A young Jonas Grushkin played piano because of the drums. When he was a kid, the New Jersey native first picked up a pair of drumsticks, right about the time he expressed interest in piano; after one piano lesson, a lesson that Grushkin describes as a “rocky start,” he decided he’d have to teach himself.
“I’ve always loved to bang on things, djembes, and congas,” said Grushkin. “My dad had a pair of drumsticks, and hearing him do his drumroll, I mimicked that and started doing that on the piano. I would do my left hand, my right hand, and suddenly with my foot going it was just so much fun to sit and compose this kind of stuff. It wasn’t musically notes and such, it was just stuff I had heard in my head. It was rhythms.”
The result is an original, foot stomping piano product.
You’ve seen him around Durango. Maybe as a handyman around the Durango Arts Center, or working for the school district, or working for various construction or landscaping companies. Perhaps you’ve seen him with a camera in hand at Fort Lewis College events. Fans of the Grateful Dead have seen his photos, as he was the official Grateful Dead photographer for years, releasing the “The Official Book of the Deadheads,” a collection of photos and anecdotes from Grateful Dead fans, published in 1983. Or you’ve heard him play piano at various events around town.
He just released his debut CD “Gemini,” recorded at Scooters Place with Scott Smith here in Durango. It features a dozen original tracks and assistance on some tunes from bass player Victor Wooten, and local musicians Bob Hemenger and Jeff Solon.
“‘Gemini’ is really going back to my roots in music. I’m a self-taught musician, and I’ve been a professional photographer most of my life, but the music has really fed my inspirations,” said Grushkin. “A lot of these tunes on ‘Gemini’ go back 20 or 30 years, just ideas that had been floating in my head and they came to fruition on this. I was inspired by the help of a sax player in Pagosa Springs, the great Bob Hemenger. He’s such a soulful player and when he heard a couple of these tunes, he said ‘Jonas, we got to do something with these.’”
The album hits on a lot of genres; there’s an ambient and atmospheric feel in “Adrift” and “Aurora,” while “Slippery Blues” and “‘Smokey Times” are a nice dose of blues, ripe for a dimly-lit tavern. But cuts like “Firecrackers” and “‘Downshift” really shine and showcase the fact that Grushkin is a rock ’n’ roll player. The ivory isn’t being tickled as much as its being thumped; Grushkin is a percussive piano player, and the result is a display of top-notch original music. His inspirations are great company: Count Basie, Leon Russell, and Keith Emerson have all rubbed off on his playing in the best of ways.
“I called it ‘Gemini’ because it really does show Gemini, the yin and yang, the black and white, the two sides of me,” said Grushkin. “It’s a smattering of ideas from slow, soulful things, to just in-your-face, kick-butt, New Orleans stomps.”
Grushkin plays occasionally around town, and is currently putting a band in the works for future musical endeavors.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. firstname.lastname@example.org.