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Memphis Flyer Traveling the Gran Highway

Knoxville's Gran Torino is keeping rhythm-and-blues alive on the road and

By Mark Jordan

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Grunge. Hip Hop. Electronica. Bass and Drum. Jungle. Alt Country. Dub.

There are dozens of labels for the different genres of music young bands play today, but the guys in Knoxville's Gran Torino prefer one from the old school.

"R&B -- that's what we do," says Gran Torino guitarist and lead singer Chris Ford. "We love everything R&B, from Maxwell and Jamiroquai to Al Green and Marvin Gaye."

Of course, this is an octet of young twentysomethings; we're not exactly talking Hank Ballard and the Midnighters here. Gran Torino throws in plenty of other styles into the mix -- soul, funk, jazz -- which betray something less than a pure R&B upbringing. But the final product is undeniably danceable, so rhythm-and-blues is as good an all-encompassing term as any.

Gran Torino was formed a little over two years ago by a group of University of Tennessee-Knoxville students and played its first gig opening for Memphis' Big Ass Truck there.

Besides Ford, the group includes Dexter Murphy on trombone and keyboards, Pete Alexander and Scott Pederson on trumpets, saxophonist Jason Thompson, bassist Todd Overstreet, guitarist Stephen Decker, and Whit Pfohl on drums.

Since first getting together, the band has quickly built a large following, not just in Knoxville but all across the eastern seaboard. The band spends more than half the month on the road, traveling in their recently acquired recreational vehicle. An RV may sound a little opulent for a band playing the club circuit, but when you're an eight-member R&B band, you need a little more room than most bands.

"We work really hard on touring," Ford says. "We concentrate hard on playing a lot in about six states, but really we play from New York all the way down to Florida."

All this time on the road has obviously turned Gran Torino, already made up of some very gifted musicians, into a very tight band known for their jamming live shows. So it was only appropriate that when it came time to put out their first CD earlier this year, Gran Torino decide to release a live recording, this year's Live At the Chameleon Club, recorded at a show in Atlanta.

According to Ford, however, the band hadn't intended to release a CD -- live or otherwise -- at all.

"We didn't even know the show was being recorded," Ford says. "The sound guy in this club had a [Digital Audio Tape machine] hooked up and he had a thing where he would tape the band without telling them and then try to sell you the tape for $35 or something. We liked the tape so we figured why not go ahead and put it out?"

The decision was apparently a good one, seeing as how Live At The Chameleon Club has sold more than 5,000 copies to date. Now Gran Torino is preparing for the release this month of its second disc, titled One.

"Yeah, I hate trying to come up with titles, so we're just going to do the Chicago thing and number all our records," says Ford.

For the second CD, the band decided to forgo the live approach in favor of the more controlled and precise atmosphere of the studio. For the exacting Ford the result is a record that he feels is much better than the relatively sloppy live disc.

"We hadn't been together very long when we recorded Live At The Chameleon Club," Ford says. "We're obviously a lot tighter now. If we made a live record today, it would be a lot better."

With their first polished studio effort coming out, the obvious thing to do would for Gran Torino to make the big push to sign with a major label. But Ford says the band is in no rush to make it big, preferring to get it right instead.

"We try not to worry about [getting signed to a major label] too much," he says. "We figure if we can make a living playing, we can hold off on the record deals and wait until we're ready and we can get a deal that's right for us."

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