About Kevin Lynch

Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) is a veteran, award-winning arts journalist, educator and visual artist. He is the author of "Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy." He won The Milwaukee Press Club’s 2017 gold award for “Best Critical Review of the Arts” for the Culture Currents blog “Adolph Rosenblatt: A Great Eye, Gifted Hands, and a Huge Heart," an art retrospective exhibit at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. He also won the gold award for the 2013 Culture Currents review, "Edward Curtis Preserved America’s Vanishing Race for Posterity.” Lynch was a long-time staff arts writer for The Capital Times in Madison and The Milwaukee Journal, where he was lead writer of a Pulitzer-nominated Newspapers in Education project called “That’s Jazz,” which was used in Milwaukee Public Schools and The Milwaukee Jazz Experience. Among other publications, he’s written for Down Beat, No Depression Quarterly of Roots Music, and NoDepression.com, The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, New Art Examiner, Rain Taxi, American Record Guide, CODA (The Canadian jazz magazine), Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine, Graven Images: A Journal of Culture, Law and the Sacred; The Shepherd Express, OnMilwaukee.com. Lynch has taught cultural journalism, English rhetoric and composition (while earning half of the credits for a PhD. in American Literature), and film studies. He’s been a music program host for WLUM-FM and WMSE-FM in Milwaukee. Lynch is working on a novel, "Melville’s Trace or, The Jackal." He’s also a visual artist and studied jazz piano and theory at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He lives in Milwaukee.

Bill Frisell and the artful power of improvisation

A large crowd (and bar crew) sit in rapt attention as The Bill Frisell Trio casts its evocative spell, in the aptly atmospheric and light-blessed concert space Vivarium, on Tuesday evening. All photos by Dan Ojeda, Pabst Theater Group.

Having awoken after an evocative Bill Frisell Trio concert, a psychic analogue arose, like a forgotten fairy tale carrying you to yonder realms, enchanted yet vivid fantasia of alluring charm, amid shadows of danger, darker forces, and truths.

Wilhelm (Bill) and Jacob Grimm published their first fairy tales in 1817, hoping to find “some essential truths about the common people.” They even had a scholarly readership in mind, though eventually becoming popular worldwide. (Remember “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” etc.”? Of course.)

Similarly, Bill’s trio comprises some of the most popular masters of jazz spell-casting. Especially in person at Vivarium Tuesday, the threesome seemed like tellers of tales mysterious and timeless, with quicksilver and wayward imaginations. Not to search out hidden “parables” in this largely instrumental music. But their sonic scenarios signify much of their artful power. Another recent review called the trio “bewitching.” They offer a few standard songs along the way, to provide signposts of familiarity.

Guitarist Bill Frisell (right) and bassist Thomas Morgan.

But much of the concert was purely improvised. The potent qualities gestate in the moderate-to-slow grooves they mainly work in, as if communing in magic tongues. Often Frisell would pick out a few curious notes that summon a “once upon a time” feel, as bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston add dialogue murmur, following Frisell’s myriad harmonic overtones and quirky phrase-turns, at times slightly venomous, elsewhere whispering sweetly. It’s like a person who really thinks before he speaks, thus fragmenting his sentences into disarmingly uncertain-sounding grace notes. Yet at times the small silences work like perfectly-timed pauses for dramatic or comic effect.

The Bill Frisell Trio; (L-R) bassist Thomas Morgan, guitarist Frisell and drummer Rudy Royston; plays closely but freely, with and for each other. 

This was a high level of artistic playing, just as it contained a childlike level of playing, of odd whimsy, either of which can be subverted at any given moment, creating small wonders and striking suspense. At times Morgan’s bass hung so close in the linear weave to be the guitarist’s breathing counterpoint of charm and tension. These musicians seem to play with and for each other, in the best sense. Royston’s drum set sat sideways, to directly face the bassist, and so master tale-spinner Frisell watched each other closely as the music spun a web of simpatico possibility. 1

The audience, in effect, overhears all this sometimes strange and wondrous creativity. One segment involved a slightly ominous descending line that Frisell hooked into a pedal loop, the instant echoing, which sometimes creates a modal raga effect, for him to musically meditate. And yet here it disappeared after two minutes, just as we began to feel it’s subtle powers. Frisell’s then modulates into a fully-formed melody sounding as familiar as one’s favorite recurring fantasy-dream, then collapses into moody cinematics that few guitarists can reach. 2

All this context occurred after a half hour had passed, and Morgan and Royston had taken the only substantial solos. Frisell possesses a kind of leadership modesty like someone far more involved in being a sonic lab scientist with fellow researchers, than making big theoretic pronouncements. Yet later he charged a sequence of rippling Hendrixian flashes and pungent power chords, in a tough but probing passage also recalling Jeff Beck, and all placed precisely in the unfolding way to truth.

Bassist Thomas Morgan

After a lovely, Charlie Haden-esque bass solo from Morgan, and some dissonant Frisell garlands, the guitarist fired up another loop pattern opening into a floating harmonic flow reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, with a crystalline asymmetric phrase ringing like vintage Jerry Garcia. Frisell’s various foot pedals, including “loopers” for the recorded-repeat effect, form a sort of extension of the creative beast in him. One is called a Jam Pedals Tube Dreamer. Perfect. At times, his innate wandering lyricism finds firmer footing and the band kicks up funk and pulsing R&B sorties.

And then the trio unfurled “Who Can I Turn To?” the haltingly beautiful Anthony Newley melody, with a lyric theme wholly befitting this lost-romantic soundscape traveler. Yet the trio really swung mid-song, lifting the mood. These days, Frisell’s hardly a lonesome cowpoke, and he smiles constantly at his fellows. “You Only Live Twice” offered a different philosophic idea, in a captivating old James Bond theme.

After an encore call brimming vintage Cream City Gemütlichkeit, they came back and played “Shenandoah,” which Frisell has played and recorded so often (and superbly) that you could imagine him tattooed with the title, on his forehead, like a Native American headband. Surely, it’s his favorite theme song.

Like the titular river, the song meandered alluringly, then ended with a couple of Frisell-ish pauses, with grungy fuzz-tone chords, and then a pedal chord — reaching for the Vivarium basement, or the dark mud at the bottom of The Shenandoah.

Frisell marveled, “What a great place! This is the first time I’ve ever been to Milwaukee!”

Count on this beautiful monster returning, as surely as Grimm’s tales echo through the dreams of generations. 3

Bill Frisell speaks to the audience at Vivarium

____________

1 This trio also works in another Frisell project called “When you Wish Upon a Star.” which involves the addition of vocalist and violist Petra Haden, daughter of the great late jazz bassist-bandleader and conceptualist Charlie Haden. Frisell has commented on the project: “I’ve been watching TV and movies my entire life. What I’ve seen and heard there is a huge part of, and is embedded so deeply into the fabric of what fires up my musical imagination. The music we play with this group draws from that deep well and hopefully pays tribute to the countless, anonymous, uncredited, unsung, extraordinary musicians who brought that wonderful world to life.”

