In March of last year, the jazz community was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of trumpeter, cornetist, and composer Ron Miles, who was just 58, from a rare form of blood cancer. Miles, with his warm and understated approach to both improvisation and composition, had only just begun to enjoy a well-earned place in the limelight after decades of admiration from fellow master musicians, among them Bill Frisell.
Grant Gordy is among the many other improvisers who have been deeply inspired by Miles. In fact, Gordy was so taken with the trumpeter’s last studio album, 2020’s Rainbow Sign, that he used it as a sort of template for the compositions on his own new record, Peripheral Visions. This kind of borrowing might be common in music, but what makes it unusual in this instance is that Gordy has used Miles’ concepts in a setting associated more with bluegrass than jazz—a string quartet with violinist Alex Hargreaves, mandolinist Dominick Leslie, and bassist Aidan O’Donnell.
Gordy, who is 40, is one of the most respected flatpickers of his generation, not to mention a bright presence in American acoustic music in general. Since his 2010 self-titled debut album, he has used bluegrass as a foundation while stretching out far beyond the genre’s confines to find his voice as an improviser, composer, and arranger. At the same time, he has lent his distinctive picking to ensemble work with contemporary acoustic heavyweights like mandolinist David Grisman, banjoist Tony Trischka, and violinist Darol Anger.
Early last December, I called Gordy at his home in Brooklyn, New York, and we chatted about how he thinks about music, the serendipitous discoveries along his musical path, how Miles’ work influenced the making of the new album, and the steel-string guitars that he finds feel most like home.
You are a flatpicking guitarist, and your latest album, Peripheral Visions, has a distinctive chamber jazz influence. How would you describe your musical identity, and how did you get to where you are as a player?
I consider myself very much like a folk guitar player—or, more precisely, an American guitar player. My dad’s a guitarist, and, growing up in Portland, Oregon, I listened to a lot of bluegrass. So I got those sounds—Tony [Rice] and Doc [Watson] in my ears pretty early on. Once I became interested in music as a practitioner, I started to dissect a little bit of what was going on with bluegrass, and of course I went through the normal rock and jam-band phase.
At a certain point I became really interested in improvising. And that was a big plus of getting into that kind of jammy stuff; it opened me up to the possibilities of being an improviser in ways that were really important. Pretty early on I also discovered David Grisman’s music—with all this interesting soloing, chord changes that I didn’t understand, and challenging time signatures—along with players like Mike Marshall and Darol Anger.
It became clear as I investigated the music that those players were standing on the shoulders of all these other great musicians and synthesizing a lot of different things. And so I started to learn about the sources they were drawing from: Wes Montgomery and Django, Eric Dolphy and Coltrane, and all those great jazz musicians that I came to revere so much. It all began to feel like a part of American music.
How did you figure out the more inscrutable aspects of music by Grisman and others?
I just sat there and worked my way through it. The story of my study of music is spending a lot of time with a small concept for a while. I remember when I was a kid in elementary school, I would sit at my desk with my little Discman. I would listen to something like Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which starts with that cool drum beat, and figure out how to tap out its syncopated rhythm with just my hands on the desk.
Talk about some of the other small concepts you discovered.
There’s this Darol Anger tune, “Key Signator,” that the Grisman Quintet played that I was so obsessed with. It’s in C minor; you’re starting with a C minor chord, then it goes to a D minor ninth. At least that’s what Tony Rice plays. And of course the ninth of Dm9 [E] is the major third of C, so you’re creating this really interesting tension where you’re kind of modulating inside the chord progression.
That really struck me, and I started recognizing it in a bunch of other places—for instance, you can hear Herbie Hancock doing different versions of this same harmonic move. So my process is just taking one little seed of information and watching it bear fruit in many other contexts, whether in terms of arranging or composing.
I really like that approach, and I think it can apply to any kind of music—especially in a string band setting where we’re trying to keep things conversational, and not too nailed-down in any way. There is a beauty to the engine that is a bluegrass band, where everybody’s got a role—although what I play isn’t really bluegrass, at least not in the traditional sense.
How did you first come to work with Grisman?
He was doing a camp for a number of years called the Mandolin Symposium, which I attended. I met him there when I was already a huge devotee of his music. After the camp ended, David invited me to come have dinner at his place, and it was amazing to get to hang with this guy who was my hero.
I was living in Colorado at the time, and when he would come play with the bands, I would go and sit in. He became aware of my playing and that I was really invested in his music. Eventually Frank Vignola became his guitarist. And when Frank couldn’t make a date, David asked me to sub—little did I know that was actually my audition.
