Dave Grelle: The Soul and Riff

Dave Grelle’s Playadors take the stage on March 13th and 14th. Jazz St. Louis enjoyed a cup of coffee with Dave to learn more about his background, upcoming show, and how he came up with the name “Playadors.”

Jazz St. Louis (JSL):  Tell us a little about your music background.

Dave Grelle (DG): Well I’m a St. Louis native, and grew up in U-City. I started taking piano lessons in the second grade. My first piano teacher was a mean old lady from Texas, and she lived a block away. She wasn’t exactly inspiring (laughs), so our lessons only lasted a couple months. 

But through school, I ended up playing clarinet at the Sunrise Conservatory <part of the School District of University City>. From there, I was in the concert band at Chaminade <high school>. I just started picking out notes and teaching myself. I realized it came easy to me, and I eventually became section leader. 

JSL: So music was a big part of your life from an early age.

DG: Oh yeah. I didn’t come from a very musical family, per se, though my parents loved music and exposed me to everything – Motown, Stones, Beatles, Vivaldi. I remember hanging out with my mom and helping with laundry, dancing around to Madonna and Michael Jackson. It all influenced me from a young age; they had me listening more to the music itself and how it comes together.

I really didn’t get back into piano until 8th or 9th grade. A friend’s family had a huge Bösendorfer grand piano, which we’d mess around on when his parents weren’t around. At that point, I was listening to everything from Led Zeppelin to NWA. Both different, but edgy. 

A friend of mine was also taking lessons at the time. We got into the Dead and funky, improv fusion stuff. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Maceo Parker. We got into Nirvana, Rage (Against the Machine), Soundgarden. It was all about the soul and the riff – James Brown, Jimmy Smith, Sly and The Family Stone. Just ya know, riff heavy soul.

JSL: What next?

DG: I went to Arizona for a couple years for school and spent a lot of time playing the piano in my dorm lobby. But that was short-lived—I got in a bunch of trouble, so I eventually came back to St. Louis. One of my first nights back, I hit up an open mic night at the Red Sea… next thing I knew, I was recording an album in Minneapolis and joining rock, hip hop and funk bands, sharing the stage with artists like The Roots, Bruce Hornsby, Little Feat, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. It was a lotta fun and I gotta see a ton of the country touring.

JSL: How did you end up doing jazz piano?

DG: I was in a group with a friend of mine, saxophonist Ben Reece, and I was watching him get better and better…and rapidly. So, I spent a little time studying at SIUE, trying to figure out what the hell I was playing (laughs). I was there briefly but then got back on the road. Following some exhausting tours, I decided to finish up my degree back at SIUE with two of my heroes on piano, Reggie Thomas and Peter Martin. 

At the same time, I was performing heavily with my The Feed, which was like a soul / punk trio. That group included current Playadors members Ben Reece (Sax) and Kevin Bowers (drums). We toured a bit, and opened for Ben Folds and some other cool acts. Then I started playing with the Funky Butt Brass Band and as many cool diverse projects as I could find. I had brief stints in Nashville and Chicago, but eventually made my way back home.

JSL: What other influences did you have?

DG: New Orleans. As much as anything, it was New Orleans every year: Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, listening to Funky Meters and Allen Toussaint. I was never as much into the straight-ahead stuff. I’ve always been more on the blues / soul side of it.

JSL: Now your band is “The Playadors.” Where did you get that name?

DG:  This is a crazy story. My wife and I went to this place in Belize, just a little south of the Mexican border. During the trip, we’d be relaxing on the beach, and every once in a while, these tough, raw, shady-lookin’ dudes would walk by. We asked the bartender who they were. He goes… “they’re playadors. Beach Raiders. These dudes are crazy.” 

It turns out, cartels drop packages of drugs in the ocean off Belize, let it wash ashore, pick it up later, and then transport it to Mexico where the border crossing is easier. Unless, of course, the Playadors get to the drugs first. Playadors actually intercept the packages, stealing millions of dollars of drugs from the cartels and putting themselves at great risk. They’re absolutely fearless.

JSL: Wow. Crazy.  So what’s the vibe of the band?

DG: The name lends itself to fearless music, to a heavy percussive and warm sound.

A lot of our music has roots in Rio, Africa, Afro-Cuban. We have the sweaty, percussive funky music sound from New Orleans. Mostly originals. Some instrumentals. Some vocals. For the upcoming show we have Zeb Briskovich (bass), Kevin Bowers (drums), and Matt Henry (percussion). Dee Dee James (guitar) is in the rhythm section too, and he’s played with everyone from Paula Abdul to Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell of Parliament Funkadelic. We also have a few special guests, including Anita Jackson and Joanna Serenko, who’s doing well on NBC’s “The Voice” right now. And wait until you hear this horn section. It’s a really fun group. St. Louis concert goers will certainly be familiar with this crew – Ben Reece (saxophone, flute), Rob Nugent (saxophone) and Adam Hucke (trumpet). Rehearsals are a blast and everyone is really good people.

JSL: How has the accident impacted your music now 3 years later? (Dave was nearly killed in November of 2016 by a hit-run-driver. Read more here.)

DG: Well, not being able to walk or leave our living room for months gave me time to practice. But because of the head trauma, I lost some of what I had. I had to see a speech pathologist and had to learn the language again. Sometimes I’ll forget what I’m talking about or can’t play a song from memory. 

I remember looking at a set list with Funky Butt after the accident and couldn’t remember any of the songs on the list. It was really discouraging. So I had to figure out a new way to prepare. I worked on rudiments again: the touch, feels, technique. I don’t recommend nearly getting killed to become a better player, but if there’s any silver lining, it advanced my musicianship and people who I respect noticed. Adam Hucke and Jimmy Griffin (guitar) separately approached me after a Bistro show one night, and basically said, “I don’t know how to say this, but post that hit-and-run, you sound the best you’ve ever sounded.” That meant a ton. It’s good to get some positives out of the whole, generally negative situation. 

JSL: What are your thoughts on the current state of jazz here in St. Louis

DG: We have a ton a young talent and legends here like Mark Colenburg (drums), Jahmal Nichols (bass), and Montez Coleman…who call St. Louis their home. There are a ton of venues in town but not many that provide local artists an opportunity to thrive and grow. It seems like a lot of the time St. Louis artists have to move out and blow up elsewhere. I’m fortunate to have an eclectic background in music, so I’ve found a way to continue to learn and grow. I’m working now with The Mighty Pines, a progressive bluegrass band, and played a lot of Reggae music last summer with Jamaican legends, Culture.

JSL: What can we expect from the Playadors?

DG: With the Playadors, it’s the best of everything (smiling). It’s percussive.

JSL: Sounds like it requires a lot of practice.

DG: I want it to be tight. The bar is high at Jazz St. Louis. Playing the room takes a lot of preparation.

Dave Grelle’s Playadors perform at the Ferring Bistro at Jazz St. Louis March 13 and 14. Along with their special guests, you won’t want to miss this show.

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