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Jazz Foursome Jolly-Boat Pirates Unveil Their Cross-Atlantic Sound With a Two-Continent Tour

YO HO HO: (from left) Lars Öhlund, Devin Gray, Niklas Barnš, and Joel Grip plunder American and Swedish musical treasures as the Jolly-Boat Pirates.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/19/2005

Devin Gray makes muffins in the small kitchen of his Mount Vernon apartment on a chilly Wednesday evening in December and trades sentence volleys with Joel Grip through the cutout that separates the kitchen from the dining/hang-out room. Clad in a loose-fitting T-shirt and pants, Gray folds the blueberries into the batter as the two roommates run down everything they hope to get done before they leave for Sweden later in the month.

That weekend the two Peabody Institute jazz students head to New York for a string of shows as the backing drummer (Gray) and bassist (Grip) for local avant-songwriter Shelly Blake; the muffins are for the drive. Shortly after they return, Grip leaves for his Stockholm home, to be followed by Gray to kick off a two-part, two-continent mini tour with their quartet, the Jolly-Boat Pirates. They’re still printing out posters and firming up a few dates for the group’s first U.S. shows. And they only recently burned a CD copy of the quartet’s debut recording, a self-released CD called Rovarjazz på Svengelska recorded during the quartet’s first and only tour in Sweden last summer.

They’re cramming this tour into the brief break between semesters at Peabody, Grip in the final stretch of his two-year graduate program, Gray a junior from Yarmouth, Maine, and member of the first whole jazz class to matriculate at Peabody. And to them, setting up this tour is simply another aspect of their jazz education—and, for Grip, a world of opportunity that doesn’t exist in his homeland.

“To me, it’s easier to do whatever you want [in the United States] because you can easily put together a tour with whatever you’re doing and just play little places, but you’re playing gigs,” Grip says. Slender and direct, Grip speaks English with only a slight accent, really only detected if he’s speaking for an extended period of time. “You wouldn’t be earning anything, but you can play and do it. In Sweden, it’s really hard. You play three cities. You play Stockholm, Göteborg, and Malmö. And we’re doing that and two schools, and then where we recorded this [debut CD]. It’s a small city, like 200 inhabitants. And it’s a, what do you call it? Not a hotel, but a—”

“Bed and Breakfast,” Gray offers, muffins in the oven and finishing up a quick cleanup. “Small and very nice and run by two people.”

“And everything is handmade and the food is amazing and they cook it and serve it to you,” Grip continues. “And there was like eight people in the audience, and it was the most amazing gig. And right after the concert, we went out for a swim, in the midnight sun.”

Both Gray and Grip report that Peabody’s jazz education is what you’d expect a music education to be—theory, composition, ensemble playing, and practice, practice, practice. But the jazz world isn’t the classical one, and the students also receive life lessons in becoming a working jazz musician.

“The teachers, they teach as if it’s real all the time,” Grip says. “Everything sort of points you toward what you’re going to do when you get out of school.”

“And that’s what you need, I think, in a jazz situation,” Gray says. “You need to realize that you need to be playing. Work is playing music with people. Michael Formanek is always stressing that aspect of it.”

It’s the pragmatic life lessons that both Grip and Gray have taken to heart. The two met at Peabody when Grip arrived in fall 2003, and soon established a musical and social friendship. Grip invited Gray to visit and perform in Sweden last summer, joining up with trumpeter Niklas Barnö and saxophonist Lars Åhlund, Grip’s friends since high school. And for a little less than a month that was Gray’s visit, the quartet rehearsed, performed, and traded ideas.

“Everybody had a few [original] tunes they wanted to try out,” Gray says. “And I walked off the plane at, like, 12 noon, and we had rehearsal at about 4 that day. And I was like, ‘Alright, you guys aren’t messing around.’”

That intense month produced a lithe, lively bouquet of music that flirts with abstraction but never abandons a forward drive. Each of the quartet’s members leaves his mark on Rovarjazz på Svengelska’s seven compositions—two from Grip, two from Barnö, one from Åhlund, one from Gray, and one interpretation of Joe Lovano’s “Lovanotune”—though the album sounds seamlessly of a singular unit. Åhlund and Barnö lyrically leapfrog over each other’s lines in Gray’s rustling “Denight Delight,” while their sax and trumpet duel turns into a chase in Barnö’s dazzling “Captain Scary.” Åhlund’s “Beautiful Shape 98” traces a meandering motif out of a chorus of sax and trumpet rippling over Gray’s percussive carvings of cymbal slaps and snare pounds, the melody establishing its sinewy spine elusively, not fully taking shape until Grip comes in with the faintest of bass lines to give everybody something to hold onto. Grip’s own pieces, “Tighten Up” and “Skuggan,” are surging, uptempo charges of slightly odd-metered swing, like a saucy blues being translated into a different tongue—which is, in many ways, exactly what Grip is doing.

Living in the United States “has affected my music in that I can understand jazz more,” Grip says. “I know where it comes from now. And I know what it means. Before, I had just studied it. I had the Swedish folk music, which is really deep inside of me—and that’s what I think really makes the jazz that came out from there, you can really hear the [Swedish] folk in it. While here, I learned it was the same. Jazz is like American folk music, and now I can accept it more and play it more and just hear it and understand it better.”

Both Gray and Grip are enjoying the exchange of cultural and musical ideas that the Jolly-Boat Pirates have provided them—Gray is especially looking forward to returning the host favor to Åhlund and Barnö—if only to discover what comes out of this second playing and performing stretch. Everybody has new material they want to try out, and even before they’ve started this next journey Grip and Gray are already thinking about what’s next.

“The other night we were thinking we should go to Tokyo,” Gray says. “It was one of those situations where you’re kind of joking about things, and then Joel goes, ‘Yeah—we’re going to do it.’ And next thing I know he’s looking up tickets and how much it would cost.”

“We’re always having these crazy ideas since we met,” Grip says. “Like this tour. Half a year ago we were like, ‘We should just do a tour.’ And now we’re doing this 15-day tour. You just have to go for it. People always say it’s so hard to make things happen, and it might be really hard money-wise. But if you just do what you want to do, it’s not that hard to make the craziest ideas ever work.”

E-mail Bret McCabe

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