The Portland Phoenix

Remembering Steve Grover: Six composers, 18 musicians, and an incredible legacy

Rob Gerry conducts OURBIGBAND March 1 at SPACE in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

Last month, Steve Grover would have turned 64. Like just about everything, that would have given him a lot of joy.

The drummer, composer, and teacher was a Beatles fan – a fan of most music – and just about every Beatles fan loves to think about what they’ll actually be doing “When I’m Sixty-Four.” 

Losing his hair? Check. Grover had an unmistakably bald head. Out ’til quarter to three? Almost definitely. Grover had been gigging since he was 13. No way age would stop him. 

Will we still need him? Oh, most certainly. Even four years since cancer took him,“It still feels like there’s a center of gravity that’s not there anymore,” said Rick Nelson, a composer and guitarist who often worked in bands with Grover. “Steve really was a force in the middle of things.”

Paul Lichter of Dimensions in Jazz, at the mic March 1 at SPACE, where six composers re-imagined the works of Steve Grover. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

That was in evidence again these past couple weeks, as Paul Lichter’s long-running Dimensions in Jazz series collected six composers to re-imagine some of Grover’s bop-style works for jazz orchestra, specifically OURBIGBAND, an 18-piece collective working mostly out of New Hampshire. The works were performed for the first time at the Press Room, in Portsmouth, Feb. 23, and then this past Sunday at SPACE in Portland.

Lichter and pianist/composer Frank Carlberg, who worked on many of Grover’s albums, conceived the idea of “seeing Steve’s concise original music expanded compositionally,” Nelson said. “He wrote these beautiful tunes, but his thing was, ‘I have the head, we play it twice, we do solos, and then we play the head twice. That’s the way the jazz tunes I write are done.’”

Luckily, Frank Mauceri, a saxophonist and composer who teaches at Bowdoin College, has seen to it that Bowdoin is officially archiving all of Grover’s materials – including sketchbooks and drawings – in its Special Collections Library, and he’s made all of the compositions and lead sheets available and freely accessible in Dropbox, which allowed the composers in the project easy access. 

Each composer/arranger took that work in a different direction. At SPACE, Carlberg’s take on “Spherical,” a play on Grover-favorite Thelonius Sphere Monk’s middle name, was a highlight. The bass jumped the beat like an Avalanches record, and the deep trombone that pulled out of the opening bounce was funky and then increasingly desperate, before handing off to an alto sax for a ripping, heart-racing solo. 

It was the kind of show where the musicians clearly wanted to get every bit of the challenging material exactly right. They often clapped for each other, or laughed along at how big someone was going, and watched each other and the various conductors liked their lives depended on it.

Chris Klaxton, OURBIGBAND’s trumpeter and bandleader, went particularly hard on Grover’s Jack Kerouac-inspired “Little Birds,” arranged and conducted by Gideon Forbes, who also played a lead saxophone. It opened with chiming keyboard, esoteric and hissy, and then moved into some truly freaky shit, Klaxton hammering out notes and then seeming to let them dribble out like he couldn’t keep them in, before giving way to a bass-drum feature where they kept rhythm like there was no rhythm whatsoever. 

Nelson’s contribution was a suite he calls “The Space and Time Between the Keys,” which collects and mashes up four songs from Grover’s last album, “Variations.” It featured Priya Carlberg, Frank’s daughter, an undergrad at the New England Conservatory of Music, on vocals, which moved from bludgeoning and forceful to languid and easy, before throwing punches amid the abject, hard, uncomfortable chaos of the piece’s last moments. 

At the finish, players chuckled in the nervous way you do when you don’t know what to do with your emotions, relief mixed with awe. 

“I don’t know that Steve thought of it the way I do,” Nelson said, “but my own artistic vision, which has been coming into focus for me over the past few years, is this sense of the importance of music and the arts as community nurturing events, in this era where everyone is fragmenting into their own little pods.”

For a couple of nights, Grover once again nurtured the hell out of the jazz community. 

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at

The Dimensions in Jazz series schedule is online at Musicians and composers interested in working with Steve Grover’s compositions can contact Frank Mauceri at

2 Weeks 5 Shows

March 6: Bait Bag, Crunchcoat, and Cadaverette at Port City Music Hall. Help celebrate the release of Bait Bag’s fourth EP, “Consider this a Warning.” They’ll call it punk, but it often sounds like a good old rock ‘n’ roll, in the classic trio format, with the vocals right up front, in your face, and zero prisoners taken: “I don’t believe your fucking lies,” Courtney Naliboff lets you know in “Good Guy,” with all the attitude of the ’90s Riot Grrrl movement. 

Especially when they quiet down into something like “Bathtub,” though, you can get a feel for their desire for emotional nuance and an approach that’s more than confrontational. “I liked you better before, with your jeans all crumbled on the bathroom floor,” we discover, and those vocals are almost sweet in the chorus. 

It’s a fun record, but there’s good odds the show will be even better. 

March 6: Ben Cosgrove, Darlin’ Corey, Cursed on Earth, and Evan King Group at Blue. A jam-packed night of acoustic stringbands; make sure to look for Darlin’ Corey’s set. They’re just back from a West Coast tour and will surely be itching to show off for the home crowd. 

March 6: RJ Miller Quintet at Cove Street Arts. The Dimensions in Jazz series has picked up steam once again and this is a particular treat. Miller is a world-class drummer who’s settled back here in Maine, and he’s collected a savvy band that even features artist and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Corrigan back out gigging. This should be legit “out there.”

March 12: Rustic Overtones and Bread at Apohadion Theater. The latest in a string of shows to benefit the family of the late Dave Noyes, this should be a special one, with Rustic playing quiet acoustic and Bread doing a rap/spoken word/beat-making set for the first time in years.  

March 13: Xander Nelson, Don’t Panic, and Drivetrain at Portland House of Music. Nelson and the band just got done recording a new record with Jonathan Wyman over at the Halo. That just about guarantees a band that’s feeling right and ready to rip, live.

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