Past and future necessarily collide in the work of any jazz musician. On his second album 1954, São Paulo-born, New York-based guitarist/composer Ricardo Grilli takes stock of his own history - both personal and musical - while also imagining how the modern day and its art would look from the perspective of the past. To realize that time-traveling vision he's enlisted an all-star band of deeply-rooted yet forward-thinking contemporaries: pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Eric Harland.
The title of 1954 (Tone Rogue Records) comes from the year in which Grilli's father was born - one possible beginning point for his own story. It also falls at the dawning of the Space Age, a time when people were looking optimistically forward to a future full of innovation and exploration. Significantly for the music contained within, it was also a time when jazz - bebop in particular - was thriving in Grilli's adopted home of New York City, ghosts of which he can't help but encounter as he walks through the city today.
"It gets a little mystical as you imagine it in your head how things were back then," Grilli says. "I wonder if those musicians ever thought that the music they were shaping would evolve to become the way it is now. The concepts we use in today's jazz still very much use the format of the bebop and hard bop era, even though they have more modern harmonies and meters."
No matter how much he engages in a dialogue with the past, Grilli's music is decidedly of the moment, replete with sleek, captivating melodies over tense, balance-challenging rhythms, combined in intricate but emotionally engaging structures. His compositions reveal the influence of modern masters like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner alongside adventurous pop experimentalists like Radiohead and Sigur Ros, with a relaxed but expressive melodicism imbued by a youth spent absorbing the tropical sounds of Jobim and Elis Regina.
Grilli's 2013 debut, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, captured the guitarist in a transitional moment. It documented not only his move from Brazil to Boston and then New York, but also his emergence onto the jazz scene after graduating from Berklee College of Music. Having picked up the guitar for the first time at the relatively advanced age of 20 and starting school at 23, five years later than most of his classmates, he recorded the album feeling like an underdog facing an uphill struggle.
That notion is left behind on 1954, which finds a more mature, self-assured Grilli in sophisticated communication with some of modern jazz's most renowned musicians. "For the longest time I felt like I had missed the start of the race and had to catch up to the competition," he says. "However, I have been very lucky to be able to play with so many of my heroes, and this record is, hopefully, a statement of my acceptance of my own playing and thinking myself worthy of playing with the musicians on it."
Long fascinated with astronomy and the cosmos (Stephen Hawking sits on his bookshelf beside the likes of Italo Calvino, the surrealist author who lent both If On a Winter's Night a Traveler and the current album's "Vertigo" their titles), Grilli weaves interstellar concepts throughout the tunes on 1954. Opening track "Arcturus" is named for the brightest star in the eastern celestial hemisphere, its gradual build in intensity (thanks to Harland's subtly insistent rhythms) suggesting the massive star's gravitational pull. "Cosmonauts," meanwhile, was inspired by the story of "phantom cosmonauts," an unconfirmed theory suggesting that Yuri Gagarin's successful flight may have been preceded by other ill-fated attempts.
"It's a terrifying story," Grilli says. "I imagined the fear of going into the unknown and not coming back. Jazz has a bit of that feeling, but not in the deadly sense. So I wanted to write an eerie, sad song, something a little somber, dark and mysterious."
That combination of the cosmic and the intimate is echoed throughout 1954. Especially poignant is the lovely, ethereal "Rings," which suggests the celestial rings surrounding Saturn and other planets as well as being a musical analog for the rings that symbolize union between people. The simmering, atmospheric "Radiance," partially inspired by Brian Blade's soulful Fellowship Band, evokes the far-off glow of heavenly bodies while pondering the loss of loved ones. "Breathe," essentially a cha cha cha with modern contours, provides a respite from the frantic "Arcturus," replicating the moment that a shuddering spacecraft breaks through the atmosphere into weightlessness.
Grilli also pays homage to some of his peers and mentors on 1954. "Pogo56" was written for trumpeter and Berklee professor Jason Palmer, while "Far Away Shores" is an homage to pianist Julian Shore, a close friend and collaborator. The album closes with "Pulse," a final word on the idea of looking backward to look forward: a modernist bop tune that swings hard over contemporary harmonic movement.
Grilli's scintillating quartet combines four artists who are bandleaders in their own rights and who all approach the creative process in similar, equally enthralling fashion. "When I write a song," Grilli explains, "I'm trying to write a soundtrack to a different world. I hope when people listen to it they get taken to a different place, and these guys are all amazing at that. You can give them any piece of music and they'll create new worlds and stories out of it."