For an instrumental jazz album, Jordan Gravel's debut collection Inner Preservation throws more than a few rhythmic and tonal curveballs at the listener. Drawing from a healthy mix of musical and life experiences, the Charleston-based pianist composed and arranged all seven of the tracks. While he and his combo constantly change direction, the music bounces with tasteful syncopation, catchy hooks, and a smooth sense of melodic quirkiness.
"I pride myself on the diversity of music I listen to," says Gravel, 25. "The title track has more of a modern jazz feel, but I love swing music, so there are elements of that in there. I love rock and funk music, so I wanted to have bits of all of that, too."
A native of Marblehead, Mass., Gravel arrived in Charleston in 2004 to attend the College of Charleston as a business major. During his first year at CofC, he befriended drummer Stuart White, caught a concert by local pianist and music professor Tommy Gill, and almost immediately switched his major to music.
"All of the music professors at the College of Charleston really helped me out," Gravel remembers. "I'd learned by ear, so I didn't learn how to read music before that. I had to do a major game of catch-up, and they all nurtured me."
Gravel graduated with a degree in music in 2008 and currently teaches music classes at Christ Our King-Stella Maris School in Mt. Pleasant. He also offers private instruction and performs weekly on Sundays from 6-9 p.m. at Mercato in the Market.
While Gravel had previously recorded some rock demos with an old high school band, Inner Preservation is his first professional recording experience. For the sessions, Gravel invited White and bassist Ben Wells to accompany him. Accomplished rhythm section cats who stay perpetually busy gigging with various jazz, funk, and indie projects around town, Wells and White clicked right away with Gravel's material. The pianist's older brother Andrew flew down from Boston to provide additional electric guitar on several tracks, too.
The band recorded everything in one day at East Cooper's Charleston Sound and worked out the final mixes later on with engineer Majeed Fick.
"I was thinking of Gene Harris and the Three Sounds [a soul-jazz combo from the 1960s and '70s], who are one of my biggest influences of all time," Gravel says. "They're one of the funkiest piano trios of all time. Going into this, I was also influenced by Brian Blade's Perceptual album and tons of Björk."
According to Gravel, most of the tunes on the album are first-takes. The band recorded everything live, playing simultaneously in the same room with no additional overdubs.
"It was a great learning experience," Gravel says of the session. "The more I play, the more I realize that imperfections are inevitable. We tried hard to just get in there, do our best, and be OK with whatever came out. What I was most concerned with was having everybody understand the mood and vibe of each song. I really tried to get that down when we went in. I'm confident in their abilities, so I was trying to execute the feeling and meaning of the music more than anything."
There's a Latin feel to the rhythm and accents on the opening track "It Unfolds," a quick-paced workout with an assertive opening theme and a less prickly follow-up verse. At a slower temp, "Giuliana" saunters with a slinkier style (imagine Vince Guaraldi's combo, minus the flute), peppered with sizzling cymbal work from White. The funk track "Out of My Hand" incorporates rock grooves and allows for a few deep-end improvisations.
White's polyrhythmic drumming works nicely on the waltzy title track, a delicate fusion with energetic embellishments from both Gravel brothers. The piano/guitar dynamic is strong on "Now You See Me, Now You Don't" as well. This song finds the combo's chemistry at its peak with Gravel delving into moments of Thelonious Monk and Chick Corea on his solos. The unity between the musicians is obvious from track to track.
"The melodies and solo orders were the only things that were arranged and rehearsed," says Gravel. "We went in not knowing exactly what might happen. The reason I named the album Inner Preservation is because I wrote all of these songs in the last two years, and there was a lot going on in my life. I used them as an outlet for expression."
The slowest track of the bunch, "After," features contemplative quiet moments and a lazy conversation between Gravel's piano and Wells' upright bass. The odd chords and phrasing on the upbeat closer "Four Step Shake" get a bit dissonant, with a few seemingly intentional fingering flubs, but its cheerful hustle and feel ties the collection back to the nervous energy of the lead-off song.
The natural feel of the album's production matches the acoustic atmosphere of Eye Level Art's main room where the quartet hosts its CD release show this week. The Gravel brothers, White, and Wells plan to perform close renditions and additional improvisations through two full sets, starting at 8:30 p.m. Inner Preservation will be available for sale at the show for $7 per copy.
"I wanted the music on the album to be about melodic intent rather than technique," says Gravel. "It's supposed to reflect what the melody presents. I didn't want to make an album where we all played to show off our chops or anything. I'd rather listen to someone else for that.
"My goal with this CD is to use it to help work with other musicians in the Charleston music scene," he adds. "I want to involve other jazz groups and do double bills, and I'd like to be involved with festivals around the region. I want to up the ante for myself and play more with my friends."