2 Another Frisell project is The Mesmerists, a collaboration of the guitarist-composer and his other long-standing trio of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, with innovative film maker Bill Morrison. This project combines the music of Frisell with the films of Morrison “to create musical alchemy…Morrison often combine rare, degraded archival material with contemporary music.  The Great Flood, a collaboration with Bill Frisell was honored with a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for historical scholarship.”

3. Frisell’s sometimes childlike sense of wonder manifested right after he stepped onstage to face the audience. He looked around and said, “Are we gonna keep all these lights on like this?” He then peered up and noticed the eight large skylights extending much of the length of the Vivarium concert space. It’s 7:40 p.m. in Milwaukee, so there’s plenty of friendly sunlight and blue skies still smiling from the heavens.

“Ooops!” he said, chuckling to himself, and his perfectly timed gaffe drew warm laughter from the growing crowd (which reached 276, with some standing-room patrons, a good draw for an act largely identified as “jazz.”)

 

 

 

Jamie Breiwick adds a “Nu Brew” to his ever-growing Bitches Stew

Album cover design by Jamie Breiwick.

Here’s a review of Nu Trio, the latest album from trumpeter (and pianist!) Jamie Breiwick:

https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/nu-trio-by-jamie-breiwick/

Jamie Breiwick’s “NuTrio” recording in Clown Horn Studios, June, 2023. Left to right: Tim Ipsen, bass,; Tim Daisy, drums and percussion; Jamie Breiwick, trumpet and piano.

__________

To order this album: https://bsiderecordings.bandcamp.com/album/nu-trio Stream or download Nu Trio at Amazon here.

Bay View Jazz Fest is tonight, May 31! Be there or…

Yo, music lovers (and art lovers, see details), Bay View Jazz Fest is tonight, May 31! Be there or…

Here’s the scooperoo just for you:

https://shepherdexpress.com/music/local-music/bay-view-jazz-festival-bursting-with-music/

Jazz thrives in Milwaukee’s “music alley” a.k.a. Center Street

 

 

Baritone saxophonist Anders Svanoe

ASTRO (Anders Svanoe’s Teleporting Rhythmic Orchestra), Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St., 7 p.m. tonight, May 17, ($10)

The Ethan Philion Quartet, 8-10:30 p.m., May 24, Bar Centro,  ($10)

The Tlalok Rodriguez Quartet. Bar Centro, 8-10:30 p.m. , May 25 (free)

Donna Woodall, Bar Centro, 8-10:30 p.m., May 30

The Anthony Deutsch Trio with Juli Wood, 8-10:30 p.m., Bar Centro, May 31 ($25)

“Since the 1980s, Riverwest has moved like the river it borders—a place of restless culture and commingling social currents.”

That’s how I described my neighborhood for a Shepherd Express survey of distinctive Milwaukee neighborhoods in 2022. Nothing epitomizes that vitality more than E. Center Street, perhaps the commercial heart of Riverwest and pretty close to the geographic center of Milwaukee.

The next few weeks will demonstrate the jazz side of Milwaukee’s “Music Alley.” Center Street boasts at least six music venues, active to varying degrees.

There are comparable weeks of activity at any given time, but I decided that attention must be paid as “Up Jumped Spring,” as jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard might’ve put it. Such artistic buoyancy is important because, after all, “Spring can really hang you up the most,” as another memorable jazz standard puts it.

The space with by far the longest jazz-performance pedigree is The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center, located just one block west of the beginning of Center Street, which is North Humboldt Blvd.

It’s storied history is primarily “centered” on its first incarnation as the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, which ran from 1978 to 1984, as a bastion of both national and local talent that a Milwaukee venue the size of an intimate nightclub has rarely equaled.

The venue’s new incarnation, the JGCA has endured financial ups and downs as did its namesake and has survived in recent years largely thanks to being a non-profit and its well-marketed art exhibits. But tomorrow night will exemplify the type of cutting-edge jazz and improv-oriented music the center now exemplifies.

A relatively new Madison-based ensemble called ASTRO will perform Friday, May 17 in support of their new album Eclipse, the ensemble is conceptually and somewhat nominally inspired by avant-bandleader and musical visionary Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra, and is led by baritone saxophonist and composer Anders Svanoe (the band’s name is an acronym for Anders Svanoe’s Teleporting Rhythmic Orchestra, which soars to the spirit of the outrageously and blissfully transcendent Sun Ra, whose band was always ably ballasted by powerful if pliant and fleet baritone saxophonists, including Pat Patrick and Danny Thompson for many years.

Eclipse is subtitled State of the Baritone, Volume 6, a concept nominally and somewhat aesthetically derived from the late saxophone giant Joe Henderson’s acclaimed two-volume live recordings State of the Tenor. However, those were magisterial and somewhat summative statements from a restlessly creative artist nearing his autumnal years. Svanoe, by contrast is a substantially younger musician, though clearly in his prime. And he’s absolutely dedicated to advancing the artistry and visibility of his primary axe.

Thus, Svanoe has now produced the sixth volume of albums that strive to define the aesthetics of the still underexposed and appreciated baritone saxophone for the present and future. He does so with all the authority of bop and post-bop masters like Pepper Adams, Nick Brignola, Gary Smulyan, and James Carter, and pathfinders like Ra’s bari travelers, Roscoe Mitchell (with whom he still performs), and fusion pioneer John Surman.

Eclipse opens fearlessly and auspiciously with “Klokka Er Fem,” a brief, flat-out free-jazz kaleidoscope, followed by the funky and propulsive “Whistle Stop,” evoking a bustling train loaded with musicians, like what you’d imagine a traveling swing orchestra might sound like jamming on the rails while on a cross-country concert tour of venues both grungy and glorified. Geoff Brady’s vibes riffing give this driving urgency, while Svanoe’s baritone lends it the sort of hard-driving swiftness that makes such time fly by.

Then Svanoe’s honors another truly historic Madison jazz musician who recently passed away, bassist Richard Davis. The small ensemble blending angular cubism and spacious pointillism with Bobby Hutcherson-esque vibes evokes two classic mid- ’60s modern jazz masterpieces, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure. and Svanoe hardly eases up on meaty free full ensemble interludes. Bassist Davis played on both of these ever-engaging and challenging Blue Note albums, and always proved supportive yet as artful and provocative as any of his co-players.

“Long Road” seems to gaze down to the horizon with an eloquently anthemic theme and highly musical horn riffing keyed by Svanoe’s improvised through-playing and a piquant guitar solo by Louka Patenaude. It lights the way with a reflectively lyrical theme, a piece that’s an album highlight. “Images” is free-playing again and seems to honor saxophonist Albert Ayler, who often used metaphysical beings in his titles, with big heart-bursting tenor sax playing from Pawan Benjamin. The players then seem to wander through the sonic haze, searching for, or perhaps embodying, ghosts of a genuinely spooky sort.