What are some of the most important things that you have taken away from playing with Grisman?
In thinking about what he did for this wing of instrumental, string-based American music—whatever you want to call it—he helped create a whole world of music. And being aware of that really gave me permission to think, “Well I can write tunes also and synthesize the kind of sounds that I like and turn them into my own vehicles.” He is such an inspiration for just cultivating one’s own aesthetic and one’s own sound.
It’s interesting, because early on David was a huge Bill Monroe nut—if you listen to his really early recordings, you can really hear how much he sounded like Monroe. At some point he realized, “Well I’ve got to do my own thing and kind of make my own style.” And he ended up being one of the most instantly recognizable mandolin players you could ever hear. So the biggest thing I took from David is just to do your own thing.
After many years of living in the West, you moved to New York almost ten years ago. What has that meant for you and your music?
Just the other night I did a gig at Barbès [a bar and performance space in Brooklyn]. I was playing electric guitar in the back room with a great steel-guitar player, two horn players, an electric bassist, and a drummer—a really cool ensemble. And in the front room near the bar there was a choro session going on, a big hang right there. It was one of those only-in-New-York moments where I’m on my way to my gig and I need to squeeze by the cavaquinho player.
But there’s just so much inspiration all the time in New York. There are so many great players that it can’t help but influence what I do or how I see the music and art. It still feels new to be here, and I think it’s really spurred a lot of growth for me. Also, I just really love living here; it’s definitely the happiest I’ve ever been with the place that I lived in. I think that counts for a lot.
What’s your main guitar these days?
It’s my 2019 Hiroshi Suda, which I love. It’s a totally beautiful guitar, and I played it exclusively on the new record. I’ve known Hiroshi for years now. I met him at IBMA [the International Bluegrass Music Association trade show]—he does a booth there—and one year he gifted me a dreadnought. I was shocked, as you might imagine. But at the time, I was really phasing out of dreadnoughts and into the realm of smaller-bodied guitars. I felt terrible that I wasn’t playing this guitar, and a little while later Hiroshi emailed out of the blue to say that he was building me a triple-0 because it was clear that I was only playing my Martin.
Being a flatpicker, why did you move away from dreadnoughts?
Dreadnoughts are funny for me because, well, number one, they’re so large and I’m not that big. And sonically, I really like the kind of warm midrange [characteristic of smaller guitars]—that’s where I want to live. And I feel like for me, dreadnoughts can get this really woofy low end and a sharp high end. I really just prefer to highlight everything in between those two sounds.
All this came about because years ago, I did a gig with Grisman’s band where my dreadnought’s bridge cracked, but fortunately we were in the Bay Area [where Grisman lived at the time —ed.], so David lent me a really old Martin 000-28, just a beautiful guitar. I played it on that gig and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is my sound.” It just felt right, rather than me trying to conform to a dreadnought. And as soon as I started playing the Suda, it was like, “Yep, sounds like me!”
How does the Suda compare to the Martin?
The Martin is a 1944 000-18 and it has its own character and voice. There’s a certain part of the color spectrum it occupies, and you can hear it very clearly on the first Mr. Sun [a quartet led by Darol Anger —ed.] record, The People Need Light. That guitar is a little harder to play—you have to wrangle it a bit more.
The Suda feels more like an appendage rather than something my appendages are holding, and it’s just got a clarity to it. The Martin has a little more punch on the high end and the Suda gives you all that midrange. Plus, it’s cool that you don’t have to worry about it since it’s a newer guitar. You’re obviously going to be a lot more careful with something like a 1944 Martin.
Talk about the inspiration behind Peripheral Vision.
This one had a specific record that influenced me more than anything else. Every once in a while, you hear something that just really strikes you and hits you over the head. And I had that experience with the last Ron Miles record, Rainbow Sign.
I just got so deep into it. There’s something so special about the way that particular ensemble plays together and the way Ron would write, his ability to create this almost mystifying combination of going from improvising into a written part or vice versa—just the most brilliant ensemble playing.
During the couple of months leading up to making the record, I was really pushing myself to write a lot and get everything ready. And I just kept thinking about the approach they took on Rainbow Sign. Obviously it’s not possible that a four-piece string band is going to sound anything like this other music, but there’s something about that aesthetic and the warmth of that music and the openness of it and the breadth that is so striking, so I wanted to capture some of that feeling.
