john gruntfest


John Gruntfest Photo: Mark Weber


The Free Music Festival Orchestra under the direction of John Gruntfest/conductor, composer, alto saxophone; plus 23 saxophones, 4 clarinets, 4 trombones, 3 trumpets, 2 flutes, 1 oboe, sackbut, and tuba.


John Gruntfest / solo alto saxophone, voice, dance, percussion, etc., and in combination with various other musicians (mentioned below).

(All interjections in the following article are from John Gruntfest’s “First Manifesto,” October 1971, Bolinas, California, Copyright 1976 Gruntfest.)



There was a natural elegance and a ritual eloquence that marked these events, a breadth and clarity of vision, and a simultaneous grandeur and simplicity. The performances were a summation of sorts for John Gruntfest, the musical and spiritual essence of the direction his work has been moving in for any number of years now and each, in its own way, a completely definitive statement of that.

Spontaneous Creation

Life Improvisation



Dissonant Beauty


Diminished Ninths

Chord Color

Quarter Tone Slurs

Blending One Note

IntoThe Next

No Separate Entity

But A Continuum Of Sound

From Minus Infinity To

Plus Infinity

Bent Sounds

Syncopated Rhythms

Odd Times

Multiple Times

No Time

Sound Plane

Simultaneous Melodic


Direct Sensual Assault…

The forty-horn orchestra piece, without question the most important happening of this year’s Fourth Annual Free Music Festival, was simple enough in its construction: two sections based on modal centers and a third on a South African Venda duet, alternating rhythmic motifs rooted in the modalities of the first two parts. In the opening sections, certain ideas were written out for those who wanted to play them, those who didn’t could use them as a springboard to work with their suggested harmonic implications and/or overtone series, the idea being to set a wave of sound moving in the large dance-floor space of the Metropolitan Arts Center. It was, in a sense, an “Ascension” for the Seventies, but its sheer mass and density – certainly one of the biggest sounds ever heard from an improvising ensemble – propelled it almost immediately beyond itself, transcending and breaking through its own built-in limitations at the same time as they were being adhered to. So rather than a wave of sound, there were waves – of every kind imaginable, each moving against and with and reinforcing all the others. At the same time, there was a definitely established “bottom,” a huge grounding force which both gave way to and set the context for the innumerable high-pitched screams and cries and obligatory shouts for joy and, indeed, the whole spectrum of beautifully mixed-up sounds that emerged. It lasted only ten minutes, but it was a massive force – in truth, an incredible cleansing force – which was a life of its own over and above its individual contributors. The musicians both surrounded and stood among the audience of some 500 people, and the piece was played side-by-side with an athletically demanding exhibition of Shintaido, a Japanese martial art which, from the sounds made by the movements of the participants, added some unexpected percussive underpinnings. There was, too, a tape made of this performance and of three rehearsals of the piece played earlier in the day, with each being considerably different from the others.


Many – Manifestations

Of A Single Vision –

A Greater Clarity:

Elimination Of The Irrelevant –

One Purpose:




Woody Woodman’s Finger Palace Stage Photo: Mister K.

If during the orchestra piece, John served as the music’s high priest, at the Finger Palace he played the role of shaman. It was a connection to a different tradition, or different lineage, if you will, not one altogether uncommon to jazz or improvised music, but seldom made so directly manifest or gotten to without air of pretension. So the music unfolded as ritualistic act, the connection with and non-objectification of experience. No “art” was made (at John’s insistence, no recording was made) and, in a quite real sense, no “performance” took place. Rather, it was a gathering of like spirits, of which John served as the principal energy source and in which almost everyone present participated on some level by each evening’s end.

john_gruntfest.jpgJohn himself cooked up a large pot of chicken-noodle soup, and there was pastry, cheese, olives, raw vegetables, and homemade pies – much of this food brought by John and some by others and all of which moved this occasion onto the level of a friendly social get-together rather than a concert, even though it was a virtual showcase of sound and sounds made from many different aesthetic stances and quarters. Nearly a dozen musicians – among them Joe Sabella, Weldon McCarty, Eugene Cash, Stuart Zachary, J.A. Deane, Phillip Johnston, Henry Kaiser, Greg Goodman, and myself – came and sat in over the two nights, creating by each evening’s end a swirling storm of music that had others dancing and moving or just staring in awe at the sounds being made.

The solo music that opened each evening began in silence and darkness – immediately after sunset – and was preceded by a slide presentation by Edward Pine. It’s hard to convey fully a sense of what followed. It was a magical performance, like watching a tribal medicine man, which touched the very highest energy levels, delved into areas of “pure” sound (with an incredible – and even unprecedented – use of the horn’s harmonic capabilities), moved back to the realm of the song and the voice (John actually singing “Nature Boy,” for example), to the world of myth and mystics and the chant, as well as to dance and a kind of body movement that bordered at times on spirit possession. So it was an uncommonly physical performance as well as mystical and an intensely personal, revealing, and stimulating look at the world of John Gruntfest.

Stardust Fire

Midnight Wind

Magic Eyes

Locust Tongue

Deepest Unconscious Night

Dream Thoughts For

The Face Of God…

What has to be pointed out, for those not fortunate enough to have been at these events, is the truly staggering dimensions of John’s saxophone playing which is at some new level only suggested by any recordings of his now available. (John’s recent privately-released cassette tape piece with drummer Joe Sabella, “July 4,1979,” perhaps comes closest.) Playing with an acoustical strength and force that could make a whole valley ring – I know, I heard it myself on top of Mount Tamalpais two days prior to these performances – John has pushed the harmonic possibilities of the alto into places no one else seems to even be thinking much about anymore, and with all of his usual speed, facility, and technical range. He is truly a monstrous player, and I can only wish that more people, here and elsewhere, will soon have the opportunity of hearing his music.

A Shout Of Joy

The Monster Is Loose Again!

Henry Kuntz, 1979


gruntfest1.jpgNote: The recording of John Gruntfest’s 1979 Free Music Festival Orchestra performance (along with the rehearsal versions) was released on CD in 2003. My review of the CD, which first appeared in the February 2004 TransBay Creative Music Calendar, is here:

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