This leads to “Ghosts,” another sumptuous and regally outward-bound theme, promenading through fulsome whole notes, al a Sun Ra at his most magisterial. The processional closing harmonies are astringent yet spacious, almost hallowed.

The album ends, in utter irreverence, with a rock ‘n’ roll riff groove called “Memories” and Svanoe quickly drives it into a burn-out-the gears heat. Trumpeter Jon Ailabouni almost evokes a crazed-elephant trombone bleating in comic grotesquery, as does tenor sax player Benjamin. Guitarist Patenaude adds saber-slashes of crunching power chords, before the sax-heavy front line band brings it home breathlessly.

This should be great stuff live even if the Milwaukee band will be smaller than the album’s medium-sized big band.

Chicago bassist Ethan Philion (background) will lead a quartet including trumpeter Russ Johnson (foreground) next Friday at Bar Centro.

A week from Friday on May 24th, Center Street other leading jazz venue, Bar Centro,, now the area’s premiere place for straight-ahead modern jazz, will present The Ethan Philion Quartet. His name may still not ring bells with many Milwaukee area jazz fans, even if I’ve done my modest part to hop Quasimodo-like onto those resounding ropes.

I was deeply impressed by the Chicago-area bassist-bandleader’s dedication album to a great musical hero. And, for sure, it had been so long since I’d heard great new music in the letter and spirit of mighty Charles Mingus — that I did feel some of Quasimodo’s astonished gratification, when he says of Esmerelda, “She gave me water!”

In fact, I was so struck that I chose Philion’s Meditations on Mingus as the best album of the year in the NPR jazz critics poll bthat year, which I can’t say much more for, especially for a musician I hadn’t heard of before. Here’s my review: https://kevernacular.com/?p=14938

Meditations was recorded with a ten-piece band. Centro will present The Ethan Philion Quartet, featuring Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Russ Johnson on trumpet), and Dana Hall on drums. Their debut album, Gnosis, was released on October 6th on Sunnyside Records and drew praise from DownBeat Magazine, Chicago Jazz Magazine, JAZZIZ and more. Critic Larry Applebaum praised the ensemble’s “deep listening and open-ended solos” in his four-star review of Gnosis in DownBeat.

This should be a heavyweight group that floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. For my money, Chicagoan Ward and Milwaukeean Johnson are currently the best soloists on their respective instruments in the upper Midwest, yes, alto sax and trumpet. As for Philion the player, he was the winner of the 2019 International Society of Bassists Jazz Competition.

If Philion is still mining Mingus, the instrumentation suggests one of the bassist’s greatest small bands, with Eric Dolphy on alto sax and Ted Curson on trumpet, renowned for the 1960 Candid label album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus.

The ten-spot cover charge might be a steal.

Philion also leads an acoustic trio featuring arrangements of jazz standards in the Nat King Cole Trio style.

*****

Bar Centro will present Tlalok Rodriguez Quartet on Saturday May 25. The bassist-bandleader is a bilingual singer / songwriter and multi-instrumentalist based in Milwaukee. I don’t know him but Centro explains “Originally a Chicago native, he comes from a long line of musicians dating back to his great-grandfather who was a composer from Vicente Guerreo, Mexico.  A century later he keeps the family tradition alive through boleros, bossa novas, and vibrant performances channeling the passion of his ancestors.”

Thursday May 30 Centro will feature perhaps Milwaukee’s leading female jazz singer, Donna Woodall, who probably needs less introduction than any live performer in this column. She won the 2023 WAMI for best female vocalist. Period.

Pianist-vocalist Anthony Deutsch

Then on the following Friday May 31st, The Anthony Deutsch Trio with saxophonist-vocalist Juli Wood will play Bar Centro. Deutsch, now based in Viroqua in the Driftless region in Western Wisconsin,  developed in Milwaukee as a sophisticated jazz pianist who also has a powerful streak of nature-loving folk artist in him, in his original songwriting and singing, in the the guise of Father Sky. So expect some sort of vocals from him, but here probably jazzier than folkier. Wood is a versatile and popular performer best known for her long association with singer-bandleader Paul Cebar.

_________

 

.

 

 

 

Culture Currents nabs a 2023 award for “best critical review” from Milwaukee Press Club

A Culture Currents review of saxophonist Miguel Zenon and pianist Luis Perdomo (above) won a 2023 Milwaukee Press Club award for “best critical review.”

The Milwaukee Press Club is the oldest extant press club in the world, it claims, so there’s baked-in gravitas to the annual journalism awards it gives out. All judges are out-of state to maintain integrity in this state-wide cemptition.

Culture Currents won it’s third award from the press club for best critical review, after two previous first-place gold awards. This time it received a silver, which is second place.

Culture Current’s Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) displays his 2023 silver award for “best critical review” from The Milwaukee Press Club. Photo by Ann K. Peterson

I happened to read the three finalist entries for “best critical review” and I would concur with the judges on the top prize for best review. It went to coverage of a remake of Edward Albee’s laceratingly acerbic play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” staged by the Milwaukee Chamber Theater. The review was written for Urban Milwaukee by Dominique Noth, coincidentally my editor many years ago, at the old pre-merger Milwaukee Journal. Features editor at the time, Dom was always a highly accomplished theater and film critic, and proved it once again. His review commented comparatively with his memory of seeing the play on Broadway in the early 1960s.

The bronze award for criticism went to another former colleague of mine, Rob Thomas, long-time pop music and film critic for The Cap Times in Madison, for his excellent review of Bruce Springsteen live in Milwaukee.

Culture Currents received the silver award for its review “Miguel Zenon builds a bridge from his Puerto Rican soul to the world.” The subject was a sublimely affecting and lyrical duo concert by MacArthur “Genius” Award-Winner saxophonist Miguel Zenon and his longtime mate  pianist Luis Perdomo at The Art + Lit Lab for the 2023 the Madison Jazz Festival. In a program titled “El Arte del Bolero,” they interpreted popular songs they grew up with in their native Puerto Rico and it was a pan-cultural revelation. Here’s the review:

https://kevernacular.com/?p=15647

The awards were presented at the annual Gridiron Awards Dinner at the Pfister Hotel, always a highlight of the year in Wisconsin journalism. The event always features two “newsmaker award” winners, one of whom was ex-Packer Hall of Famer Leroy Butler.

Leroy, one of the most popular and celebrated athletes in Wisconsin,  was charmingly humble and funny in his acceptance speech.

Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer Leroy Butler (right, with a local news reporter) received a “Newsmaker” award at the 2024 Milwaukee Press Club Gridiron Awards Dinner.

