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Dave Grusin on Pianos

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"He has a sound in his music, whether it's a wisp of a melody  or a piano riff  or anything that immediately identifies it as Dave's."

--  Marilyn Bergman

The noted lyricist had been listening to Dave Grusin at the piano  for over three decades when she heard him play alongside legends like Dave Brubeck and George Shearing at a memorial service for Gerry Mulligan.  

When Dave Grusin's turn came, she says, “It was as if they had switched pianos.  It was a different sound.  I never realized  that there could be that distinctive a touch."

On the subject of pianos, Dave Grusin feels there are many considerations to take into account, so he has no definite favorites.  He says, “I like a compromise between something I can dig into and something I can control,” elaborating, that because he doesn't play constantly, “there are pianos with hard actions that I love for their sound, but I can't play them for more than an hour without dying from exhaustion, from fighting back.”

In terms of sound, he explains, “in a record studio you're after something that's going to speak without eating up a whole lot of track or level, and it becomes a functional kind of thing. Usually a piano without quite as big a sound, but bright and punchy, seems to work better for records, unless it's a solo situation where you can really take advantage of the acoustic properties of the instrument.”

Dave Grusin believes he has had an excellent range of pianos to choose from on the Hollywood sound stages, and fascinatingly points out that these often are of better quality than the standard fare in the recording industry.  He also discloses that, “there's an interesting aspect about the pianos in the Los Angeles studios.

“In every studio that I know, the hammers have been lacquered for a real bright sound. It seems to be universal as far as I can tell. There's no question that it's easier to record pop and rock and roll with these pianos, because you don't have to jam up the EQ to make the piano heard. But if you're trying to do any other kind of music, it's really kind of difficult."

Although he has ended up using a Yamaha grand as instrument of choice recently, Dave Grusin states that “over the years, most of the pianos I've enjoyed have turned out to be Steinways. There's a certain crisp quality in their midrange and top end that I like. Baldwins have this great bottom end.”

Of course, when one takes a glance at what Dave Grusin is playing on a lot of records, the Fender Rhodes must certainly be mentioned.  “I think of the Rhodes as the mainstay of the studios,” he declares. “It's very good to make tracks with because you can run it direct into the board. The sound, of course, isn't always right, but every instrument has its limitations.”

There was also a particular MIDI piano belonging to singer/songwriter Randy Goodrum which Dave Grusin always enjoyed using.  It's featured on both the “Night-Lines” and “Harlequin” albums.  Dave Grusin describes the MIDIed Bosendorfer as having “an inspirational sound with all these synthesizer stops flying out of the piano. I could sit for hours and just play.”

Then there is the gamut of other electronic instruments he has used in various situations.  On this subject, he is adamant.  “One thing I'd like to emphasize is that there's no such thing as the keyboard to use. They all have assets and limitations,” he says. “The Minimoog is an incredibly useful instrument, because it has such a nice filter system. One problem people run into is finding a sound they like, and then discovering it's very close to something George Duke or Chick Corea is using. Immediately you're dubbed as an imitator.”

As far as such proclamations, he states, “I don't like that attitude. The fact is that synthesizers are artificial instruments. Success means being able to warm them up, give them a more natural sound."  Referring to one in the  George Duke lexicon which Dave Grusin describes as “very valuable,” he says that, “it has an edge on the attack and a little grease on the impact, so it's not just a hard-edged sound. It has a nice sustained shape to it, and the decay is just right. This shouldn't be off-limits for anyone.”

Whichever he is using, Dave Grusin acknowledges that, “before I'm comfortable with any synthesizer, I have to find out how to modulate and modify the sounds. That's a fascinating process.”  He insists that such devices are made musical by the nuances applied to the electronics.  

Certainly this familiarity with the potential of electronic instruments and other such artistic apparatus caused Dave Grusin to be sought out as a”record doctor” when colleagues in the industry came to creative impasses.  He points out that this enabled him “to bring supplemental Ideas and advance the recording project a step further.”  His job would be to “attempt to solve the immediate problem at hand, one step at a time,”

Thus, the versatility of these electronic instruments has the greatest appeal for the inventive composer.  He adds, “of course, you have to find sounds that work for your music, whatever its function may be. The beauty of synthesizers is that you can fine-tune and customize them.  The danger is in complacency, when you won't try things because you might get burned.”

With characteristic musical open-mindedness he once said, "I have nothing against acoustic exploration, and wish that the so-called purists would be as open-minded and accepting of electronics as I am of acoustics.  I see no reason why there Can't be a creative coexistence and integration of electronic and acoustic Instrumentation."

As far as the range of electronic keyboards goes, he states, “when they come out of the box and I turn them on, they all do the same thing: They're all basically amplified accordions.”

However, long before his `official' return to the acoustic piano in the 90s, he asserted that “electronic things are great and functional, but a good acoustic piano is something else.  That's really the only instrument I can get excited about ever wanting to have.”

When pinned down to name a favorite, he admits a special fondness for a particular nine-foot Grotrian Steinweg grand he once owned.  Reminiscing about the Austrian piano, he says “It was a beautiful instrument. The voicing was so even, and that's what I loved about that particular piano.”  

While it might not have suited a concert or recording situation, he says “certainly in the house it was more than enough. Debussy would sound great on it. In my condition of not having my chops at their peak, I could still sit down and immediately sound good on it.”  Another particular charm of the Grotrian for Dave Grusin was that, “it was very easy to voice things on it without much effort. And sounds didn't jump out and scare you when you played something you didn't mean.”

Go to:  Practicing - or Rather Not   

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