Red House Records is the St. Paul-based singer-songwriter label known for Greg Brown, Claudia Schmidt and the Wailin' Jennys. Dean Magraw is a guitarist who roams the cosmos, playing everything from folk songs to John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix; he calls his music "heavy meadow." Eric Kamau Gravatt is a fierce and thunderous drummer whose history includes jazz-fusion stars Weather Report and legendary pianist McCoy Tyner.
Never in a million years would you imagine these three working together, yet this month Red House releases "Fire on the Nile," Magraw and Gravatt's debut recording, with a live concert Friday at Landmark Center in St. Paul. A guitar-and-drums power duo — think the White Stripes or the Black Keys, without the singing, and largely improvised — both men are still a little stunned by the whole thing.
"I've spent 40 years in this business, and these are the first people that have asked me to record under my own auspices," Gravatt said. Magraw has had a long relationship with Red House; "Wise-Magraw," his 1985 album with percussionist Marcus Wise, was the indie label's third record. But Red House president Eric Peltoniemi's invitation came as a surprise.
Magraw recalled, "I was at Red House picking up some records to sell, and Eric said, 'I heard you're playing with Eric Gravatt,' and I said, 'Yeah, I love it,' and he said, 'Yeah, you should make a record,' and I said 'Yeah.' Then we saw each other at a party and he said, 'I really think you should make a record with Eric Gravatt.' And I said, 'You mean on Red House?' And he said yes."
The two played together previously in Gravatt's band Source Code, but the duo was new.
"Dean is one of my favorite musicians; I've been close to his work for a long time," Peltoniemi said. "And I've always been in awe of Eric as a drummer. So I thought — wow." He hadn't yet heard them as a pair when he made the offer. "I didn't need to. But they were worried about that, so they had me come over to Dean's house and they played some stuff they were doing. I just about fell over, it was so good."
Trusting his ears and their playing — and his own plan to expand Red House into other genres, to keep things fresh and "do more things outside of our box" — Peltoniemi turned them loose in the studio. What came out was a mix of tender songs and sonic explosions, created on the spot, with an undercurrent of the spirituality both artists share. "Dean and I may not express it the same way," Gravatt said, "but we know there's only one omnipotent being."
Each has faced his own challenges. Magraw dropped out for two years when he was diagnosed with MDS (myelodysplastic syndromes), a blood cancer, in 2009 and underwent a bone-marrow transplant. Gravatt, unable to support his family as a musician because of what he calls "the business of jazz," worked as a prison guard for 20 years.
At first, Peltoniemi thought they might add a bass player or tenor sax, at least for a track or two, "but they wanted to keep it bare bones and spare."
To Magraw, it was a chance for him and Gravatt "to do our own grounding. We can't rely on a low-end instrument like the bass, for example, to do that for us. We have to really connect before we can fly."
It's not that different from the early days of the blues, he said.
"If you go to a house party and there's nobody playing the washtub bass, and a drummer and a guitar player show up, you can make a dance."
And then there was the Coltrane influence.
"One thread that's common for me and Eric is our love of John Coltrane's music," Magraw said. "The very last thing he recorded was 'Interstellar Space,' just saxophone and drums, with Rashied Ali … I could never imitate what Coltrane was trying to do. And Eric wasn't trying to copy Rashied Ali. But it's the same kind of thing, where you open the door and just go."