The event “climaxes” with a speech by a nationally known figure in journalism. In this case that was James Bennet, former editor-in-chief at The Atlantic magazine, and former Editorial Page Editor at The New York Times, when the page won two Pulitzers. He’s currently a columnist at The Economist.

Bennet was a trenchant political and journalistic commentator and impressed us by explaining he’d read a certain sampling of our entries — not anything he was requested to do — and felt heartened by the quality of our work. He even mentioned Dominique’s review of the Albee play. Such recognition is something for Wisconsin journalists to build on in an uncertain future for the profession.

_____________

Milwaukee radio music icon Bob Reitman is retiring but remains unforgotten

 

Bob Reitman and his WUWM-FM co-host, son Bob Reitman III, celebrating his 49th anniversary on radio. He retired recently after 57 years as a radio host. Courtesy Shepherd Express

Bob Reitman was always too hip to be avuncular, and yet there was always a knowing and deeply-informed manner about his music presentation over the decades. We heard and felt the easy warmth of his delivery and his concise commentary, as if you were listening to someone you could relate to even if he wasn’t related.

So what was he? it’s not too much to call him the Oracle of Alternate Milwaukee Radio, arisen in the 1960s, the man of music and poetry which shaped my generation and so music of music that ensued.

So Reitman live on the air is gone, his vibrations, sagely crafted and often transporting, now swallowed into the sounds of silence and perhaps time’s regain, imprinted on our memories.

There should be recordings of his show online. And there are intimations of more things to come on the Facebook Page of his WUWM show, titled “It’s Allright Ma (It’s Only Music)”.

I listened to him not enough in his final years co-hosting on Thursdays with his son, Bob Reitman III, on WUWM-FM, the last music program the station allowed as it moved to a talk and news radio format. He commanded that much respect. Like others, I probably assumed subconsciously he’d go on forever. At least he’s still alive, unlike too many of his important cultural contemporaries.

After all, radio was the medium in which we first experienced the explosions and sublime adventures of a generation of musicians who seemed fearless, wild and charismatic in their creative fire. And the new culture was driven by a new power of mind and spirit-expanded possibility and of protest. Through those historic decades of transformation we always had Reitman on our side. He persisted on Milwaukee radio for more than a half century.

Reitman also co-founded Milwaukee’s original alternative “underground” newspaper Kaleidoscope, as a central figure in the citiy’s alternative culture. I don’t know how much actual writing he did for the newspaper, but I do see an interview he did with rock “genius” Frank Zappa in an online PDF of an early issue.

But if there was a music journalist with the sensibility closely akin to Reitman’s it was probably Rich Mangelsdorff. So I will let him, in a Kaleidoscope essay, define a bit of the music that both he and Reitman were exploring and promoting back in the day:

“Serious rock is a constant pushing forward of the shores of awareness, expanding the frontiers of sound and, as the liner notes to Jimi Hendrix’ album state: “put(ting) the heads of . . . listeners into some novel positions,” i.e. consciousness expansion. . . 

Bob Dylan’s decision to merge Woody Guthrie/Cisco Houston materials and sentiments with a rock sound (aided by blues-group musicians such as Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper) gave rise to the multi-level lyric style which is universally employed in serious rock. More tunes are direct referents to the psychedelic experience than anyone but an initiate could realize. Most can be interpreted two or three ways, easily. The best are like multi-faceted jewels allowing the mind limitless play with associations and meanings.” 

Courtesy Mike Zetteler’s blog Zonyx Report 

So what Mangelsdorff dubbed “serious rock” or even “high rock” was Reitman’s bag, in spades, as much as poetic singer-songwriters. Spurred by the perhaps unprecedented spirit of cultural liberation the burgeoning Boomer generation had fed, the new rock drew on a rich array of American indigenous musics of African-Americans, as did jazz, the more self-consciously “serious” American music that I latched onto as a young aficionado and then as a music journalist.

For this reason I was personally somewhat closer to a man who paralleled Reitman’s career for a long time as a jazz disc jockey, Ron Cuzner (He later gave me a chance to succeed him when he departed from WLUM-FM). Both started at WUWM-FM  and Cuzner’s late-night program followed Reitman’s nine-to-midnight slot on WZMF and several other stations they both migrated to when their fairly pure artistic standards wore out their welcome, typically with a bottom line-minded change of station management.

And yet Reitman was who I listened to probably as much as Cuzner in those early years for being on at more amenable hours and for the rich diversity of his programming. For a while he hosted at both WUWM, on “It’s All Right, Ma (It’s Only Music),” a titular takeoff of a Bob Dylan song, and at WZMF, on “The Eleventh House.” He honed his craft on the former, a public radio show, then reached a wider audience on the commercial-but-alternative ZMF and ensuing stations, with listenership following him faithfully in his migration across the dial.

A seminal event for this listener was Reitman playing “East-West,” the transporting 13-minute-plus instrumental merging Eastern classical raga, John Coltrane and blues-rock, written by guitarist Mike Bloomfield and performed by the Butterfield Blues Band. I began to understand the broader and deeper implications of the new blues-rock, and its impulse to jam, but here with a marvelous sense of form, a relationship to jazz which I was concurrently delving deeper into. This was 1966, when the Butterfield album East-West was released, a year before the music from San Francisco emerged as “the summer of love” blossomed in a psychedelic array of colors and passion.

Of course, Reitman was also Milwaukee’s first public “Dylanologist” before the term was ever coined. Who knew Bob Dylan’s music better, or presented its most politically charged music, and the inner workings of his esoterically poetical lyrics?

This combination of qualities made Reitman must-listening in an era long before the Internet and relatively easy access to recordings online. We were blessed to have the music curated by someone so gifted and insightful.

By the late 1980s, however, perhaps in the spirit of that decade, Reitman set aside his easy self-seriousness for a hidden inner performer, and did a two-man comic banter show on WKTI with Gene Mueller. The duo gained unprecedented visibility for Reitman, “pulling ridiculous stunts, hosting unhinged television specials, and even appearing on an episode of Cheers.” as Milwaukee Record recently noted.

Yet there’s another major aspect of the Godfather of Milwaukee Rock. The music experience on the radio made a quantum leap when the music became a live performance with both local groups and touring groups hitting the city.. And here again was Reitman at the fore, as the emcee for the most important and compelling of rock shows.

Fans have doubtless many memories of Reitman at the stage microphone making introductions. “My name is Reitman…” — a tall. slender figure adorned in black jeans and T-shirt, and signature black leather vest. He was really never quite a hippie “flower child” sort. He was more, a la Lou Reed, an East Coast hipster. Reed’s bracingly naked confessional song “Heroin” recorded by The Velvet Underground was also a trademark Reitman offering, helping to define and challenge the sensibilities of the time. Reitman had something of Reed’s taut poetic sensibility, without the songwriter’s irritating personal foibles. He always sounded more like an older brother, whose record collection you loved to rifle through and play.

