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February 29, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 9

Nine Piece Box

Proving that more is more, Gran Torino are a funkadelic excercise in excess

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 themselves—there 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, too.

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 called 'funk.'"

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 sound.

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, though—his 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 umbrage.

"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 in—that's exactly where they want to go.

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 know—I love these guys, man."

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