Alive and Well is the name of a seminal jazz trio originally founded in the Halifax area in the 1980s. Comprised of alto saxophonist Donnie Palmer, drummer Jerry Granelli, and bassist Skip Beckwith, the group assembles three of our region’s most highly respected jazz artists. These three have also all played pivotal roles in jazz education, and the Atlantic Jazz Festival as we now know it owes much of its inception to them in one way or another.
This weekend’s performances by Alive and Well were presented by JazzEast at a new space called 1313, established by former JazzEast director Susan Hunter. Formerly known as the Deli Green Market on Hollis Street near Morris, 1313 has been effectively transformed into an attractive arts presentation venue. The room had a pleasant ambience which was greatly enhanced by the quiet, attentive audience. (According to Donnie Palmer, an attentive audience is a luxury seldom enjoyed by performers at the sole remaining jazz club up in Toronto these days.)
With respect to audiences, it’s worthwhile to note the social position most frequently occupied by jazz music these days: mostly, it’s background music in restaurants or synth-based “lite grooves” to create aural ambience in low-lit hipster nightclubs. However, the jazz played by Alive and Well is authentic jazz — the real deal — and it requires an attentive audience (which it received).
The entire night’s music was totally improvised; nothing about the programme was planned beforehand. Audiences were given over to an immersive sense of immediacy; they heard music which staunchly anchored them in the present moment. Those who listened and watched carefully were rewarded on many levels throughout the evening.
The particular musical qualities of each artist are worth trying to define, at least in part. Donnie Palmer played with a lush, gorgeous alto sound, and he rendered all of his lines with incredibly tasteful phrasing and a truly profound melodic sensibility. One was mindful that they were hearing a truly seasoned professional at the height of his career. As a jazz saxophonist myself, I was quite inspired by Palmer’s performance.
Skip Beckwith provided a great low end to the group. His sound on the bass was rich and full-bodied, and he possessed a clear, resonant attack. And while he had no trouble playing strictly in time and within the chord changes, Beckwith also demonstrated a remarkable deftness at slipping in and out of the time and the key — and then “nailing the one” at the top of the next chorus seemingly as if by magic. He also displayed fantastic listening and improvisational skills; his solos were not ones over which the audience conversed with one another.
With respect to the drums, Donnie Palmer likes to say that it takes a hell of a good drummer to be better than no drummer at all. Jerry Granelli fits the bill as a hell of a good drummer. He’s no ordinary jazz drummer, though. It would be more accurate to describe Jerry Granelli as an artist who uses drumsticks instead of paintbrushes.
To be sure, Granelli plays his drum kit like a melodic musical instrument. It is not uncommon to hear actual melodies issue forth from his drums and cymbals when he plays. Furthermore, he doesn’t so much “mark the time” on the drums as he plays tasteful, rhythmic phrases that perfectly complement whatever the other musicians are playing at that moment. He does this with an apparently effortless but intense focus and concentration; he really appears to hear everything that’s happening in every moment of each tune. And if this weren’t enough, Granelli separates himself further from the ordinary drummer by showing incredible restraint in deciding whether or not to respond to whatever he’s hearing at the time. Drummers — with all due respect, percussionistes — are not unknown to be an egotistical and loud-playing lot, and they rarely tend towards this level of engaged listening and interaction in a group.
Later that same week, 1313 opened its doors to celebrate Donnie Palmer’s 70s birthday. Alive and Well played one last short set before staff brought out several homemade cakes containing a combined total of 70 candles. Not long afterwards, I stood with Donnie Palmer offstage when Jerry Granelli and Skip Beckwith were leaving the venue to go home for the night. Donnie teased each of them for leaving early, but I heard their voices crack with emotion when saying good-bye to each other. Since Donnie lives in Toronto now, it’s hard to say when exactly this group will perform together again. After the others left, Donnie looked at me and shook his head with a sad smile. “Oh, we’re just a bunch of old farts,” he said with his typically bowed head but with tears in his eyes. After that, he put his horn away for the night and hung out with the audience and other musicians in the room before returning to Toronto.