TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: On a musical journey with Donna Grantis

Donna Grantis. Photo: Karrah Kobus

Donna Grantis’s older brother had this acoustic guitar, you see, and one summer when she was about 13 she thought she’d pick it up and learn some chords.

“I checked out the tab for Stairway to Heaven and there was no looking back.”

The rest is six-string history. Grantis would go on to become a stellar session musician and band leader in Toronto and then to playing with Prince in the female trio 3rdeyegirl and in New Power Generation. She’s now out on her own and she will be at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on Tuesday evening performing music from her new record Diamonds and Dynamite.

But it begins in Mississauga and Led Zeppelin 4.

She said, in an interview with ARTSFILE, that while she loved the early Zeppelin records No. 2 “was the most influential for me because of the songs. In any context, the soulful quality if Jimmy Page’s guitar shines through.”

Another early influence was Jimi Hendrix.

“His playing always moved me and really resonated with me from the first time I really heard him. When my older brother first played me Voodoo Child I was completely blown away. I was really interested in how Hendrix created those sounds, the bends, the feedback, it was so expressive.

“There is something really intangible about his playing and I think all great musicians have that quality.

“Hendrix could play anything. He could strum an E-chord and there would be something about it that would be incredible and him. You can teach anybody how to play an E-chord but when he did it it was really special.”

One thing you learn quickly in an interview with Grantis is her clear desire to understand the essence of her craft.

“My approach is always to learn as much as I can. I’m checking things out, analysing them.”

Learning about music is a lifelong pursuit for Grantis.

She sponges it up and then “whatever comes out, comes out. I think the best way to approach music is to soak up as much as you can and then naturally what happens, happens.”

That’s the kind of curiosity and determination that took Grantis to McGill’s school of music where she studied jazz.

“I was really interested in learning about jazz. I love the freedom of playing in that kind of music. I love the harmony; it’s really colourful. I love the interaction in a band setting, of improvising and feeding off of other musicians.”

Her early attraction to the blues inspired music of Led Zeppelin and Hendrix led her to jazz.

“A lot of my favourite rock came out of the blues played by Hendrix and Zeppelin and ACDC. At the same time, I am captivated by John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Wes Montgomery.” And then there is the one guitarist who seems to have captured it all, in her opinion — Jeff Beck.

After university, “I played in a ton of bands and I was a session musician, both live and in studio. I worked as a musical director and a band leader for a number projects. I tried to do as many things as possible.

“My plan was to make a living playing the guitar. It developed from there.

“There was a point where I did everything and anything and then there was a point when I was pretty selective and then there was a point when I started to play with Prince.”

Just before she began to work with Prince she was leading a jazz fusion trio called the Donna Grantis Electric Band. One of her live performances was filmed and Prince saw the video.

She was in a good place then working steadily in Toronto with her own band and playing with artists such as Shakira S’Aida and SATE. And then there was a dream that had her playing with Prince.

“Suddenly my No. 1 dream came true.”

The story is now pretty famous. She got an email saying “Hi. Would you be interested in coming to Paisley Park and jamming with Prince and the band.”

OK… Was this for real? she said she thought.

So she hit reply and that led to a phone call with a real human.

“Then I had a shortlist of songs to learn and a one way flight to Minneapolis.”

She found herself in a studio jamming with future 3rdeyegirl bandmates Hannah Welton and Ida Kristine and the man himself.

“It was really sink or swim, do or die,” she has told the CBC of working with Prince. “I always felt like, when I was on stage with Prince in the band and he would point to me or he would say, come on, Donna, you know, it’s time to just go for it. Give it 100 per cent.”

She went for it and got the gig. That led to the album Plectrumelectrum and work with the band New Power Generation.

It’s a good thing purple is her favourite colour.

“My main PRS guitar is purple. I bought the guitar in 1998. It had a royal purple look” like a Crown Royal bag. Over the years it has faded to a mauve.

She spent four years with Prince, the last years of his life.

“I learned so much from him in terms of how he approached arranging, recording and leading a band.

“I learned a lot about how he saw his artistic vision through in every possible way. Everything mattered, not just the music, but fashion, set design, lighting, graphic design, photography and videography.

“Seeing how prolific he was was also important. His creative mindset was always about the next song, the next show and the next recording. I felt like it was really important to do my own thing and keep writing and take all the experience I had learned to writing and performing new music.”

That is where she is now.

She doesn’t really slap a label on what she does. Others, however, call it jazz fusion.

“I like it when other people describe it. I’m not a purist about it. I’m an electric guitar player.

“Through Prince I learned about these Miles (Davis) records in the 1970s during his electric period. Going through my formal jazz training I was told you can’t listen to that stuff. I realized that Dark Magus, which was recorded at Carnegie Hall, had Pete Cosey playing with fuzz and a wah-wah pedal. That was just awesome.

Nowadays there are so many styles of music and so much to be done, she said, adding “music should be reflective of the times.”

In this current incarnation she is working with the tabla player Suphala.

“I really dig John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He worked a lot with Zakir Hussain. Zakir Hussain is one of Suphala’s gurus.”

For Grantis, tabla is an instrument “you don’t see in clubs when you check out live music. I thought would be cool for people to walk into a venue and see that instrument on stage.”

She was interested in how the tabla player would help set a visual and sonic tone for her performances. And then “tabla really lends itself to ambient meditative psychedelic and groove-based jams.”

In Ottawa Suphala will be on one side of Grantis and the drum kit will be on her other side.

“I want to hear it and it should be a cool look for the audience.”

When she was thinking about her new album she searched for a tabla player.

“I found her, followed her on twitter and then we kind of connected. When I read her bio I thought we had to get together.

“We had a jam session at my place, just guitar and tabla and worked through  number of compositions. From there I put together a larger group” including Rich Brown (bass), James Hill (keys) and Marito Marques (drums).

As for the future — who knows where Grantis will go.

“This is a snapshot of where my influences have been over the past several years and where my head has been at compositionally. Who knows what the future brings?”

Donna Grantis 
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: OLG Stage
When: June 25 at 10:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.