Known for his harmonic sophistication and hooky pop- and R&B-influenced grooves, keyboardist Tom Grant is regarded as one of the main progenitors of the contemporary smooth jazz sound. An Oregon native, Grant first made waves in the late '70s playing with luminaries like Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, and Tony Williams before launching his own lucrative solo career. Throughout the '80s and '90s, he enjoyed a high level of commercial success with albums like 1983's Tom Grant, 1991's Night Charade, and 1997's Lip Service. Over the years, he expanded into film and television work, and hosted his own radio show. He also formed his Nu-Wrinkle Recordings label, on which he has continued to release well-received albums like 2007's Winter Warm with Rebecca Kilgore and 2017's Sipping Beauty.
Born in 1946 in Portland, Oregon, Grant was raised in a show business family and first learned piano and drums around age four from his father, a vaudevillian and tap dancer. His brother was also an accomplished avant-garde-leaning pianist who introduced him to the jazz tradition. Grant's father later opened a record store, which also proved an important resource for the young pianist's burgeoning interest in jazz as he gained access to an array of albums.
After high school, he honed his skill studying at the University of Oregon, where he earned his master's degree in education. Following his graduation, he worked for a time teaching high school social studies and playing gigs on the weekends. It was on one of these weekend shows that he caught the attention of trumpeter Woody Shaw, who subsequently hired him. From there, he joined Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper's band and in 1970, he traveled to New York to record Pepper's Pow-Wow, which also featured drummer Billy Cobham and guitarist Larry Coryell. Included on the album was the classic track "Witchi Tai-To." More work followed, including stints with saxophonists Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, and Charles Lloyd. From 1978 to 1980, he was an integral member of drummer Tony Williams' band.
As a leader, Grant cut his first solo record, Mystified, in 1976 for Timeless. Produced by, and featuring Joe Henderson (along with bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Ron Steen), it found him playing an earthy mix of post-bop, Latin, and groove-oriented jazz. However, by the time he issued his sophomore album, 1980's You Hardly Know Me, he had already moved toward a more contemporary, fusion-influenced style that prefigured the smooth jazz sound. Contributing to the album were singer Patrice Rushen, keyboardist Jeff Lorber, drummer Williams, and others. More smooth jazz albums followed including 1983's Tom Grant, 1986's Take Me to Your Dream, and 1988's Mango Tango.
The pianist's profile continued to rise throughout the '90s as he issued yet more hit pop-jazz albums like 1992's In My Wildest Dreams, 1995's Instinct, and 1997's Lip Service. He also contributed to albums by Dan Balmer, Dennis Springer, Art Porter, Gino Vannelli, and more. Along with his music pursuits, Grant (who is based out of Portland) branched out, composing music for TV and radio. He also moved into broadcasting, hosting a radio show on Portland's KKJZ -- a job he referenced in the title of 2000's Tune It In.
Nonetheless, performing continued to be Grant's main focus as he formed his own Nu-Wrinkle Recordings label and issued a steady stream of successful albums throughout the new millennium including 2001's Reprise, 2003's Solo Piano, and 2004's Nice Work If You Can Get It. In 2005, he paired with fellow Oregonian and founding-Nu Shooz singer Valerie Day on Side by Side. Another collaboration, the holiday-themed Winter Warm with vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, arrived two years later. He followed that up with 2008's Life Is Good and 2010's Delicioso. The Light Inside My Dream appeared on Nu-Wrinkle in 2015, followed two years later by Sipping Beauty. ~ Matt Collar