By John Fordham
George Gruntz obituary
Swiss pianist, composer and bandleader famed for his innovative Concert Jazz Band
When the jazz pianist George Gruntz's Concert Jazz Band played at Ronnie Scott's club in London a dozen years ago, they caught listeners unawares with a blend of the ambiguities and mysterious undercurrents of Gil Evans's partnerships with Miles Davis, and the punch and power of a conventional swing group. Gruntz, who has died aged 80, was one of the few internationally acclaimed Swiss-born jazz musicians, and had an unusually broad vision.
It was his Concert Jazz Band – or just plain CJB – under Quincy Jones's baton that backed an ailing Davis in 1991, on the trumpeter's swansong visits to the classic scores from Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. No bandleader could have been better suited than Gruntz to furnishing a premier-league international orchestra in his homeland for one of the historic events of late 20th-century jazz.
A native of Basel, Gruntz studied at conservatoires there and in Zurich. In his mid-20s he became a member of Swiss swing-to-bop saxophonist Flavio Ambrosetti's groups, and in 1958 he performed and recorded at the Newport jazz festival, as a member of American trombonist and educator Marshall Brown's International Youth Band. Gruntz played for the Youth Band's Yugoslavian representative, the trumpeter Duško Goyković (1960-61), and then in a bebop trio that accompanied American stars including Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon and Lee Konitz on their trips to Europe. From 1963 Gruntz – who had previously been supporting himself as a car salesman – devoted himself exclusively to music, touring with the vocalist Helen Merrill, and performing in the saxophonist Phil Woods' European Rhythm Machine (1968-69).
In 1964 he aired his classical-harpsichord skills on the crossover album Jazz Goes Baroque. Three years later he explored Middle Eastern instruments for the Bedouin-inspired project Noon in Tunisia, and showed his openness to free-jazz in 1969 in a brief partnership with Ornette Coleman's trumpeter Don Cherry. The restlessly energetic Gruntz was also music director of Zurich's Schauspielhaus theatre (1970-84), and artistic director of Berlin's prestigious international jazz festival, the Berliner Jazztage (1972-94).
Gruntz combined these assignments with a busy schedule as an innovative bandleader and player, working in the 1970s with his unique Piano Conclave – a six-piano band plus rhythm section, which at various times employed such European piano stars as Martial Solal, Joachim Kühn and Gordon Beck. He premiered his settings for The Rape of Lucrece at Southwark Cathedral in 1975, and two years later composed a complex percussion-orchestra piece for the Montreux jazz festival.
Principally, however, this was the period in which his most famous big-band creation, the CJB, came into its own. In 1972 Gruntz had become a co-founder of a large ensemble, the Band, with Ambrosetti, his trumpeter son Franco, and Swiss drummer and painter Daniel Humair. Six years later, Gruntz took over the group, renamed it, and made it a successful and stylistically broad outfit that toured the world, with American heavyweights including singer Sheila Jordan, guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Dave Liebman in the lineup at various times. The band was augmented by former Evans sidemen for Davis's famous farewell at the 1991 Montreux jazz festival, and the following year they were invited to China, on the first official jazz tour of that country.
A democratic, charming and humorous bandleader, Gruntz meticulously wrote at least two featured spots per gig for all his soloists on the band's tours, frequently featured band-members' original compositions, and regularly picked up the tab for high-class restaurant evenings with his players on the road.
Gruntz also wrote Money: A Jazz Opera with the American poet Amiri Baraka in 1982 and the following year he wrote the oratorio The Holy Grail of Jazz and Joy. In 1988 he collaborated with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg on the opera Cosmopolitan Greetings. The most ambitious of these ventures was Chicago Cantata – commissioned by the city's jazz festival in 1991 – a mix of jazz, blues, soul and gospel music with the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, saxophonist Von Freeman, and gospel stars Pops Staples and the Norfleet Family in the lineup.
Radio Days, a 10-CD retrospective of Gruntz's works, was released in 2007, and though in declining health, the irrepressible maestro performed in the US with the CJB late in 2012. The long-time Gruntz trumpeter Marvin Stamm described him as "the face of Swiss jazz, and a strong enough presence to gather a slew of top American and European players into his Concert Jazz Band, many of whom … returned again and again".
Gruntz is survived by his wife, Lilly, a son and a daughter.
• George Paul Gruntz, jazz pianist and bandleader, born 24 June 1932; died 10 January 2013