Muriel Grossmann :: Devotion

I know that jazz has for a long time belonged to the entire world. But part of me wanted to believe that soul jazz could really only be made in America. Soul jazz, the funky, grooving stuff of the 60s and 70s, with its bluesy saxophone, church-raising organs and wicked guitar lines, was, to my mind, too spiritually rooted in the United States to ever really be credibly manufactured elsewhere. As jazz receded from its commercial heyday, soul jazz continued to fill clubs and chart hits. Regular folks, especially among the black middle classes, continued to dig on the danceable grooves of soul jazz, even as the heads and the cognoscenti wandered off in search of ever more forbidding forms of electricity and abstraction. The avant-garde ranged tirelessly over the globe to sustain an audience, but soul jazz belonged to the community. It was, as one jazz historian put it, pure people’s music.

This is why the Paris-born, Vienna-raised composer and saxophonist Muriel Grossmann’s American label debut Devotion struck me as so audacious. Here we have the Ibiza-based Grossmann—fronting a cosmopolitan quartet made of two Serbs, her longtime collaborators Radomir Milojkovic on guitar and Uros Stamenkovic on drums, and a Catalan, Abel Boquera on Hammond B3 organ—absolutely cooking. Grossman already has a formidable discography, releasing over a dozen albums over the last fifteen years, mostly on her own DreamlandRecords label in Spain; so, it is a little shocking that her stateside debut is this late coming. But the double LP Devotion on Jack White’s Third Man Records, does not blow the opportunity. If this is the first thing you are hearing from her, you may be taken aback by how confidently this group traces the many musical tributaries in and out of American soul.

Interestingly, Grossmann is almost always described as working in the idiom of spiritual jazz. This is true as far as it goes, and albums like 2018’s devastating Golden Rule (with its jaw-dropping fourteen-minute-long soprano odyssey, “Traneing In”) are plainly redolent of the searching modal intensity of the 70s post-Coltrane scene. But Goldmann was out there testifying with an ensemble that was, especially after organ player Llorenç Barcelo joined the group in 2018, fundamentally built to groove. In effect, her work over the last few years has been threading together the two sides of spiritual. Sometimes, they are manifesting the oneness of the universe; and sometimes, they are just taking our asses to church. When Grossmann’s group gets the balance perfectly—as on 2022’s excellent Universal Code—they approach the dreamy alchemy of Sam Rivers, Grant Green and Larry Young on Young’s unbeatable Blue Note session Into Somethin’.

Devotion’s epic twenty-two-minute opening track, “Absolute Truth” encapsulates the quartet’s ostensible ideal of funk in search of transcendence, where Grossmann’s gutbucket tenor leads give way to Milojkovic’s stuttering guitar runs and Boquera’s carnivalesque Hammond swirls. Grossmann even colors in a little flute around her sax for extra flavor. The mildly psychedelic “Calm” builds on Milojkovic’s low-slung blues riffing, while the organ wails and Grossmann’s tenor tears it up on top. Stamenkovic’s heavy but nimble percussion pushes the whole thing along in a slow, peacocking swagger. When Milojkovic and Boquera get lowdown like this, it brings to mind nothing so much as the extra-funky late 60s Prestige sides guitarist Pat Martino cut with the great Brother Jack McDuff. (Truth be told, much of the album sounds like an homage to Prestige’s endlessly sampled late 60s/early 70s rare groove heyday.) “Care” is another slice of heavenly jazz-funk, with Milojkovic jamming like Boogaloo Joe Jones. The sunny, stoned, open country pastoral of “Knowledge and Wisdom” has distinctly Grateful Dead vibes, like it was spun out of from the long closing jam of a late ’73 ‘Here Comes Sunshine.’  But before long, the jittery bugalú of “All Heart” gets the album furiously swinging again. The title track is pure gospel blues, with Milojkovic playing slide guitar over Boquera’s tent revival organ chords. Grossman’s lyrical flute solo at the end of this one is one of the album’s most unapologetically gorgeous moments. The flowing, Alice Coltrane-influenced closer “Mother of All” returns the group to their cosmic métier, before it too busts into something like a King Funk-era Grant Green workout, with Grossmann righteously blowing like the great tenor Harold Vick.

At a mammoth, multicolored ninety minutes brimming with relentlessly inventive playing and irresistible group dynamics, Devotion encapsulates everything that is exhilarating about Muriel Grossmann’s already substantial oeuvre. But more than that, this is arguably the funkiest work she’s done. Here all the restless sonic divination that has characterized much of her earlier work is brought back down to earth and channeled into the unstoppable groove. It is, after all, the people’s music. | b sirota

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