The Usher of Spring

Jazz guitarist Pasquale Grasso livens up the season with a new recording - and a night at the 11th Street Bar

| 19 May 2021 | 11:16

The guitar of Pasquale Grasso sings. Whether curling or sliding, pinging or dripping, the instrument in the hands of the early-thirties artist voices the romance that is inherent in jazz and which, on a recent warm night at the 11th Street Bar, enlivened this vital spring.

Born in the Southern Italian city of Ariano Irpino, the Lower East Side-based Grasso one day went to a music shop at the age of four with his father and, awed by a classical guitar in its cradle, started playing the instrument immediately. “The guitar is part of me,” he says modestly yet assuredly in the steamboat-green patio outside the bar before the show. “It’s an extension of me.”

As he has proven across his recordings, from his 2015 debut, “Reflections of Me” to the sparkling “Solo Ballads” (Sony Music Masterworks) that came out just last month, Grasso is perhaps the finest, most emotive young jazz guitarist in the country. Throughout the new album, which Grasso recorded at the storied Sear Sound studio in Midtown West and which precedes the forthcoming “Pasquale Plays Duke,” the musician remarkably infuses fresh blood into the old veins of tradition.

The songs that he plays, such as Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and the Johnny Green-composed “Body and Soul,” stretch back decades, yet he is so impassioned and deft that it’s as if they’re unfurling for the first time. On his rippling rendition of the 1933 standard “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” off the new record, for instance, the sweet longing rises before the slippery fall into heartache.

Ultimately, though, Grasso coddles the listener, as he does on the floating “Someone to Watch Over Me” or the radiant “Darn That Dream.” The main goal “is always to tell a story,” the gentle-spoken Grasso explains and, indeed like Andrés Segovia before him, he is a true bard of the guitar.

“Pasquale Follows His Instincts”

Inside the bar, as the sky purples and the show starts, acclaimed bass clarinetist and fellow countryman, Stefano Doglioni, explains that plain practice is an element of Grasso’s mastery, continuing, “He and his brother [Germany-based alto saxophonist, Luigi Grasso] are the reason I’m doing what I’m doing. Pasquale follows his instincts.”

Sitting in a black collared shirt and navy blue pants alongside the esteemed keyboardist Richard Clements, and the quietly fierce bassist Murray Wall, Grasso seamlessly plays on opening song, “Lullaby of Leaves,” his guitar lines cascading to conjure a real reverie. On the faster standout track, “Anthropology,” he conveyed a similar dexterity, his fingers practically melting into the stringed wood, while on Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You,” he exuded a late-night cool that felt just right for New Yorkers rushing through daily hassles.

After a prodigal youth in his home country where he won music competitions and later trained under the revered jazz pianist Barry Harris, Grasso moved to the city about ten years ago, and he himself has hoofed through the bustling streets, jumping from show to show. First performing at Smalls in the West Village, Grasso started gigging around the city — and across the world — and now holds a Sunday night solo residency at Mezzrow.

Grasso, who initially discovered New York through his father’s vast collection of jazz albums recorded in the city, is undoubtedly key to its jazz scene yet, refreshingly, he has earned his good name more through whispers at clubs than through large-scale marketing campaigns or newsletters. He’s known as a guitarist amongst guitarists but he actually draws inspiration more from mythic saxophonists such as Charlie “Bird” Parker and pianists like Bud Powell. His excellence, and his allure, lies in his ability to render those horn lines and key flourishes as exquisite crystals on his own instrument, the guitar.

Honoring the Fallen

“Solo Ballads” vividly conveys Grasso’s artfulness. Just over forty minutes, the record starts with a quietly majestic version of “Embraceable You” and a satin take on “Over the Rainbow,” as well as a wonderfully languid offering of “Don’t Blame Me.” Consequently, the album — which Grasso actually recorded three-and-a-half years ago along with nine other releases, some of which will launch online shortly — is not merely one of the most sterling jazz albums of the past year but is a cosmic glide into the temperate months ahead.

Throughout the show, which lasted about three hours over three different sets, the guitarist and his bandmates played songs that both honored the fallen of this grave pandemic year and waltzed listeners into the time to come. The whole night ran like a small festival as an array of guest instrumentalists such as Doglioni and singers, including the ascendant Samara Joy, took the stage.

The Bronx-born Joy has been the talk of jazz circles for some years now but it was near transcendent to finally hear her huskily beautiful timbre out loud. Like Joy, Grasso also ravished the audience as, during several moments, all eyes in the room held on his silvery notes.

As the night wound down, bar regulars laughing with each other, spring came at last as Grasso eased them out onto the street of green leaves, strumming through the breeze.