***

Reitman also served as the figurehead host for two of the most pivotal music events in  Milwaukee rock music history, which I attended. First was the three-day Midwest Rock Fest at State Fair Park in July of 1969, less than a month before Woodstock, with paper flyers promoting the forthcoming rural New York event wafting through the crowd like weed smoke.

Reitman oversaw and introduced all three days of a powerhouse lineup that may still be unequalled in the city’s history, including the freshly-minted supergroup Blind Faith, with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Stevie Winwood, playing one of their first live gigs; Led Zeppelin; Joe Cocker; Jeff Beck; Johnny Winter; Jethro Tull; Bob Seeger; Kenny Rogers and the Fifth Edition; Delaney and Bonnie & Friends; Buffy Sainte-Marie; John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers; Taste, with Irish guitar virtuoso Rory Gallagher; the proto-punk band the MC5, and others, including Milwaukee’s Ox, a derivative of Clapton’s previous supergroup Cream.

Future pop superstar Kenny Rogers, far right, leads the First Edition at Milwaukee’s  Midwest Rock Fest in August 1969.

Clapton, Zepplin’s Jimmy Page, and Beck constituted the triumvirate of British blues rock guitar heroes at the time, a coup not even Woodstock could claim. Add emerging virtuoso Johnny Winter and Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher (see below) and the guitar ante is upped further. However, Blind Faith frankly seemed to be feeling their their way through their new repertoire. Still, Winwood’s effortlessly soulful singing shone. And Led Zeppelin — with Robert Plant’s overgrown trellis of blond hair and primal-scream voice rising from Hades, and Jimmy Page’s searing, ridiculously low-slug Gibson Les Paul blues guitar, sometimes played with a violin bow, amid John Bonham’s thunder ‘n’ lightning drums — made the most lasting group impression.

Drummer Ginger Baker of Blind Faith (left) talks with journalists at the Midwest Rock Fest at State Fair Park. Photo by Marc Dulberger

Oh yes, Ginger Baker’s exploding red hair mop and four whirling limbs delivered the most virtuosic rhythms of the fest. Yet the fest’s dark-horse winner was definitely the nearly unknown Irish power trio Taste, with Gallagher’s raucous singing and blistering guitar work. I’d rank him up with the triumvirate.

The fast-rising power trio Taste, led by Rory Gallagher (right) was the dark-horse winner among the many talented acts at Midwest Rock Fest in 1969.

This summer of ’69 was the brief, shining moment of the short-lived Golden Era of Rock Fests, with the dark clouds of Altamont in December looming on the horizon.

Reitman emceed another historic concert I saw: Bruce Springsteen, in 1975, when he was young and still relatively unknown enough to play a venue as small as Milwaukee’s Uptown, mainly a movie theater in the middle of Milwaukee. This was shortly after Springsteen’s album The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle and before the release of Born to Run.

Emcee Bob Reitman, right, with Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt (center) on Oct. 2, 1975, at Milwaukee’s Uptown Theater. Springsteen speaks to the crowd after a bomb threat was called in, forcing an evacuation and temporary suspension of the show. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

About a half hour into the show, Reitman had to come back onstage — to stop Bruce and his Street Band flying in fourth gear (how often did that ever happen?) — and announce that a bomb scare had been reported. We looked at each other, uncomprehending the impossible. We felt suspended in a heavy, humid atmosphere of collective bodily energy permeating the packed theater. But everyone had to evacuate it. Still, Reitman said, if everything proved safe and secure, the concert would continue at midnight. Springsteen promised a full show. We all dispersed to various locales and waited with a mix of horrified angst and itchy anticipation.

Who knows how the word of “all clear” got out (maybe on Reitman’s radio station) but most of us returned with, well, only blind faith.

By midnight, the place was completely packed again, and Springsteen, with a huge “where-ya-all-been” grin, and a “one-two-three-four!” relit his band’s own fiery fuse. With big saxophone honker Clarence Clemons riding shotgun, Bruce and the boys rolled down Thunder Road for at least another 190 minutes, into the wee small hours of the morning! Springsteen had hit another crest in the breaking dawn of legend. I doubt very many of his concert-goers slept much that night.

Bruce Springsteen (by then rather intoxicated according to a bandmember) performing after midnight at the Uptown when the bomb threat had been cleared. Photo by Robert Cavallo 

That seems a long time ago, but the weird and then exultant vibes of that night remain etched in my memory. And Reitman was our cultural conduit, as he has remained, though increasingly as a sort of Boomer nostalgia act, to be honest. Yet, there’s still power and value in that deep, vibrating thread of American history.

Thanks, Bob.

For a fine, concise biographic sketch of Reitman, check out Shepherd Express‘s Dave Luhrssen: https://shepherdexpress.com/news/community-news/bob-reitman-retires-from-milwaukee-radio/?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=What+was+Bob+Reitman+s+influence+on+Milwaukee+radio%3F&utm_campaign=Daily+News+Friday+April+19%2C+2024

Pianist Lynne Arriale returns to Milwaukee with an inspired new album, Being Human

 

 

Lynne Arriale Trio – CD Release – Friday Musicale

Lynne Arriale Trio will perform at Bar Centro, 808 E. Center St., Thursday, March 14 at 8 p.m., $25

Lynne Arriale continues to grapple with the world, and uplifts it, with her immense gifts and passion. The pianist-composer has proven herself among the most socially and politically engaged jazz musicians working today. On her new album Being Human, she stays true to her piano’s voice whereas previously employing a vocalists to sing an iconic Bob Dylan song to powerful effect. Now she returns to her hometown, Milwaukee, where she studied, and grew as an artist before striking out for larger pastures.

On Being Human she continues her practice of dedicating certain tunes to people of notable political import. Thus, we’re urged to contemplate such people as environmental activist Gret Thunberg, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, Khrystyna Lopatenko, chief nurse at Kharkiv Oblast Hospital, the Ukrainian people and, more broadly, humankind and “those of faith.”

Her liner notes specify how she sees such people as meaningful and worthy of our consideration. And yet her work allows us the freedom to respond in any way we want as per the stimulus of her trio’s work, which fills the auditory senses as much as a piano trio can. The piano trio is a specific art form honed to heights of mastery by The Bill Evans Trio and Arriale carries on from such lofty standards. She mines in an affirmative jazz without lyrics but so full of spirit and both refined and rough-hewn musical gemstones gritted with shards of life to appreciate and feel. For example, Courage (for the Ukraine people) delves into the weight needed to muster that emotion and strength with a big Tyner-ish piano bass beneath muscular yet lyrical trappings. The theme’s minor-ish mood delivers the emotion instilled in “courage.”

