Sample Jazz Keyboardist Don Grusin's Early Records, Latin Influences & an Iconic BasslineSample Jazz Keyboardist Don Grusin's Early Records, Latin Influences & an Iconic Bassline


Sample Jazz Keyboardist Don Grusin's Early Records, Latin Influences & an Iconic Bassline

Spanning four-plus decades, the catalog of Don Grusin is nothing short of iconic. The keyboardist was part of the Latin fusion ensemble Azteca, before Quincy Jones invited him in 1975 to join his band for a tour. As a composer, producer, and studio musician, he's worked with Gilberto Gil, Joe Pass, Zoot Sims, Leon Ware, Patti Austin, Sergio Mendes, and his brother Dave Grusin, among countless others. He’s also a founding member of jazz fusion outfit Friendship—the band behind a bassline etched in our collective memory…




April 6, 2023

I was mind-blown to find out Friendship's "Let's Not Talk About It" was interpolated for Super Mario Bros' "Underworld Theme." I'm sure everyone reading this Tracklib feature is familiar with that bassline—one they can now sample themselves! What's it like for you to hear your own compositions in new contexts such as that one?

Back then, in 1985, I went to musicologist and Columbia professor Lawrence Ferarra to look into whether it was an interpolation or a back-then unlicensed sample. His judgment was 'not a slam dunk' regarding anything illegal. However, I do think we in the band Friendship may have met Koji Kondo, the Super Mario Brothers composer, as we played all over the map for years in Japan and have a sense of him being a big fan of our band. Most Japanese players knew Friendship and all of us.

The musical figure indeed was invented by me in my early days—and, who knows, perhaps independently by Kondo-san as well. Because of the various laws in different countries, it may be futile, as Professor Ferrara intimated, to get a final resolution. Only Kondo-san knows for sure.

After traveling to Bogotá, Colombia in the mid-70s, you'd become increasingly interested in the music of Latin America. Do you recall any memories from discovering Latin music or working with local artists back then? Can you illustrate that influence with a few songs on Tracklib?

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1972 I hooked up with the band Azteca, basically headed by the Escovedo Brothers, Coke, and Pete, both wonderful percussionists. Pete’s daughter Sheila (Sheila E.) was our new conga player at 14 years old, who replaced Victor Pantoja, the amazing congero. They all had the East Bay sensibilities of the Latin players stemming from the pre-Santana gang to the Latin-jazz tradition of Azteca...

Also noteworthy were my favorite drummers to play with (and still are!): Harvey Mason (Fourplay), Alex Acuna (Weather Report), Walfredo Reyes (Santana, Chicago) although the [Bitches Brew] drummer Lenny White—who also played with Azteca—is still going strong and is a huge influence to all of us. Speaking of which, I can recall Bitches Brew from Miles was a huge influence on my playing and writing.

Exponents of Latin and Caribbean music from my angle are "Flight of the Raven," "Nice Going," "Reggae de American Babies," and "Speedway":

You're heavily inspired by world music, particularly present on albums like Native Land and No Border on Tracklib. Can you please highlight how that influenced—or maybe even changed—your playing?

I usually, but not always, composed music with the groove in mind first. Influenced by all that I learned from great players from the Batá drum guys from Nigeria, then Cuba, the Caribe, and all the drumming from Africa. And finally playing with Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason, Alex Acuna influenced me greatly where they put the backbeat and the feel in general.

The Makossa beat from there excited me and I had to, honestly, steal that feel for that song I wrote originally in 1980, and then repeated it for the live album The Hang in 2003. For a jazz guy, "Makossa Beat" really swings! And the chords are like the blues... As is the case with lots of my songs.

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Your bio also mentions the following: "Also of influence was their small town R&B radio station where Don digested the music of the great soul and funk bands and singers and immersed the 'groove' into his playing trademark." Can you please illustrate that groove-based music-making with a few songs available on Tracklib?

Regarding my playing and its evolution: I generally learned my style and my composing from the street, from records, radio as you mention, and from experimenting with my musical friends as a kid. My brother [pianist Dave Grusin] was seven years ahead of me and I absorbed his playing style, but it seemed too classical and meticulous for my own taste. I had/have a rougher approach, and I enjoyed dissonance and surprising turns of rhythm and harmonics eventually leading to resolution. "Nice Going" and "Kona" are two songs to illustrate that:

What's it like to work together with your brother, pianist Dave Grusin? Taking Sticks & Stones as an example, can you describe your synergy in the music?

Dave and I have played many times together both live and on recordings. I was a utility keyboard sideman on many of his movie scores and have always been grateful for that connection and the experience. We are grateful for each other’s talent and standing in music. Mostly I learned from listening and playing with him. I absorbed many facets of music both from him and our dad Henri, a string quartet violinist.

Sticks and Stones was brother Dave's idea for us to collaborate and play together. For sequencing, we used an Atari computer and a program called SmpteTrack by Hybrid Arts. Often we would 'esp' each other’s ideas and finish other's thoughts. Even in the writing, soloing, and dynamics—overall it was great fun, laughing a lot, and drawing on each other’s sense of groove, fast and high melody lines, edgy chordal notions, accents…

Don Murray was the engineer for Sticks and Stones and his work, starting from Gamble and Huff and then west from Philly to LA, recording with me and Dave, Lee Ritenour, and many others… He is legendary. Dave and I recently chatted about how 1987's Sticks and Stones album 'still holds up'!

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As a musician yourself, what do you think of the art of sampling?

I am surprised at the upward trend of sampling. But I'm happy to participate in it from both the supply and demand sides.

What do you think producers can find in your music on Tracklib for sampling, looking at your catalog from a sampling/producer’s perspective?

First off, I've listened to my fellow compatriot's songs and I would say that my stuff is quite unusual and different from theirs—not all, of course. My music has an edge that, in its origin, has no concern for marketable radio or sales-friendly music. Secondly, I still—as they say—'play and write for myself.' Not that I’m immune to positive accolades and I certainly appreciate audience approval and the possible hovering income it can produce... But that’s not why I make music.

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