Before we went into the first session, I took a little writing retreat in the country for a few days to keep working on stuff. While I was there, I emailed the other three guys—Dom and Alex and Aidan—and implored them to listen to that record.
Were you acquainted with Miles?
When I was living in Colorado a decade and more ago, I had a lot of young musician friends who were mentored by Ron in the local jazz and jazz-adjacent community. I always knew that he was a musical force, and though he was warm and gracious, I kept a reverential distance, to some regret. We talked about getting together a couple times, but I never pushed too hard on it, and then I moved away to New York. I was a huge fan of Heaven, his duet record with Bill Frisell, and, getting further from Colorado, I started to dig more deeply into his discography and become more and more enamored with his playing, composing, and overall style.
When the Village Vanguard reopened here in New York in September of 2021 after the Covid shutdown, the first show they presented was Ron’s quintet, playing the music from Rainbow Sign. It was Ron’s first time headlining at the Vanguard, and it was a revelation to me. I was deeply moved to see that music performed live by that incredible ensemble. The next day I texted Ron to tell him how much the concert meant to me, and he responded so kindly, telling me to get in touch next time I was back in Colorado so he could come hear me. Tragically, he left this world just six months later.
What an incredible loss. How did Miles’ ways as an improviser inform your approach to single-note soloing on the new record?
You know how certain soloists just strike you a certain way? Ron is one of those people to me, like Miles Davis or Peter Bernstein or Darol Anger, who just play with such conviction, where everything they improvise sounds like a melody being created on the spot. Who can explain the mystery of that? I don’t think I can play like that, but that’s what I’m striving for as an improviser. I like to think that our music falls somewhere in between ourselves and those ideal examples that we reach towards, and that space between becomes our style.
How has your music evolved over the last 14 years since your debut album?
For one thing, I didn’t have any charts for the first record—everybody just had to learn everything by ear and then play it. I’m not a good reader, so that approach makes a lot of sense to me. But this time around there was a little less time; everybody had a lot on their plates. I thought, “Well, I should probably make charts for everything.”
I feel like I’m much more comfortable now with my role in an ensemble. I don’t think I’m ever going to be the flashiest flatpicker; I don’t have those kinds of chops and I’m not particularly interested in that. But I do like being part of a group, and to think about what the overall sound is going to be like.
For example, there’s a tune on the new record called “The Mobius,” which I really labored over. I wanted it to feel like you couldn’t tell what time signature it was in or when things were beginning and ending. It’s basically just one 12- or 24-bar melody that repeats over and over again, almost like [Miles Davis’] “Nefertiti.”
It’s all about expressing the melody in a way where everybody’s supporting it without necessarily stating it at the same time. So that was a pretty fun thing to experiment with. This kind of carries over from my first record too, because even though I’m the bandleader, that doesn’t mean I need to play all the melodies or take the first solo. It’s just being thoughtful about arranging and how things are going to work out in the narrative arc of a piece. All that stuff feels pretty important because it’s instrumental music, so I want it to be narratively interesting.
Why do you prefer an ensemble setting?
I think on one hand it’s just a place that I feel comfortable. It feels good to be a rhythm guitarist; I like to comp. It’s like surfing—not that I’ve ever surfed—but you’re riding these dynamic waves. And as a writer, I like working with all these different sounds that can be used to play the melody; for instance, realizing that a tune could sound great if simultaneously played by pizzicato bass and pizzicato violin. Those kinds of possibilities are obviously only available in an ensemble setting. It’s like this playground where you get to experiment with so many textural possibilities. And then of course in the moment of actual execution, you get to let everyone’s instincts, and the relationships that you have with these other members of the ensemble, come together. You need a group of people to do that, and it’s just magical. It’s the most beautiful version of community you can experience.
What He Plays
For many years, Grant Gordy’s main instrument was a 1944 Martin 000-18. In addition, he’s now playing an interpretation of this classic guitar made by the Japanese luthier Hiroshi Suda. Like the Martin, the Suda 000 features an Adirondack spruce top and Honduran mahogany back and sides, but the neck is outfitted with a nonadjustable carbon rod, rather than ebony. Gordy has generally moved away from dreadnoughts, but he also has a 1998 Collings D1. He strings all three guitars with D’Addario EJ17s and prefers 1.55mm D’Andrea Pro Plec picks.
For live gigs, Gordy prefers to play through a microphone, but when he needs to plug in he uses a K&K Pure Mini pickup and Grace Design BiX acoustic preamp pedal. As for electric situations, he uses his Hofner Jazzica archtop through a Henriksen Blu SIX combo amplifier.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.