“My first time playing here was in January 2013,” Donna Grantis told the audience on Friday night. At the Dakota, she and 3RDEYEGIRL — Grantis on guitar, Ida Nielsen on bass, and Hannah Welton on drums — made their live debut with Prince. “We were so new we didn’t even have a band name,” Grantis recounted.
A lot has happened in a short time. 3RDEYEGIRL recorded and performed with Prince for a few years. Grantis co-wrote “PLECTRUMELECTRUM” from the group’s album of the same name. After Prince’s passing, Grantis and her partner decided to move to Minneapolis. While seeing shows at Icehouse and First Avenue, she found her new band: Cody McKinney (bass), JT Bates (drums), Bryan Nichols (piano/keys), and Suphala (tabla).
Last night, she debuted the band, sharing the experimental jazz they’ve been working on together. After a slow start — the first ten minutes featured each member taking the stage, but not really going anywhere musically — they burst into searing jazz. A standout song about two-thirds through the set grew from distant-thunder rumbling to funky licks and eventually rawwwk. Keyboard sharps paired with acidic guitar tones as if recommended by a sommelier.
Grantis offered few catchy riffs to latch onto, but plenty of thoughtful world-building. The show reminded me of Senyawa’s performance a couple of Eaux Claires Festivals ago; her guitar yowled, and its juxtaposition with the tabla scrambled my senses. If and when she releases music, it’ll be interesting to see what songs are titled and how they’re sequenced on an album.
Grantis was working on a project like this when Prince summoned her to Paisley Park, and now that he’s gone, she says it felt right to pick it back up again. By now, she brings a richer, more developed set of influences and skills. She said Prince used Miles Davis’s Big Fun as walk-on music before he and 3RDEYEGIRL took the stage, and that album was her gateway to a whole new era of jazz. She covered “Recollections” from Big Fun, sharing how it helped shape her band’s sound.
It’s nice to watch a Prince accomplice who doesn’t sound like Prince. Not that Grantis doesn’t excel at funk or downright shredding — in fact, she and 3RDEYEGIRL pushed Prince toward a more blazing rock energy during their tenure with him — but Grantis has her own sound to offer. She’s totally branched out, putting tried-and-true jazz instruments, ferocious guitar, and tabla (small drums often associated with Hindustani music) on the same stage.