Album Review: Steve Grismore Trio — ‘Better Times (Are a Comin’)’

If the music collection in your head includes the work of the late Ornette Coleman, there is a reasonable chance you have it filed under “weird” or “difficult” or even “unlistenable.” That may be true even if you consider yourself a jazz fan. Coleman, a multi-instrumentalist best known for his work on the saxophone, pioneered the style known as free jazz in the mid-20th century. A quick synopsis of the style from Vox:

Free jazz is highly experimental even for jazz, chaotic and often dissonant by design, rejecting traditional boundaries of tonality and rhythm. It can come across as more art movement than musical style, and thus as opaque and self-serious — as work.

So, maybe not the kind of record you put on to get yourself going in the morning or to help you unwind when you get home in the evening, right? Well, maybe. But in many cases — including in Coleman’s music — the jazz-ness of free jazz takes priority over the freeness.

Case in point: the Steve Grismore Trio. On the ensemble’s new album, Better Times (Are a Comin’), primarily made up of music composed by Coleman, they remind listeners that free jazz isn’t all weirdness, dissonance and angularity. Sometimes it swings. Sometimes it’s soulful. Frequently, it’s catchy as all get out.

Grismore — guitarist, University of Iowa School of Music jazz faculty member and co-founder of the Iowa City Jazz Festival — is joined by Danny Oline on bass and Fabio Augustinis on drums. The album was recorded at the University of Iowa over two days in mid-July 2018, but its uplifting title made it perfectly appropriate for a 2020 release.

The record kicks off with Coleman’s “Ramblin,’” which sounds just like you would expect a traveling song to sound, complete with a shuffling drum pattern suggesting some unhurried forward momentum and Gismore’s warm-toned guitar meandering in an appealing, relaxed style.

The Coleman-composed tracks remain in an appealing lane for the entire record, though six tracks in, “Lonely Woman” asks a little more of the listener. The drums are forward, the guitar is a little distorted in spots, and there is a little less obvious cohesion binding what the players are up to. Nevertheless, the mood of the piece certainly does suggest a kind of melancholy loneliness befitting the title.

“Back in the O.R.R.” and “The Messaround” are easily the most “out there” tracks on the record, and neither is a Coleman composition. Instead, they are group improvisations in keeping with the free jazz aesthetic. The fact that these two tracks are the two shortest on the record suggests the trio is well aware that these experiments may not connect with every listener. Still, they are important nods to Coleman’s overall musical legacy.

The record closes with the title track, which Grismore composed. The number centers on a hummable central figure and brings the angularity of free jazz into a pleasing balance with its melodic and swing-driven possibilities.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 290.