No social cause is more pressing today than that of Ukraine, “remaining unbowed while resisting a vastly more powerful enemy, they stand in solidarity with their military forces, even while enduring the horrors and hardships of war,” writes Arriale. “Persistence” is powered by Arriale’s meaty McCoy Tyner influence, thundering along, raining fourth intervals, clearly inspired by Yousafzai, the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize, having survived The Taliban’s attempt to assassinate her.

One of the most intriguing tunes, “Curiosity,” defers from affirmation, bristles with tension and release, thick, piquant chords, and tight harmonies between her and bassist Alon Near, even atonal lines.

Though she is most typically a finely-crafting player with an innate sense of lyricism, a tune like “Soul” digs down into the muddy blues groove of a trio driving a layered and danceable pulse.

You can help but sense how far Arriale travels musically to discover the width and depth of human determination and courage in a world ever ready in defiance.

 

Two quintessential American salesmen and mirror opposites, Tim Arndt and Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman

And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the showHe’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row.” — Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

Tim Arndt (1959-2024). All photos of Tim courtesy of Tim and Amy Arndt.

As I’m going in a sleepless gonzo-mode lately, I might not do justice to Cousin Tim Arndt or to spouse Amy Arndt’s power-packed obit of the extraordinary man who died of prostate cancer recently, at 64. It’s a revelation, the depth and myriad benevolence of Tim’s life. So, I hope this doesn’t seem too irreverent, as this is not an obit per se, and the ensuing analogy is meant to serve by contrast.

But as a culture vulture, I was struck by something in the sadness of Tim’s passing. In my house, we’re currently on a Better Call Saul-watching binge. Here’s the mirror reflection that caught my eye. It strikes me Tim’s life is the moral mirror-opposite of the title character. Tim started his professional career selling flip-style cellphones — close to the depicted the era when Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill starts re-inventing himself — selling “private” covert flip-style cell phones. And the TV series’ New Mexico setting ain’t far from Texas, so the cultural milieu isn’t too alien.

Jimmy McGill hustling private flip-style cell phones. The Georgia Straight

The big difference is how disgraced and disbarred lawyer Jimmy/Saul takes to selling cell-phones, for nefarious purposes. He has a born-salesman’s gift-for-gab, like Tim, but oh my, what Saul does with his gifts. Throughout the series he’s a salesman first and best, even when working as a lawyer.

What unfolds is a contemporary variation on the tragic American story of moral dissembling, through desperation, gravitating to the lure of free-market greed. He begins (with a lovely and upstanding blonde woman partner, like Tim), and he could’ve done so much good, and he knows it. We see this all grow like a cancer in him because Bob Odenkirk is a superb actor who reveals many shades of his character’s two-facedness. As Saul, he ends up exploiting his customers (initially retirees), and the system, as much as he can, eventually falling into the deadly cesspool of a Mexican drug cartel. He can’t help himself, his brilliant lawyer brother Chuck explains, dating from childhood, and consciously if compulsively continues to avoid the better angels of his nature.

Promotional image. Amazon.com

Activist Tim Arndt, by contrast, used the medium of Ma Bell for the sake of Mother Earth, as a springboard to profoundly protect and replenish the planet as a “climate change warrior,” and to help anyone who needed help. It seems that, like Saul, Tim couldn’t help himself, but to “do the right thing.” I shouldn’t make him out to be a saint but he seemed to be one of an empowering sort who “saw the potential in everyone and everything,” as his brother Steve commented. Saul sees the potential weakness in everyone.

Quoting Amy: “At Austin Energy, Tim was instrumental in the creation of the Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure (ECAD) Ordinance. He took his passion for combatting climate change to 360 Energy Savers, where he leveraged rebates to help lower utility bills for residents of Austin.
Tim purchased 1st Choice Energy in 2021. There, he continued to fight climate change and helped make Austin’s low to moderate-income families more comfortable by providing energy efficiency upgrades as part of Austin Energy’s Weatherization Assistance program.”

Widow Amy also notes that Tim would stop to help anyone with car trouble. Jimmy McGill’s beat-up 1998 Suzuki Esteem – rusted-out yellow with one red car door, would’ve needed Tim’s help. In fact, Jimmy is in an accident in the series pilot when two skateboarders try to scam him by purposely running into Jimmy’s car. Jimmy’s nearly broke at the time (working at a Cinnabon shop) and the punks-on-little-wheels demand $500 compensation for the “accident.” Jimmy points to his car as “a steaming pile of crap” to show how hard-up he is and says, “The only way this car is worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker in it!”

If Tim Arndt had been cast in the show at that point, Jimmy might’ve seen the erring of his ways, though probably continuing down his slippery slope. That ethical task is up to Jimmy’s girlfriend, the sharp-lawyer Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), who loves her pro bono work, in an almost morally preening way. She loves Jimmy, too, as his sounding board yet is strangely vulnerable to his “aw shucks” charms and deceptive bloviations. It’s a variation on a Macbethian love story, with the man as the infecting partner.

As Amy’s obit recounts in admiring detail, Tim Arndt was “The Ultimate Good Samaritan.” Jimmy’s version of “Goodman” Samaritan is to teach the young skateboarders how to scam better.

Girlfriend Kim Wexler (Reah Seehorn) listens to another explanation/vow from Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Although high-minded, she has a weakness for his powers of persuasion and evasion. global.ca/news

Over time it became known that Tim had helped everyone in the neighborhood. If Tim could have been satirized at all, it might’ve been as a too-good-to-be-true do-gooder and tree-hugger, who might rankle some, but only as if we don’t need more of those in America. His tendency to be a found-objects “hoarder” might seem comical too, but all his gatherings were stashed in his garage (nicknamed “Vietnam” because of its devastated-looking chaos) which, with his special brand of genius, became a myriadic fix-it and repurpose shop for anyone who needed the once-again right stuff.

Among the more remarkable things Tim did was “returning BB King’s famous guitar Lucille to its rightful owner when it ended up in his possession,” as Amy recounts. (Please read Amy’s obit on Tim following this article — originally posted on her Facebook page — on more of what made him an extraordinary man.)

Tim Arndt, proud family man with (L-R) daughter Emily, spouse Amy, Tim, daughter-in-law Taylor, son Matthew.

Tim Arndt and Jimmy McGill embodied two versions of a quintessential American. Tim might have come as close as anyone with limited resources to being the ideal American, living to pursue justice, equality, and a measure of happiness for his own (the proud father of three) and anyone, and to help save the only planet we have to survive on. Though I didn’t know him well (he was a life-long Texan, I a Wisconsinite), Tim now feels like the brother I never had. In our shared Lynch genes, we even resemble each other. But he was probably a better man than me, than most.

