It was just about two years ago that Dave Grelle, a local keyboardist, bandleader and first-call session musician, was run down by a motorist as he crossed South Grand Avenue. The November 2, 2016, hit-and-run accident left Grelle with broken legs, broken ribs and a lacerated liver, among a host of other injuries.
He counts it as no small blessing that his hands — his most articulate artistic tools, his money makers — remained unharmed amid the other trauma. His recovery was an intensive process, and Grelle still walks with the aid of a cane and cops to memory losses and bodily fatigue. But alongside physical therapy, he used his own personal form of musical theory to regain his faculties.
"In my wheelchair, I could roll out of the hospital bed and wheel over to my Nord piano I had set up," Grelle recalls. "My scapulas were both broken, so I had very limited range of motion, but I could play. So I worked on touch."
It's that touch that has made Grelle such an in-demand keyboardist over much of the past twenty years. He served as the lead singer of the Feed, a border-busting rock group that often used Grelle's electric piano in place of the guitar, and he's been a vital presence in groups that veer from Brazilian jazz (Kevin Bowers' Nova) to live-band hip-hop (Mathias + the Pirates), New Orleans street-funk (the Funky Butt Brass Band) and KSHE-certified classic rock (the Zeppelin cover band Celebration Day).
Now, two years after being left for dead in the middle of the street, Grelle is doing something he has never done before: leading his own project at the Ferring Jazz Bistro, a venue that has long been a brass ring for the city's instrumentalists. Grelle's group, which he's called Dave Grelle's Playadors, takes the stage this Friday and Saturday night for a program of originals and covers in a soul-jazz vein.
"The nice thing about getting hit by the car was that due to physical limitations, it made me start saying no to gigs, which I needed to do if I ever wanted to start doing more creative stuff," Grelle says. "Because it's easy, and I'm super fortunate to play with so many people, but you can easily play four or five nights a week."
The time in recovery away from the grind of weekly gigs gave Grelle time to write music around a band of old friends and musical allies. Ben Reece and Kevin Bowers, who buttressed Grelle in the Feed, will play woodwinds and drums, respectively; Zelina Star, with whom Grelle studied music in college, will sing on a few tunes; and Dee Dee James, who toured with P-Funk legends Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, will play guitar.
Grelle has been working on the original material for this show since January. As he prepared for a Monday night rehearsal at his basement studio space in the T. Rex building on Washington Avenue downtown, the veteran keyboardist walked through the set list for his Bistro shows. Up first is an original composition, "Fractured Light." It's moody and rhythmically dense, with clusters of notes sitting uneasily atop each other, as if Grelle's right and left hands are just out of sync.
"I don't trip out and have trauma or flashbacks too often, but I do remember the first thing I saw when I woke up on the ground," Grelle says of the song's inspiration. "I could see light between all these tires; I was in the middle of Grand."
He calls it "kind of a heavy tune" and plays a brief snippet of each of the sections, using spare piano chords to lay a plaintive foundation and a dulcet patch on his Minimoog synthesizer to punctuate the mood. Later in the evening, he shows the changes to bassist Zeb Briskovich, and the pair lock into the atypical groove as the song ends on a tense, unresolved chord.
Two years after the accident, Grelle has no need for reminders of his new reality; his omnipresent cane, topped with a carved eagle's head, underlines it, and he routinely pulls out tiny slivers of windshield glass that have become embedded in his skin. But he does keep another reminder of a higher purpose on his keyboard rig.
Before his accident, when his son Julian was a few months old, Grelle and his wife Kasey rushed the boy to Children's Hospital due to a respiratory virus. Grelle had to leave the hospital to play a gig, but he put his hospital nametag — a grainy mugshot that identified him as the parent of a sick child — on the upper right of his electric piano. It remains there today.
"I used to get really fucking hard on myself about gigs and music and rehearsing and all that shit," admits Grelle, who is now a father of two. "And then at the end of the day, it's good to look at that and say, 'OK, this isn't that big of a fucking deal.'"