In the seven years since leaving his native São Paulo for Boston and then New York, guitarist Ricardo Grilli has found his voice as a distinctive jazz player and composer. His glowing debut album, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which his Dark House label will release on October 15, chronicles that journey in rich detail.
Grilli's restless creativity is manifested in his love of odd meters, offbeat structures, and themes that keep circling back on themselves like the narrative lines in the Italo Calvino novel from which Traveler takes its name. The guitarist, now 27, began writing songs out of necessity while studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I figured the best way to get people to play with me was to write interesting music they would want to play," he says. "And that worked."
Among the Berklee classmates with whom he forged an especially tight bond was the pianist Christian Li, who's featured on Traveler along with saxophonist Gustavo D'Amico, a friend of Grilli's from Brazil, and the bass-drum team of Jared Henderson and Lee Fish, whom Grilli met at a Boston club.
As a composer, Grilli uses a kind of free association method, starting out with a word or phrase and seeing where it will take him musically. The germ for the wistful "Revolver" was a magazine interview with R&B singer John Legend about his album, Evolver. That led Grilli to ruminate on the word "revolver" and the mechanism of "a thing that turns." In his song, he says, "I made the chords go round almost like Bill Evans did on 'Time Remembered.'" (Revolver also is the title of his favorite Beatles album.)
"Riga," a coolly propulsive tune featuring D'Amico on soprano saxophone, was named after the Baltic city, where Grilli once attended a conference as a student representative. "The Great Escape," boasting one of Grilli's most fluid, entrancing solos and sparkling electric piano by Li, is a nod to the Steve McQueen classic. The note-tripping, modal-style "Mark I" (a play on Mach 1) was written for tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, whose 2001 album, Dharma Days, is one of Grilli's all-time favorites. That album features Rosenwinkel, for whom Grilli wrote the alternately earthy and lighter-than-air "The Abstract."
Grilli will be performing the music from his new CD at the following venues: 10/27 Rockwood Music Hall, NYC (with Gustavo D'Amico, reeds; Christian Li, piano; Edward Perez, bass; Lee Fish, drums); 12/10 The Rex, Toronto (with Kelly Jefferson, reeds; Chris Pruden, piano; Jon Maharaj, bass; Lorenzo Castelli, drums); and 2/4 Scullers, Boston (with Jason Palmer, trumpet; piano TBD; Edward Perez, bass; Lee Fish, drums).