THE Story of bassist Henry Grimes (born in 1935 in Philadelphia) is one of the astonishing enigmas of jazz. He studied violin and tuba at high school, attended the prestigious Juilliard music college and during the late ’50s he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with both Benny Goodman and Thelonious Monk.
In the ’60s he played and recorded with some of the luminaries of the music: Sonny Rollins, Roland Kirk, McCoy Tyner and became a key figure of the avant-garde on the New York scene, as bassist of the Cecil Taylor Trio and part of Albert Ayler’s groundbreaking band.
Then, in 1967 at the age of 31, he disappeared completely from the jazz map, and right up to the new millennium it was widely assumed he was dead.
But in 2002, having suffered years of mental illness, he was identified by a jazz-loving social worker in Los Angles. The news reached the prime free jazz bass virtuoso William Parker — for whom Grimes’s records had been an inspiration.
He sought him out and gave him a bass which Grimes soon began to play like the reconstituted master that he was, and he was very soon performing and recording again as if the three and a half lost decades hadn’t existed.
He makes a profound contribution as a member of a trio led by the Newark, New Jersey-born guitarist Marc Ribot, to the album Live at the Village Vanguard, with the Chicagobred drummer Chad Taylor.
Ribot is an avant-garde positioned played with a diversely experienced past, his mesh of styles having been fostered by being a session guitarist for two decades, making records with singers from Tom Waits to Elvis Costello, from Wilson Pickett to Elton John.
The Village Vanguard set has a different kind of jazz eclecticism, though with tunes by Coltrane and Ayler besides those with long associations with Louis Armstrong (I’m Confessin’) and Paul Robeson (Old Man River).
The opening track is Coltrane’s Dearly Beloved, originally recorded by his quartet on the 1965 Sun Ship album. It begins with Grimes’s solo bowed bass, an extraordinarily sonorous, vibrating sound before Ribot’s almost hymnal entry, his guitar twanging in a neo-Spanish timbre beside Taylor’s spraying drums. It is audacity itself to use guitar to play epic pieces always connected to the sublime horns of Coltrane or Ayler, yet Ribot plays them with a powerful creative originality and assuredness.
As for Ayler’s tune, The Wizard, from his album Spiritual Unity of 1969, Ribot plays it as if it were street music, which is its provenance, as a rumbustious romp which quietens for Grimes’s resonating solo delving below the Greenwich Village streets, and then gathering a new, frantic pace for its summation.
Every essence of melodic beauty is moulded from Old Man River by Ribot, with Taylor’s thudding drums beside him and Grimes’s surging pulse with a Robeson-like depth and passion, reminding us that he had recorded the tune as part of Ayler’s quartet on the 1964 album, mainly of spirituals, Goin’ Home.
Suddenly, unexpectedly and beautifully, the simple and earthy theme of Ayler’s Bells comes dancing, as clear as a song, out of the trio’s improvisation and long solos of this 19-minute version.
Then it is I’m Confessin’ with a crystalline solo by the ageless Grimes going back to the young Armstrong and the virtual beginnings of jazz in a meandering line of sonic and social history.
Then it is Coltrane and his Sun Ship and you remember that the great hornman died two years after Grimes disappeared from the streets and clubs of New York. The trio play the piece not as a remembrance but as the sound of things present, across generations and epochs, yet spanning them too with Grimes’s excavating notes.