” has a funky strut that charges hard and fast, seemingly never coming up for air – one solo comes immediately upon the other, keys into trumpet into screaming guitar – and it sets the tone for the entire album.
The son of founding .38 Special drummer Jack Grondin, Matt spent his formative years playing in various jam-rock bands in and around his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Despite growing up in a southern-rock family, his appreciation of jazz and funk led him relocate to New Orleans in early 2009. As he recounts with a laugh, “New Orleans, given the fact that I love the music that comes from there, seemed like a good fit. Jacksonville is not quite a hot bed for that kind of music.”
It was in New Orleans that Grondin found both his musical direction and great collaborators. While looking to find a cool band to see one night, he was directed to The Blue Nile, where he encountered the Denton, Texas based band, Snarky Puppy. As Grondin remembers, “When I walked in and saw them, I was completely floored. I had no idea who they were, but they were badass.” He continues, “I could tell that their bass player, Michael League, was the leader because he was giving cues. I had already decided to do my solo record at that point, and when I spoke to him after the show, he told me that they had backed up artists before and would be happy to work with me if I needed a band in studio.”
Grondin and League quickly found a groove working together, and after two months of tossing ideas back and forth and doing some pre-production work, they entered the studio with Snarky Puppy backing and with League enlisted as co-producer/arranger. Grondin recounts, “I had never even played with a single member of the band and had barely met them, but all of a sudden they were MY band. I was worried how it might turn out, but it ended up being far better than I could have ever imagined.”
While sitting in with many of today’s finest bands, Grondin has earned the respect of those he’s played with, and that respect has translated into some of the album’s finest moments, with guest appearances including Blues Traveler’s John Popper, who contributes some gritty harmonica on “Juggernaut,” and Ivan Neville, who plays organ and clavinet on “Juggernaut” and “Junglefunk.” JJ Grey, who inspired Grondin to take the reins and do his own record, lends a vocal intro to the beginning of “Juggernaut.”
The Ra Source’s ten songs, all written or co-written by Grondin, feature a broad array of tone and vibe; from the chunky funk and disjointed swagger of “Grease Trap,” featuring a killer organ solo from Bobby Sparks and tenor sax work by Skerik, to the ethereal groove of the very Snarky influenced “Sun God,” featuring some amazing flute playing by Karl Denson, who also played sax on “Emerald City” and “Lucid Dream.” And on “Balboa,” a very 1970’s sounding horn-driven anthem, rising Crescent City star Troy Andrews, aka “Trombone Shorty,” delivers a trumpet solo reminiscent of Tower of Power’s finest moments.
The Ra Source was mixed by studio legend, Elliot Scheiner, whose work, especially with Steely Dan (in addition to The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, and more), has been a tremendous influence on Grondin’s own work as a recording engineer, a role he frequently assumed during the making of the album. He recalls, “When Elliot told me he was willing do it (at Blackbird Studio nonetheless), it was a dream come true for me. He took it to a whole other place sonically.”
But its Grondin’s guitar playing that shines brightest on the album. There’s nothing clichéd or routine about his playing; it’s immensely tasteful and he knows exactly when to lay back and when to attack. One can hear the influence of Derek Trucks, Jimmy Herring, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as players from the jazz side of the spectrum such as George Benson and Pat Martino.
Grondin says, “I try to find a place where my southern and blues background can blend with my other love, which is jazz. I’ve never been a true jazz player, but I love harmony and what can happen when the two worlds collide. I’d have to say that Derek and Jimmy really showed me what’s possible in regards to that, and I’d have to count them as my biggest influences.”
Grondin concludes, “I feel really proud to have stepped out and made my first record as a solo artist. Funky, upbeat, with lots of horns – this is the kind of album I always wanted to make, but was a little scared to try. I’m incredibly grateful to have the level of talented people that are on this record, and I hope it will show people a side of me that they maybe didn’t realize I was capable of.” And indeed The Ra Source is a showcase for the kind of music that Grondin wants to make, one with roots in the past, but now totally his own.
01. Apocalypse [04:06]
02. Grease Trap [04:44]
03. Balboa [05:25]
04. Sun God [05:48]
05. Juggernaut [06:40]
06. Lucid Dream [06:16]
07. Slippin' [05:30]
08. Emerald City [06:50]
09. Forsaken & Forgiven [04:19]
10. Junglefunk [07:09]
Ra Source
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