Jimmy the Saul-man, with his own peculiar resourcefulness, was the every-man-for-himself American, the transactional con-man first brilliantly characterized in Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade from 1857), and agonizingly relevant today. Jimmy/Saul was a winning glad-hander, even capable of a flawed love, ever despoiled by the neediness of his greediness.

As for the way Tim loved, as Amy sweetly notes: “Tim was born in Dallas, Texas on Valentine’s Day in 1959. His mother Eileen almost named him Val, but thankfully, she chose Timothy James instead. Still, being born on Valentine’s Day meant Tim Arndt was born to exemplify love.”

May the Tim Arndts of the world inspire us, and may we be ever vigilant of the Saul Goodmans.

Tim and Amy.

_________

*Saul (Bob Odenkirk) may still be better known as the sleazy lawyer on Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul was a sort of prequel, telling the story of how Jimmy McGill came to be Saul Goodman. Odenkirk (only three years younger than dear Tim) has received six nominations for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series, marking his comic-tragic brilliance at embodying the conflicted yet chillingly mutating character.

_______________________

Tim Arndt’s obituary – the hardest thing I’ve ever written. What a guy!
By AMY ARNDT
_____
Timothy James Arndt, 64, died on January 22, 2024, after a 6-year battle with prostate cancer. Tim was the ultimate Good Samaritan, a climate change warrior, friend to many, and owner of the best laugh on the planet.
Tim was born in Dallas, Texas on Valentine’s Day in 1959. His mother Eileen almost named him Val, but thankfully, she chose Timothy James instead. Still,   being born on Valentine’s Day meant Tim Arndt was born to exemplify love.
Tim is survived by his wife Amy, the love of his life and pain in his ass, his son Matthew Arndt, daughter-in-law Taylor, daughter Stephanie Martinez-Arndt, and daughter Emily Rose Arndt. He is also survived by his brother Steve Arndt and wife Joy, brother TJ Arndt, and brother Mike Arndt. Other relatives include mother-in-law Judy Wilkins, father-in-law Glenn Underwood and wife Pam, sister-in-law Emily Montez and husband Rocky. Tim was predeceased by his mother, Dr. Eileen Lynch, and father Terry Arndt (unless you consult 23andMe, but that’s another story).
Tim attended W.T. White High School in Dallas, Texas, and graduated from Walden  Preparatory School in 1976. When Tim’s grades didn’t quite cut the mustard, he used his charm and gift of gab to gain admission to the McCombs Business School at the University of Texas.
Tim’s career was always focused on helping people. His sales career began at Cellular One in San Antonio, TX, where he sold the original “brick” cell phones and the original flip phone which sold for over $2,500. He later worked at the Travis County Medical Society’s Medical Exchange, where he sold pagers and communications services to physicians. He was responsible for developing the training of thousands of Central Texans at the Customized Training division of Austin Community College. At Austin Energy, Tim was instrumental in the creation of the Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure (ECAD) Ordinance. He took his passion for combatting climate change to 360 Energy Savers, where he leveraged rebates to help lower utility bills for residents of Austin.
Tim purchased 1st Choice Energy in 2021. There, he continued to fight climate change and helped make Austin’s low to moderate-income families more comfortable by providing energy efficiency upgrades as part of Austin Energy’s Weatherization Assistance program.
Tim’s brother Steve wisely noted that Tim “saw potential in everyone and everything.” An altruistic hoarder, Tim’s garage was well known as “Vietnam,” because his collection of random objects looked more like a war zone than a garage full of dreams. We joked that if you needed something, Tim would ask, “What color?” because he likely had more than one of whatever it was you needed. He stopped to help anyone having car trouble. He refused to pass a lemonade stand without stopping to support a small business. One time Amy realized Tim had helped someone from every single home on their street. He considered people experiencing homelessness to be his neighbors, and he never judged a person for their circumstances. He simply helped them.
Tim’s laugh is almost as well-known as his good deeds. When the kids were little, if they got separated from Tim in a store, they never worried because they could find Tim by the sound of his bellowing laugh. Amy described Tim’s laugh as “a cross between a machine gun and Bert from Sesame Street.”
Tim could do so many things that we kept a list of “Things Tim Arndt Can Do.” The list included: taking almost anything apart and putting it back together, buying and fixing cars, building a treehouse out of recycled materials, and returning BB King’s guitar Lucille to its rightful owner when it ended up in his possession. He could dance the Jitterbug, cross-country ski, juggle, walk on stilts, safely hold bees in his mouth, and catch snakes and tarantulas. He could cook like nobody’s business, sew his firstborn son’s baby bedding (including bumpers), and create custom Halloween costumes, often at the very last minute. He could swim the length of a pool in one breath. He could even catch a fly with chopsticks.
Though Tim spent his life serving others, his family and friends were his greatest joy. He was often overheard telling someone on the phone, “I’m just lucky that I’m still madly in love with my wife.” He loved his Saturday morning ritual of talking to his brother Steve (and by way of speakerphone, Steve’s wife Joy). He was a caring role model for his little brother Mike. His Sunday morning breakfasts with his best friend Jon were his favorite start to the week. Nothing made him prouder than being a parent to Matthew, Stephanie, and Emily Rose. His legacy of love and good deeds lives on in his children, who all possess his best qualities.
Tim was a Yellow Dog Democrat to his core, working on numerous campaigns, block walking, phone banking, and helping register voters. One of his favorite things to tell people was, “The only part of my permanent record that I’m proud of is that I’ve never missed an election.” And it’s true; Tim voted religiously.
Speaking of religion, Tim was a cradle Catholic and lived the examples of a Christian life his entire life. However, when Tim’s cancer spread to his bones, he developed a skepticism about God and the afterlife. During this time Tim developed a friendship with Father Matt Boulter, the priest at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Austin. Tim concluded one of their last conversations by saying, “If you’re right, I’ll see you on the other side!” Then he laughed his giant laugh.
Tim’s family and friends believe that Tim’s work on earth gave him a VIP pass to the other side. While the world is a quieter place without Tim and his famous laugh, his memory will live on through his children, his countless good deeds, and the good deeds we can all do to honor him.
The family sends their unending appreciation and love to Tim’s medical team and caretakers. To the team at Texas Oncology: Dr Carlos Ruben de Celis, Colleen Adkins, PA-C, Dr. Louis Lux, Francesa Ciponi, LCSW, C-DBT, Vanessa Hohn, Senior Patient Services, and the many nurses and techs that Tim made laugh, thank you for your excellent care. Thank you to the team at Hospice Austin, especially Stephanie Beam, RN, and Cat Ross, CNA, whom Tim truly loved. Thank you to the incredible team at Christopher House, who cared for Tim so lovingly in his final days.
A celebration of life will be held on Saturday, March 23 at 2:30 at the Hancock Recreation Center in Austin. To honor Tim’s memory, please consider a donation to Hospice Austin, Christopher House, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS), or a climate change organization of your choice. If donations are cost-prohibitive, please consider doing a kind deed in Tim’s honor.
May be an image of 1 person
All reactions:

You, Sheila A. Lynch and 315 others

At 80, Jerry Grillo sings a song his way, taking musical risks, and usually winning

 

Singer Jerry Grillo performs at his “Decades Tour” celebrating his 80th Birthday at Bar Centro on Feb. 10, with drummer Randy Maio, at right. Photos courtesy Jerry Grillo.

