Obituary: Don Grolnick

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The Independent Online
An elegant and inspired composer, Don Grolnick was a gifted musician whose talents went far beyond his piano and keyboard work, and indeed beyond the realms of jazz where he was held in such high regard.

He worked with Steely Dan during the Seventies and played on their albums Royal Scam (1976) and Aja (1977). He appeared also on Bonnie Raitt's Street Lights and Linda Ronstadt's What's New? albums (1974 and 1983) and on other sets by Bette Midler, Roberta Flack, Carly Simon and, over a long period, James Taylor, working as Taylor's musical director and producer as well as his keyboard player.

Grolnick began playing jazz when he was a child. "In those days accordion salesmen used to persuade people that if your son or daughter wants to play piano some day but you can't afford a piano, here's something that's like a piano, it's small and it's not too much money - and that's exactly what happened with me. I had an accordion and I played it from when I was about eight to when I was 10 or 11, and then my grandparents gave us their piano."

When he left Tufts University, in New York, where he had studied philosophy, he joined Dreams, in 1971, a jazz-rock band in whose ranks were Randy and Michael Brecker, both later significant figures on the jazz scene.

It was when Grolnick joined Steps, a band formed in 1979 by the vibraphone player Mike Mainieri for an informal booking at Seventh Avenue South, a New York club, that he first came to the attention of jazz fans. A Japanese recording company was interested enough to invite the band to Japan and it made two albums there in one week. As Steps Ahead (it transpired there was already a band named Steps) they became one of the great successes of the Eighties. The band included the awe-inspiring tenor saxophone work of Michael Brecker, one of the most gifted players of all time, his brother Randy on trumpet, Eddie Gomez on bass and the drummer Steve Gadd.

Grolnick left the band in 1983, having become disenchanted with its policy move from a be-bop-based jazz towards a more synthesised electronic sound. He left amicably and explained the group's library to his successor, another virtuoso, Eliane Elias. She played on the band's next album which included a version of Grolnick's powerful composition, "Pools". Grolnick himself recorded the piece on his first album, Hearts and Numbers, in 1986. Woody Herman too used an arrangement of it for his band. "I heard from a trombone player in Woody's band," said Grolnick, "that towards the end of Woody's life he would occasionally forget the tune's title and say, 'And now we're going to do a tune by a young composer and it's called "Soup".' "

Grolnick was befriended by the composer and bandleader Gil Evans - one of his greatest influences. "When I was doing gigs in New York he came to most of them," Grolnick said. "It was an incredible honour to me that he would come and make a point of telling me that he enjoyed those gigs."

In 1989 he recorded another seminal album, Weaver of Dreams, on which he used the Breckers, and then in 1992, for the same label, Blue Note, he produced Nighttown again using Randy Brecker but adding Joe Lovano on tenor and the English bassist Dave Holland. An exceptional composition by Grolnick, "Heart of Darkness", was the highlight of the album.

One of his productions as an album producer, Michael Brecker's Don't Try This at Home, won a Grammy Award in 1988.

Latin jazz became a prime interest for Grolnick and in 1994 he led a Latin band at the Blue Note club in New York and toured Europe and Japan with it. Warner Bros are to release an album by the band, Medianoche, in August.

Towards the end of his career Grolnick had cut out commercial studio work - he had been a composer and player of commercial jingles - and tried to devote himself entirely to jazz.

"I've nothing against any of this work. I don't like to get self-righteous about it, but for me what happened was that if I was trying to write and I'd been doing a lot of other work I just had these other sounds in my ear and it was hard to write. I need more silence in my life."

Don Grolnick, pianist and composer: born Now York 23 September 1947; married; died New York 1 June 1996.