It would be easy to assume, at least from a North American perspective, that any musically inclined kid growing up in Brazil has to come under the pervasive influence of Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. But for São Paulo native Ricardo Grilli, who was born decades after the heydays of samba and Tropicalia, American and British rock bands mattered a lot more. A guitarist, he was especially taken with Dire Straits, whose timeless classic, “Sultans of Swing,” he played in various bands as a teenager.
And when Grilli, who is now 27, discovered jazz through friends and visits to the local record shop, it was not through the works of seminal mainstream artists such as Stan Getz, Jobim’s great American collaborator, but the groundbreaking jazz-rock of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. “I completely related to that big, chaotic sound—that aesthetic really appealed to me,” he said. In short order, the “children” of Bitches Brew—Weather Report, Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra—captivated him as well.
Since then, Grilli has absorbed all kinds of influences, ranging from young guitar god Kurt Rosenwinkel to adventurous writer-arranger Maria Schneider. But one of the great strengths of his glowing debut album, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, is how subtly and seamlessly those influences come together in the service of Grilli’s restless creativity—manifested in his love of odd meters, offbeat structures, and themes that keep circling back on themselves like the narrative lines in the Italo Calvino novel from which Traveler takes its name.
Grilli began writing songs out of necessity while studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “There was so much talent there, I felt a little lost,” he says. “I figured the best way to get people to play with me was to write interesting music they would want to play. And that worked.”
Among the Berklee classmates with whom he forged an especially tight bond was the brilliantly unpredictable pianist Christian Li, a native of the village of Horseheads in southwest New York State. He is featured on Traveler along with saxophonist Gustavo D’Amico, a friend of Grilli’s from Brazil, and the bass-drum team of Jared Henderson and Lee Fish, whom Grilli met at Wally’s Cafe, a Boston jazz club where they backed acclaimed young trumpeter Jason Palmer on weekends.
As a composer, Grilli uses a kind of free association method, starting out with a word or phrase
and seeing where it will take him musically. The germ for the wistful “Revolver” was a magazine
interview with R&B singer John Legend about his album, Evolver. That led Grilli to ruminate on
the word “revolver” and the mechanism of “a thing that turns.” In his song, he says, “I made the
chords go round almost like Bill Evans did on ‘Time Remembered.’” (Revolver also is the title of
his favorite Beatles album.)
“Riga,” a coolly propulsive tune featuring D’Amico on soprano saxophone, was named after the
Baltic city, where Grilli attended the 2008 International Association of Schools of Jazz (IASJ)
conference as a student representative. Its moving chords reflect his fondness for the Brian Blade
Fellowship while capturing a sense of entering a new phase in his life: “It was the first time I
traveled to a new place with a guitar on my back,” he says. “It felt really cool.”
Boasting one of Grilli’s most fluid, entrancing solos and sparkling electric piano by Li, “The
Great Escape” is a nod to the Steve McQueen classic. It was inspired musically by the laid-back,
slowly intensifying title track of Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider. “Mehldau writes very sparse
melodies, playing the top notes of the chords as the melody, which I find really interesting,” says
Grilli. “I enjoyed the groove of this song and wanted to write something like it.”
The note-tripping, modal-style “Mark I” (a play on Mach 1) was written for tenor saxophonist
Mark Turner, whose 2001 album, Dharma Days, is one of Grilli’s all-time favorites. That album
features Rosenwinkel, for whom Grilli wrote the alternately earthy and lighter- than-air “The
Abstract.” Says the guitarist, “I tried to capture the vibe of Rosenwinkel’s song, ‘Turns’ [from
the 2010 album, Our Secret World, recorded with the Portuguese ensemble OJM]. I love its busy
melodies and chords that don’t really follow traditional harmonic rules.”
Sometimes, a Grilli song title is more about vibe than meaning. “Is It Really” is the pet
expression of a friend whose outgoing personality is captured by the tune’s bright, gently
swinging, bop-driven melody.
Ricardo Grilli De Castro grew up in a musical family. His grandfather was an exceptional
nonprofessional saxophonist and guitarist with perfect pitch on whose guitar Ricardo strummed
his first chords at age four; Ricardo’s father, a doctor, is a major Dire Straits fan. It’s not that
there wasn’t plenty of Brazilian music played in the Grilli house, including the recordings of
Milton Nascimento and Elis Regina. It just took Ricardo a while to catch up to it—after he had
settled into jazz.
He actually was set to attend law school when he decided to study music instead. “I had a great
need to understand what was behind it,” he says. Over the objections of his father, who didn’t
want him to abandon his original plan so impulsively, he enrolled in the prestigious Souza Lima
Conservatory & College of Music. He completed half of his undergraduate studies there and, after
winning a special scholarship, finished them at Berklee, a sister school of the conservatory.
When he arrived at Berklee, Grilli says, he was less polished than most of the guitar students
there, without any kind of sound he could call his own. He spent countless hours listening to and
transcribing Wes Montgomery’s recordings, focusing as much on the rhythmic component of
the music as the melodic. “In Brazilian music, we really try to play with a straight rhythmic feel
through songs,” he says. “There's no real swinging quality.”
Unlike many Berklee students from outside the U.S. who played mainly with classmates from
the same part of the world, Grilli played almost exclusively with kids from the States. When the
original samba beat of “Riga” proved tricky to his American bandmates, he changed the rhythms
to play to their strengths and acquire a more American sound. Mentored by such instructors as
Mick Goodrick, Bruce Bartlett, and Hal Crook, he developed a more personal style. After
graduating from Berklee in 2011, he headed to New York to get his master’s degree in jazz
studies at NYU.
In the Big Apple, Grilli has enjoyed the best of two worlds. In academia, he has studied with the
likes of guitar great John Scofield, who impressed him with his refusal to stand still musically:
“Sco has such a particular style of playing, but every time I check him out, he’s doing something
else!” And in clubland, Grilli has performed with acclaimed stars including Chris Potter,
who joined the NYU Ensemble at the Blue Note’s Sunday jazz brunch (“He made such a huge
impression on me”), as well as bands of his own.
Having taken it upon himself to learn the ropes of booking his own gigs in Boston, Brazil, and
also Toronto, Grilli has been able to create steady work for himself in New York. One of his
epiphanies there was discovering that when you put out a call for a musician, you might (happily)
get more than you bargained for. After he advertised his need for a drummer for an upcoming
show, word came back that Marcus Gilmore—drummer of choice for Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer,
and Nicholas Payton—might be available. “That was pretty amazing to me,” says Grilli. “I mean,
you don’t get any better than that.”
It won’t be long before young players are equally excited by the possibility of Ricardo Grilli
playing with them. •