A notable recent performance by Milwaukee jazz singer Jerry Grillo got me thinking about his art form, partly due to technical difficulties with my blog delaying me from writing an intended review. Then today, while exercising, I listened to one of the most acclaimed male jazz singers today, Gregory Porter.

So, I hope I’m doing Grillo a service by partly comparing him to the highest standards of his craft. Grillo may be nearing the end of his performing career as he chose to do a sort of career and life retrospective on his  “Decades Tour,” celebrating his 80th birthday at Bar Centro in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. The joint was filled beyond capacity, suggesting a cultivated popularity, which leads to an implicit question. Doesn’t the art of male jazz singing remain too rare, both nationally and locally? General audiences seem more attracted to female singers, who might be more easily marketed as well, whether singing jazz, or classical, or even pop, now that male singers fronting male rock bands have now given way to superstar female pop singers, the biggest which need not be named.

Thus, it seems all more valuable to appreciate men willing to open themselves up to the emotional and artistic vulnerabilities of singing, more typically the province of women. To this point, this man’s songs at Bar Centro included several made famous by women, including Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Dinah Washington, and Morgana King.

So, I celebrate Grillo’s accomplishment by possibly holding him to high standards. His voice may not possess the pure resonant quality of a Gregory Porter, or of a Kurt Elling, or the textural richness or quite the capacious dynamic range of his “favorite singer,” Tony Bennett.

Yet Grillo has plenty to offer as a narrative and dramatic master of his material, a musical raconteur, and as an improvisational risk-taker in the tradition of real jazz, by contrast to a safer singer guided by jazz musicians. He demonstrated this by performing songs that he conceded weren’t typical jazz material; he mastered jazz singing only in his career’s latter portion, since the 1990s. But these songs were sung his way. His roots actually lie in musical theater as he demonstrated here. His choice of material is consistently witty and engaging. He also took liberty to introduce each song with its context in his own life, thus personalizing it as a storyteller.

The first, “Teach Me Tonight” served as a way to learn about him and, with its sly pivot toward boudoir instruction, as a rich metaphor for the man himself as a true artistic Romantic, and as a teacher, which he was for many years. This began his biographical commentary: we learned he was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, not coincidentally the birthplace of Bob Dylan. He’s hardly the poetic songwriter that Dylan is (who is, really?), but Grillo, akin to Dylan, accomplishes so much both with a less-than-perfect voice and the creative chutzpah to virtually reinvent his songs almost every time he sings them.

So no, Grillo’s singing may not be as purely pleasing as, say, Porter’s. But that celebrated Blue Note recording artist tends to lean heavily on the warm, glowing tones of his resonant baritone, in many medium-to-slow songs.

By contrast, Grillo not infrequently finds himself in precarious pivots of intonation – because he’s taking musical risks, trying to modulate his singing to the twists and turns of the story-song, without being calculated. Thus, he seems more authentic, honest, vulnerable, and quite appealing as a musical human. He can also render a tender ballad, like the hush of “A Quiet Thing,” made famous by Morgana King. This managed to fairly tame the rather boisterous chatterers at the bar, a sort of spell-casting.

Now, with his audience’s full attention, he rewarded with them shortly with his most acclaimed song, “My Hometown, Milwaukee,” which he wrote. As he explained, it celebrates his adopted hometown by avoiding clichés like cheese and beer, instead exulting in our extraordinary “museum with wings,” our somewhat unique public transit bus The Hop, and our pro sports teams: “The Bucks are the tops! And the Brewers will win the World Series…next year.” His pause, and pitch drop, were perfect comedian’s timing, deflating his own claim, and drawing laughter from a crowd that surely would relish the always-game Brewers finally winning it all.

“My Hometown” is a declamatory romp, which leads to a big-chested, strutting climax, akin to Sinatra singing “Chicago.” The song earned him a proclamation from Mayor Cavalier Johnson of “My Hometown, Milwaukee” Day, last May. It also won the 2023 WAMI award for “Most Unique Song.”

Jerry Grillo and Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson hold the Mayoral Proclamation of “My Hometown, Milwaukee” Day last May, honoring Grillo’s song, which also won a 2023 WAMI Award.

In the second set, Grillo wisely noted that jazz is essentially a “black art form,” by performing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It’s hardly black protest or identity-assertion, but illustrates of how American black music grew by merging foot-tapping entertainment with insouciant, smart creativity.

He somewhat book-ended his program by honoring, early in the first set, his favorite singer Tony Bennett, with “I Wanna be Around” and, as the penultimate song, Bennett’s trademark “San Francisco.” Preceding that was one of the most poignant moments. Another pianist friend, Rose Fosco, had composed a tune she called “Lonely” which, he explained, was written for her late father, a delicately-crafted expression of her sense of loss. Grillo set it to lyrics, and it served also for him as an acknowledgment of mortality as did, in more affirmative terms, the program closer, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Sensitive accompaniment shadowed the singer throughout: pianist John Hefter, drummer Randy Maio and especially saxophonist Jeanne Marie Farinelli, who added a limpid flute solo to that final tune.

Saxophonist-flutist Jeanne Marie Farinelli performs with Grillo at Bar Centro.

This evening breathed in long waves of anecdote and songful ardor, it chuckled, digressed and grew increasingly palpable of a creative man’s love affair with a city. That added up to what felt like a precious gift from the vocalist to his audience. Grillo will continue his “Decades Tour” for an indefinite time. Then, perhaps he’ll saunter off into the sunset.

However his final performance chapter plays out, let us give thanks and always cherish Milwaukee’s preeminent hometown male jazz singer.

_____________

The Jazz Estate is now history, an historic loss.


An air of inevitability hovered over Milwaukee’s venerable Jazz Estate, after it ceased regular live music.– especially when owner John Dye stripped the word “jazz” from the night club’s name. “Rebranding” is the fashionable euphemism these days. There’s even a faint foul whiff in the last show — the popular “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — being performed by a band called the Commercialists. Now the doors of the reimagined high-end cocktail bar are shuttered, for good or worse, except for “special events.”
What of those once-beloved loyal neighbors, like jazz singer Jerry Grillo?
There’s some controversy about whether the jazz club’s demise was something the community failed, or the club itself.
For the record, the Commercialists include excellent players: keyboardist Anthony Deutsch, Bassist Clay Schaub and drummer Patrick Morrow.
For more on this story — as it unfolded — see my past coverage below: