February 29, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 9
Nine Piece Box
Proving that more is more, Gran Torino are a funkadelic excercise
by Randall Brown
A couple of weeks ago, my gal and I went to see this new band we'd been
hearing about, Gran Torino. We'd missed them once before, and heard they
had something good going on with a horn section, of all things. So we got
to the club and, wouldn't you know it, about 400 other people had heard the
same thing. Bands that are only six months old are usually just beginning
to develop their own crowd. But here was a band just that old, and the joint
was packed. Obviously, the secret is out.
Gran Torino are, of course, a crowd themselvesthere are nine of them in
all. "I don't think people are used to seeing this many people onstage,"
says vocalist and occasional second guitar Chris Ford.
Heck, some bands aren't used to seeing that many people in their audience.
While a "horn section" in a lot of your modern lounge-rock acts means one
guy with a saxophone, Gran Torino carries around risers just to give the
horn section room. And they need room, too, because these guys move. There's
no parking on the dance floor, but the back of the stage is a tow-away zone,
Besides Ford, the band roster includes Stephen Decker on guitar, Todd Overstreet
on bass, the Pfohl brothers, Whit and John, on drums and percussion respectively,
P. J. Alexander on trumpet and flügelhorn, Scott Pederson on trumpet
and flügelhorn, Jason "Chocolate" Thompson on sax and Dexter Murphy
on trombone and keyboards. Try saying all that three time fast. Or try hanging
out at their practice pad and getting a word in edgewise with nine guys on
the same vibe. Communication is key to any band's personal dynamic, but its
become a way of life with this gang.
While it might be novel to see a Knoxville band go beyond the four-piece,
they make it clear that they are no novelty act. "Somebody said that to me
the other day," says Ford. "'It's so great to come see you guys, it's like
a novelty or something.' I said 'Now, wait a minute.' We also object to being
They came together last August when P. J. Alexander heard music coming from
Overstreet's house, where the roots of Gran Torino were forming. "I walked
over there one day to see what was going on," laughs Alexander, "and I was
in the band after that."
"I was in the all-states jazz band with Jason," says Decker. "I called him
up and it just kind of snowballed after we got him."
"Is that a racist term?" asks John Pfohl, to everyone's amusement. It should
be noted that Gran Torino is one of Knoxville's only interracial bands (for
the record, it's decided that "snowball" is more of a sexual term).
What this ensemble produces, besides constant non-sequiturs, is smooth big-band
soul, a country mile from the groove rock Ford and Overstreet played in their
last band, Freeway. You can see the horn players communicate with each other
in concert, like an ongoing conversation in Tower of Power brass, charging
up the beefy rhythm laid down by Overstreet and the Pfohls. Filling out the
sonic picture, the melodies from Decker's spiced-jazzy guitar and Murphy's
occasional turns at the keyboard add another rich texture to the Gran Torino
Ford is charismatic as the front man. His vocals range from a (dare I say)
funky drawl to a damn strong falsetto, in the classic British blue-eyed soul
tradition. He doesn't grandstand, thoughhis voice is one more complement
to the music. Actually, no one grandstands in Gran Torino. They are a bona
fide ensemble, and this, again, comes from their ability to communicate.
"Me and Todd have been in some rock bands in town that weren't really what
we wanted to do," says Ford. "But we weren't very good at expressing our
opinions to other rock musicians. Then we met these guys, and they're like
computers or something. You can hum something to them and they can print
it right out of their head."
"I object to being referred to as a computer," interjects Thompson in mock
"The rhythm section didn't come from 'real' training," says Overstreet. "These
guys (the horn players) did come from real training. So the more they teach
us about music, the more we teach them about rock 'n' roll."
The night I visited them, they were all learning a thing or two from UT music
professor Don Hough. He listened to their practice and offered them some
pointers on dynamics and arrangement. Not every band would have paid much
mind to advice from the "straight" school of music, especially a band as
together as this one. But the Gran Torino guys don't seem to channel their
confidence into know-it-all arrogance. When Hough tells them about taking
it to "another level," they soak it all inthat's exactly where they want
And they're about to take a big step toward another level. The band is headed
for Los Angeles this summer in their customized, Partridge-style school bus,
complete with sofas, bunk beds and a new brake job.
Later, when I was reviewing my tape of our conversation and their jam session,
I discovered a special message from saxophone player Jason "Chocolate" Thompson
which offered me my final insight into the Gran Torino vibe. He apparently
recorded it while I was checking out the tour bus.
"Ah, this is Chocolate speaking," he says. "I just want you to knowI love
these guys, man."
© Metro Pulse