Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra: Something New in a Grand Old Tradition

Saxophonist-bandleader Curt Hanrahan ( standing, far right) conducts the Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra. Photo by Leiko Napoli

The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra will perform an album-release concert for Take it All at 6 p.m. Sunday Aug. 21 at the Racine Theater Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave., Racine. For advance tickets, visit: MJO tickets

Is the jazz big band a relic of the swing era? Well, there’s still power in numbers, and wider musical vistas to explore. Despite inherent costliness, the art form has remained vital and evolving with such distinctive ensembles as The Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, The Mingus Big Band, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, John Beasley’s MONK’estra and The Vanguard Orchestra. The Brian Lynch Big Band won a Grammy award in 2020, led by the Milwaukee-raised trumpeter-composer-band leader.

Add the Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra to that list, with their auspicious second album, Take it All. It reveals a full plumbing of orchestral resources with both advanced contemporary aesthetics and catchy grooves aplenty. The MJO hardly emerged out of the blue. For 12 years, orchestra leader Curt Hanrahan led the UW-Milwaukee Jazz Ensemble, and the annual Woody Herman Jazz Festival, before retiring in 2017.

At the core of the new orchestra’s personnel is the synchronistic 30-plus-year-old jazz fusion band OPUS (which will open the Racine concert for the MJO). Between Hanrahan and his brother, drummer/co-bandleader Warren Hanrahan, they’ve performed with numerous big bands of the past, including Arturo Sandoval, Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra Jr., Harry Connick Jr., Lawrence Welk and Woody Herman’s band led by Frank Tiberi.

“I love all big bands and have observed, listened and learned from many of them but my main influence has always been the benevolent Woody Herman,” Hanrahan says. “The Milwaukee native was on the road for close to 50 years with various bands and ‘Herds’ and produced some of the most iconic and legendary jazz musicians, composers/arrangers that this American art form has to offer. Our jazz festivals are modeled after his Woody Herman/Sister Fabian scholarship and educational programs that began in the mid to late sixties.”

Milwaukee-born clarinetist-saxophonist Woody Herman. Courtesy Jazz Journal

Perhaps there’s hometown bias in Hanrahan’s affection for Herman’s “Thundering Herds,” but that big-band leader always forged bridges between swing orchestras and modern jazz. Jazz historian Ted Gioia writes, “Herman’s evolution from sweet music to traditional jazz to modern jazz is almost unprecedented in the history of music. For Woody Herman is best understood…as a catalyst. His talent lay in enabling – spurring those around him to their deepest creative currents, inspiring them, letting them ‘loose’.” Herman’s second Herd debuted the “Four Brothers” band, with a section of three tenor saxophones and one baritone, which provided a template for what would soon be called cool jazz.

Album cover courtesy Spotify 

Accordingly, The MJO projects through a forward-looking lense, with arrangements that facilitate rather than burden soloists and ensemble flair. The title tune “Take It All” opens with short phrases building suspense, then layers into dissonant yet alluring harmonies with a complex series of snapping ensemble accents. Tenor saxophonist Kyle Seifert delivers a measured solo rumination until the second chorus’s rising intensity driven by the big ensemble. Trumpeter David Katz provides deft, warm counterpoint, a la Thad Jones, to a sumptuous climax.

The second tune, “We All Love Eddie Harris,” reflects saxophonist Harris’s penchant for a cool but funky vamp that allows sassy rhythmic licks from Seifert, and quotes liberally from Harris’s swaggering, interval-skipping jazz classic “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

Ensuing material ranges from a tricky Oscar Peterson adaptation of the vintage finger-snapper “Sweet Georgia Brown” to “Covidity,” a Hanrahan piece reflecting the “angst of the pandemic era,” yet inspired by Elvin Jones’s Live at the Lighthouse album, a blazing hallmark of post-Coltrane jazz.

“Souljourner” closes the album with a transporting swirl of woodwinds detouring into a gritty jazz-fusion guitar solo from Steve Lewandowski. The MJO demonstrates how bigger is better when the outcome embraces a panoply of compelling moods and stylistic effects, allowing the listener to “take it all” in.

For information on the MJO, visit: https://www.mjojazz.com/

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This article was previously published in The Shepherd Express: MJO article

Brian Lynch opens his own songbook again, and some frolicking birds flew out, singing a song

The Brian Lynch Quintet will perform at an album release event for Songbook Volume 2, at Bar Centro, 804 E. Center St., 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12. Tickets @milwaukeejazzinstitute.org  

 

A Thumbnail Brian Lynch Primer:

Brian Lynch’s trumpet burns, sings and rings the chimes of freedom, within your musical mind, and body.

He is also among the very best — among a steady but small class of musical culture- forgers. Nope, not forger as in faker.

I use forger, the perhaps nakedly exposed subject noun, because Lynch is forging fresh original musical edifices that dance in the wind, as he honors and plumbs the past. He’s mastered the modern jazz canon and advances the vernacular like nobody’s business.

He now supposes to ask: What about my sense of melody, harmony, and composition? He’s proven his ability’s on Songbook Vol 1, and across his storied career. So this is a typically high-grade Lynch release with studio players of any renown, of his choice.

Spoiler alert: Lynch wrote all the tunes on Songbook Vol. 2: Dance the Way U Want To.

Fear not. This is a typically high-grade Lynch release, with chosen studio musicians of any renown, of his choice, all ace purveyors of Cubano-Latin Jazz.

‘Tis is as much fun as you can have on a Brian Lynch album, even as its musical limbs are plenty meaty enough to step further into the fray of chaos, to make gleaming, spontaneously choreographed, swinging music out of it. He knows how to do that as an composer and arranger, having worked in the highest levels of mainstream jazz, in most of its group forms. (specific review at bottom)

After all he’s a Grammy Award winner for his own big band’s brilliant recording The Omni-American Book Club/ My Journey through Literature in Music. The two-CD session featured Donald Harrison, Regina Carter, Dafnis Prieto, Dave Leibman, and Orlando “Maraca” Valle, and Jim Snidero. Lynch burnishes the modern big band style with literary influences that speak profoundly to the troubles — and defiant potential — of a less-than-humane world, tight-roping their humanity between capitalists and real or neo-authoritarian governments.
His musical ensemble comrises various people he works with often in his Latin American musical travels as a music professor in Florida and through jazz upper circles of influence.

That two-CD aIbum grew from his deep reading of, among other writers, the pioneering African-American sociologist, socialist, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. The album — featuring Donald Harrison, Dave Liebman, Jim Snidero, and Regina Carter, among others — climaxes a series of concept albums involving tributes to “unsung heroes” among trumpeters, a sequence which included his 2016 album commemorating the work of the great, short-lived post-bop trumpet master Woody Shaw, titled Madera Latino. That two-CD set — which also features fellow trumpeters Dave Douglas, Sean Jones and Philip Dizack — was Grammy-nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album. All of the trumpeter-tribute albums and the big-band recording are on Lynch’s own Hollistic Music Works label.

His previous album Brian Lynch Songbook Vol. 1: Bus Stop Serenade, suggested his own street cred, and shows that he long ago found his own voice as a composer, as well as a trumpeter, on previous recordings. Those often involved African-American recording collaborators and mentors like Milwaukee’s Melvin Rhyne and Buddy Montgomery, and saxophonists Harrison, Ralph Moore and Javon Jackson with whom he paired up for the front line of the final edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, perhaps the most legendary hard-bop band in jazz history. He also worked with another iconic hard-bop group, The Horace Silver Quintet, a post-bop quintet with Phil Woods, as well as the ground-breaking Toshikio Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra.

Following are a few photographic lights of fire in Brian Lynch’s long legacy. What follows is my review of Songbook: Vol. 2, to be released Aug. 12.  

In Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy, trumpeter Brian Lynch revisits his front-line fellows, Bobby Watson (left) and Billy Pierce (right), from the final edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Photo courtesy jimmysoncongress.com

Brian Lynch’s educational and performance roots: This award-winning Wisconsin Conservatory of Music student jazz ensemble from the early 1980s, included Brian Brian Lynch on trumpet in the center. From left are guitarist John Zaffiro, drummer Mark Davis, bassist Al Anderson, pianist Marcus Robinson. To Lynch’s left are tenor saxophonist Rolla Armstead and trombonist Hary Kozlowski. Overseeing them is jazz program co-director Manty Ellis, at far right. Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

** ****

REVIEW:

Brian Lynch and Spheres of Influence — Songbook Vol. 2: Dance the Way U Want To (Hollistic MusicWorks)

BY KEVIN LYNCH

Most musicians wouldn’t revisit their own original material, except in concert. But trumpeter Brian Lynch has always probed deeply into many of his artistic forebears, in his “unsung heroes” series and superb Woody Shaw tribute albums, among others. He eventually realized he’d accumulated a deep repertoire of his own originals worthy of reimagining, and owning a label allows this. His self-inquiry remains fruitful on Songbook Vol. 2: Dance the Way U Want To. It’s a way of highlighting his personal “spheres of influence,” which he traces to his early days with Milwaukee’s Latin Jazz band La Chazz. He crafted a style by expanding the bustling crossroads of Latin and modern jazz forms and expression.

Songbook’s subtitle is a key, undercutting any pretense of honorific self-regard, and suggests: “Respond any way you choose.” Some Latin tempos get fast and complex, yet you can “dance” along, literally, or figuratively – “go with it,” by halving the tempo and soaking it up. Yet Lynch invariably takes you by the hand, with his ever-affable lyricism, a rare gift for melody, even in the most heated trumpet improv. A primary “influence sphere” is the great pianist Eddie Palmieri with whom Lynch earned his first Grammy Award on 2006’s Simpatico. The opener “E.P.’s Plan” offers bristling horn harmonies, and Lynch’s solo pushes ideas like a dancer leading a mambo clave with el diablo. By contrast, “Across the Bridge” is a measured theme, seeming to signify a sturdy bridge for Latino and Norte American forms and sensibilities. Pianists Kemuel Roig and Alex Brown especially sustain the tricky Latin rhythms while expanding on sinuous solos, over electric bassist Rodner Padeilla, drummer Hillario Bell and percussionist Murphy Aucamp. 1

Among a wide-ranging wealth of Lynch “dance songs” is a lovely speculative breather, the elegant bolero “Que Seria La Vida” (What Would Life Be Like?). It would be far poorer without the growing Brian Lynch oeuvre.

The Brian Lynch Quintet will perform at an album release event for Songbook Volume 2, at Bar Centro, 804 E. Center St., 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12. Tickets @milwaukeejazzinstitute.org  

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This review was first publised in shorter form in The Shepherd Express: Brian Lynch Songbook review

  1. As with volume 1, Lynch offers Songbook, Vol. 2.as a low-priced two-CD set,  In this instance, for the second disc, he’s recorded or edited shorter “radio versions of all the tunes, except one. Those average about five to six minutes. And smartly Lynch included duration times for everything. So you can take in the songbook in shorter drafts or soak it all the way up, like the Caribbean Sea, released dancing, somewhere down deep in your soul.

In a new biography, hip-hop artist Klassik emerges transcendently talented, but still rooted, a native son of Milwaukee

Book review: The Milwaukeean: A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph by Joey Grihalva

Joey Grihalva will present SONSET — a book reading by the author and solo improv by Klassik — for The Milwaukeean, at a new venue, forMartha, 825 E. Center Street, from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday. The event will follow the Center Street Daze street festival. Cover is $10, or $25 with book.

Is a thirty-ish hip-hopper with only regional renown worthy of a biography? In his new book about Klassik (Kellen Abston), author Joey Grihalva forges, in effect, a freshly painted, still-mutating portrait of a creative man, of Milwaukee and of contemporary times, with all the urgency and potential for tragedy and agency that all implies. In that sense, Klassik emerges as a comparatively humble embodiment of a Black Milwaukeean, even as he manifests genius that might characterize the city. The painfully enlightened and haunted saga – he watched his father die of bullet wounds at age 11 – bends toward the arc of triumph, if justice remains elusive.

The victory comes, in one sense, because the personal is still political. Klassik is one of many who’ve grown as the art of hip hop has grown – fitfully, defiantly, and dynamically – to where Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. If there’s a connection, Klassik has much more in common with Lamar’s 2015 jazzy masterwork To Pimp a Butterfly than with Lamar’s ensuing album Damn.

It might also be the cultural difference between Compton, California and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Maybe, ultra-hipness vs. a kind of ultra-hopeness? As in “keep hope alive.” As this book reveals, Klassik’s deep troubled history with, and vision of his hometown, sets him apart. It’s partly why he’s watched many Milwaukee area rap artists become bigger names than him.

Standing over his hometown’s skyline, Kellen “Klassik” Abston says he thinks of Milwaukee as a character more than a place. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 

That does not mean they’re better. That’s why, among increasingly aware Midwesterners, Klassik is as essentially Milwaukee as contemporary hip-hop gets. Grihalva captures a nearly lost Midwestern bonhomie, a pan-racial faith in humanity, hidden beneath the grime of post-industrialism and the crime of racism.

Klassik, who studied jazz saxophone with Milwaukee master Berkeley Fudge, was an early musical prodigy. To the degree he manifests his own filtered amalgam of jazz, classic R&B, and hip-hop, I hear and feel how much he makes good on the thoughtful presumption of his name, Klassik. His previous album, American Klassiks, demonstrated how he can reinvent classics of American vernacular musics, and make them present, alive for today and pointing a beacon forward, musically and spiritually. The artist in him won’t do it any other way.

“This is the problem with Kellen’s stuff – it’s too smart,” says his friend Jordan Lee, a DJ, and a former station director at 88/Nine Radio Milwaukee, who’s also a member of the jazz-hip-hop trio KASE, with whom Klassik as recorded and collaborated. 1 “It was never going to work at the beat battle,” referring to a competitive hip-hop event Lee produced from 2005 to 2015, known as the Miltown Beatdown, which brought together produces rappers, and hip-hop heads from all over the city.

Rather than always “on the beat,” that can be as delimiting as it is compulsively attractive, Klassik’s music unfolds with an almost Midwestern shapeliness, as if informed by the Kettle Moraine as much as by the staccato pulses of the urban environment. As a primal Klassik source, I’ve always heard the soul-praying-to-the-moon existential angst of Marvin Gaye, whom he shouts out on “Black-Spangled Banner,” on American Klassiks, recorded live late one night in Bay View’s Cactus Club.

Klassik’s expressive power dates back to, among other things, Marvin Gaye and the hauntings of his childhood. Courtesy IAMKLASSIK.com.

He’s also decidedly more improvisational than most hip-hop or pop. “Maybe it’s the jazz purist in me,” he muses to Grihalva. “When you think about live music and playing an instrument, even the most rehearsed and refined part has its own idiosyncrasies or little inflections that make it human. I’m making something, I’m adding layers and depth.” 2

Klassik performs at Pianofest, at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a few years ago. Singer Adekola Adedapo recalls, at age 10, Kellen played “Over the Rainbow,” on saxophone at a Heath Brothers jazz workshop at the Wisconsin Conservatory, one of the first discoveries of his talent. Photo courtesy JGCA

The book, a prime example of “new journalism,” is also the author’s own story, about his relationship to his subject and their shared hometown, “an eternal tie that binds.” Abston and Grihalva are virtual contemporaries and Grihalva teaches at Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts, which is Abston’s alma mater.

Part of Abston’s burden is that he feels he could have done more than simply freeze up, to possibly save his father from dying, and that, 20 years past, Robin Abston’s murder remains unsolved. That’s plenty to drive a young man to drink and drugs – a large part of his struggle, aside from his often-exquisite peculiarity as a young, gifted, and black man, within our race-obsessed culture. And yet he won’t leave Milwaukee, as partly a spiritual detective still on a homicide case grown cold for most others. His relationship with police is deep ambivalence, hardly hatred. But he’s also doing close investigation of his own identity, which messes with him, with ghosts of what he’s been, shouldn’t be, won’t be, and can be.

Klassik’s bling always includes the dog tags of his father, veteran Robin Abston, who was murdered 20 years ago, in a crime that remains unsolved. Courtesy Milwaukee Magazine

Ultimately the redemption and triumph of the story is the hard-earned wisdom that arises from it, in the experiences and voices of both author and subject, as well as a choir of street-sage homies. The way that choral mosaic enlightens the story, like a vast stain glass window, is Grihalva’s achievement, his crafting of a sense of authenticity by finding common cause with your roots. One of Klassik’s defining ventures into communal creativity was his key role, in the summer of 2016, in Milwaukee’s Strange Fruit Festival, named for the searing anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” popularized by Billie Holiday. The festival was spurred in response to two police killings of unarmed black men on back-to-back days: Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, killed in his car in St. Paul Minnesota.

“That was one of the first times where I felt pulled artistically, in terms of feeling a responsibility with my platform,” Kellen explained. “It heightened this desire to wield it, almost like a weapon, for good.” Kellen’s profile was rising, as he was performing in New York City during the first two nights of Strange Fruit. Kellen flew back to Milwaukee for the final night of the festival.

Then, that weekend’s Saturday afternoon, Milwaukee police shot and killed Sylville Smith in the Sherman Park neighborhood. The incident sparked riots that culminated in the burning of a gas station, a bank, and a beauty supply store, images seen on international news the next morning.

As for the festival, Kellen said, “Everybody was on their A-game…It was such an amazing event. You could tell everybody was there for the betterment of the community in whatever small or large way they could. And was just crazy timing that we had this festival amid the madness that ensued.” The event played again the next two years, and Abston wrote a manifesto for a potential relaunch of the festival, though it never got off the ground.

Much chaos and transformation has come down since then, the era of Trump and George Floyd, and Klassik has achieved a kind of personal-is-political triumph of textured passion on his last album QUIET, with assists from Milwaukee artists who’ve gone to greater renown, SistaStrings, the multi-talented singers-string-players, and folk-rock artist Marielle Alschwang, among others.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about protest in the form of joy, specifically Black joy,” Abston says. “With the new stuff I’m working on, there is this element of defiance in being happy and free. That’s like the most powerful thing you can do as a minority in this country.”

The power, he understands, also derives from accepting himself as a Milwaukeean, “The Milwaukeean.” He’s lucky to have a biographer as attuned as this one, who can tell his story so tenderly and beautifully. Abston reflects on the notion of faith: “If I hit a good note or I’m writing a good melody or these chords have a certain color or have the ability to stir up emotion from thin air, that’s magic. That’s God. It’s all those things. It’s being connected to something greater than ourselves.”

Almost two years ago to this day, he meets with Grihalva at Kilbourn Reservoir Park, which overlooks downtown where North Avenue curves into Riverwest. It’s one of his favorite places in the city. “I would go up to that hill over there when I was super-fucking depressed. I would just sit and cry, let it out and wipe them tears off. Then this warmth would come over me, especially at night. Something about the lights. It’s weird because it’s not a spectacular skyline. But it’s mine, you know?” He continues, “In all my videos, I’ve always thought of Milwaukee as a character, not a location.”

That idea of making a city a living, breathing character – a father figure? – seems to speak volumes about Klassik’s genius, as an archetypal son of a quintessential American city, in all its grit and glory, it’s patriarchal sorrow and shame, its defiant brotherhood and sisterhood.

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  1. Klassik’s most recent appearance on a recording is his largely wordless vocalizing on KASE + Klassik: Live at the Opera House, on B-Side Recordings.
  2. Grihalva’s previous book was Milwaukee Jazz, a photo history from Arcadia publishing’s Images of America series.

Trane and Tyner add up to a helping of spiritual protein

Friends and readers,

I don’t have a specific reason for revisiting this image as my blog header. I’d seen enough of my nifty little self-caricature, which is clearly dated.

This image, a photo by Joe Alper, is dated, too, probably 1963-64, but it’s timeless. John Coltrane consulting with McCoy Tyner, a collusion of two titanic talents and spirits. So It’s a “go to” when I need some spiritual protein.

Of course, the cigar didn’t help Coltrane’s heath. He died at 40, of liver failure. But we can hardly feel superior in 2022, unless we stoop to such small conquering.

But that’s just me, in a mood. How are you doing?

Kevernacular

Madison’s 40th annual Atwood Fest had plenty to fill up the senses, the mind, and the spirit

 

Lead singer Jeff Taylor and The Altered Five Blues Band were among the big crowd-pleasers at the 40th Annual Atwood Fest on Madison’s east side last weekend. All photos by Kevin Lynch

I had a fabulous sun-soaked weekend at the 40th annual Atwood Fest, on Madison’s east side. This is the best street festival I have attended in some time. For starters, Madison lived up to its colorful and left-leaning reputation, something you could see, hear and smell — in the steady scent of burning cannabis drifting into our nostrils among a group of people gathered under some shade trees listening to Steely Dane, on Sunday.

However I didn’t quite see everything I might have, to get the full experience.

I had my head down and was wearing my broad-brimmed sun hat as I riffled through used CDs at the WORT radio station booth. I heard my girlfriend Ann say, “Kevin, you just missed a topless woman, who walked right by.”

That did get me to look up, long enough to catch what is called “the philosopher’s view” of a striking woman (which Ann assured me she was), receding into the distance. But from 20 feet away I saw her liberally tattooed back, and attached to her (covered) derrière was a sign that read “MY BODY, MY CHOICE.”

She was clearly and boldly making a protest statement about the recent Supreme Court overturning of Roe versus Wade which had guaranteed women legal abortions since the mid-1970s. It was a vivid bit of symbolism, signifying her gender and sexuality and the inherent motherhood of the female bosom. (Of course me, the inveterate music album browser, had to miss the full impact). Still I give the woman credit and for her courage and commitment to, um, raising consciousness, as well as eyebrows.

Elsewhere, less, provocatively, we saw several senior women walking around with blue hair. One younger woman had several piercings adorning every facial orifice, and created a few new orifices. It’s really something to see women of a several feminist generations in full force. And of course, tattoos advertised individuality (or now-dated trendiness?) galore, artfully bespeckling both genders

There was also plenty of delicious food, but I’m here to offer you a photo essay on the music. I was drawn back to the city I worked and lived in for nearly 20 years after marvelous day at the Madison Jazz Festival, on the Wisconsin Union Terrace beside Lake Mendota, earlier this summer.

For us, the music started relatively low-key with Inside Pocket, a jazz quartet leaning toward contemporary and post-bop styles with several shapely compositions by guitarist composer Pat Metheny, even though there’s no guitarist in this group. However the group’s tenor saxophonist Bob Kerwin pulled us into a fine afternoon mood with, slightly brooding yet lyrical playing somewhat reminiscent of the cool-to-bop school of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon.

Tenor saxophonist Bob Kerwin of the jazz quartet Inside Pocket eased us into the stimulating atmosphere of Atwood Fest Saturday afternoon. 

The next group we heard was actually playing their debut gig. Called with droll, non-P.C. panache, Lawnmower, it’s led my a fascinating and accomplished guitarist-singer-songwriter Louka Patenaude. A UW Madison music department lecturer, Patenaude has performed globally in a wide array of world music and American vernacular styles and contexts, including playing on recordings by Metheny and The Grateful Dead. Patenaude has played with most of the region’s top jazz musicians, including the award-winning Tony Castaneda’s Latin Jazz Sextet. I ran into Tony as he took in this sun-drenched set. Louka’s eclecticism is a tribute to both musicians’ open-minded voraciousness, given that what Tony, the master Latino conga-player, was listening to was something like bluegrass music. This group didn’t even have a percussionist.

Guitarist-singer-songwriter Louka Patenaude leads his new progressive bluegrass group Lawnmower (above L-R: Shauncey Ali, fiddle; Patenaude, guitar, Dave Havas, bass; Aaron Nolan guitar; and Isaac DeBroux-Slone, mandolin) and (below) takes a solo accompanied by bassist Havas.

Louka’s band had the peculiar soulfulness of bluegrass mixed with sophisticated string-playing interplay, by turns lilting and rhythmically charged. As Castaneda said to me, “call it progressive bluegrass.” Fair enough. They performed mostly original songs by Patenaude, who’s worth checking out on his most recent album of mostly originals under his own name, titled Testing Your Patience.  However, he did end the set with an exemplary version of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” The album includes Louka doing a sardonically laconic rendition of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Annotator Joy Dragland calls the album Louka’s “fever dream.”

Tony Castaneda split to check out the New Orleans band Sam Price and The True Believers at another stage, understandably because, he said the group’s percussionist was borrowing Tony’s conga drum. Price’s band was next on my list of “must hear” bands and they hardly disappointed. This was the most collectively high-energy group I saw that weekend with a swampy, funk style reminiscent of Little Feat, replete with slickly woozy organ playing, and a vibe both jittery and jumping. It also included a feisty, bouncy female singer and Price, a leather-lunged singer and bassist. They spilled over the whole street of Atwood with an infectiously greasy, gumbo boil.

Now we be dancing despite ourselves, lubed a bit, in my case, by a sudsy glass of Oktoberfest beer.

Sam Price, and The True Believers, straight from New Orleans, rock and boogie the Heritage Stage at the top of Atwood Fest, in it’s 40th year.

We then moved to the Clyde Stubblefield Stage to catch The Altered Five Blues Band, from Milwaukee. the band sure plays like it’s altered, in the best sense, probably with some of “Milwaukee’s finest.” Lead guitarist Jeff Schroedl was ripping off a searing solo just as we walked up, as the whole band doled out heaping helpings of steamy electric Chicago-style blues, interspersed with the hard rock edge that blues-style helped infuse the venerable vernacular with.

Lead singer Jeff Taylor rides the power as Brew City’s Altered Five Blues Band fills it up with contemporary Chicago-style blues, with a full Milwaukee head. 

Rotund but rollin’ and tumblin’ lead singer Jeff Taylor may be “a heart attack waiting to happen” as retired NP Ann commented. But on this waning afternoon, he belted out the good gooey blue stuff with gusto, and a stentorian vocal heartiness recalling B.B. King. You can see and hear why this band as won awards, including current nominations from The Blues Foundation, for best contemporary blues album, Holler If You Hear Me, and the title song for “best song.”

But this afternoon, with beer in hand, I felt like the good-time strut of the band’s “Great Minds Drink Alike” :

After this set, gal pal Ann was running out of gas a bit, and my cup was drained, so we exited despite more good music to be had.

We planned to be back right when everything kicked off on Sunday with Steely Dane.

***

It was 12 noon when some folks are still in church, but the crowd gathered at the Clyde Stubblefield Stage ended up attending their own revival meeting. The resurrection is the music of Steely Dan. I’m normally not inclined to indulge much in cover bands. But I’d heard Steely Dane live previously and, frankly, they’re a gas. This band’s nominal wordplay conveys that it’s band members all reside in Dane County, the surrounding region of the one-of-a-kind capital city that is sometimes referred to as “sixty-four square miles surrounded by reality.” The way this world is right now, I was hungry for the hip escapism of those 64 squares, as epitomized by Steely Dane.

It’s a 13 to 15 member band, with four horn players, three female backup singers, and two keyboard players along with two guitarists, bass, percussion, and drums. Three members share lead vocals, striving to approximate Donald Fagen’s raring, chameleon-cobra singing. That fulsome force provides the pulsing flexibility of extremely dynamic musical muscles, which makes Steely Dan’s music so intoxicating and almost good buddy-like in it’s catchiness.

Steely Dane horn section (top): (L-R) Al Falaschi, Jim Doherty and Courtney Larsen, with keyboardist-musical director Dave Stoler. Another SD personnel segment (above) includes (L-R) guitarist-vocalist Jay Moran, bassist Phil Lyons, singer-keyboardist-co-leader Dave Adler, and background singers Megan Moran and Lo Marie.

So the effect was that this big joyous big crowd were SD true believers who knew many of the lyrics they sang along with, not unlike biblical verses duly memorized. Except wafting herb, as mentioned, is the substitute for incense. And Steely Dan is as secular as music gets. Steely Dan’s resident genius Donald Fagen crafted songs about love, loss and “the royal scam,” with a variety of intriguingly romantic, roguish and eccentric characters, and even sweeps us back to high school days without seeming corny or trite.

Steely Dane’s frontman Dave Adler’s evident Donald Fagen wannabe-ism has morphed, with diligent practice and zeal, into a Fagen might-as-well-be-ism. As gal pal Ann Peterson commented during the band’s exuberant 90-minute (without a break) set, “If you close your eyes, you can easily imagine that it’s Steely Dan.”

If that sounds like a perfectly ingenuous critical comment, it’s also spot on. This band has taken in, mastered and absorbed what sounds like most of Steely Dan’s repertoire, and they’ve got it down cold, that is to say, cool, but also quite hot, and utterly convincing.

The co-founder of the band, along with Adler, is the accomplished and respected Madison jazz pianist Dave Stoler.  And what a contrast in stage presences. Dave Adler bounces around, flailing limbs like Gumby on steroids. He sings with a kind of please-love-me-to-death ardency. You get the feeling he’d perform ’till he woke up the moon and, remember, this was noon.

By contrast, band co-founder Dave Stoler, studious and nearly immobile, is a Buddha with dancing fingers, yet absorbed in awareness of the musical whole, given that he does the arranging for this big ensemble. He’s previously fronted a full jazz orchestra project. To intro one song, Stoler also delivered an cappella piano solo brimming with extended chords and slowly spiraling substitutions.  

Guitarist Jay Moran does his best to muster the bite of Walter Becker’s guitar and ably handles some of the vocals. None of the lead singers quite matches Fagen’s elastic, gut-to-the tongue sass.

But the Dane ensemble is so strong, supple and committed to this material, and with gospel-like call and responses, it plunges into the memory and heart, and mainlines Steely Dan’s “when-Josie-comes-home” nostalgia amid sardonic philosophizing.

Here’s saxophonist-vocalist Al Falaschi, Adler and Moran highlighted in a goes-down-so-easy version of “Do It Again,” recorded at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.

Similarly, In this band’s hands, “Aja” still unfolds as a gorgeous little suite, that breathes and arches its back like a big ol’ tiger. The “up on the hill” refrain has strong spiritual overtones, but mainly about social acceptance, and consolidation. “When all my dime dancing is through, I’ll run to you.”

. Tenor saxophonist Falaschi did a reasonable, though hardly imitative, Wayne Shorter solo. And drummer Joey Banks rippled through the long, polyrhythmic “Aja” outro made famous by “Bad” Steve Gadd.

By contrast, “Reeling in the Years” allowed listeners to dance way out on the memory line, with all the euphoria that caught everybody’s ear when Dan first hit the charts. The Dan-by-way-of-Dane waves of slithering funk is too delicious to deny, and you sense this is as good as it’ll get – especially given that the real Steely Dan rarely toured live, being largely a recording studio creature, as gleamingly brilliant and contagious as those got with hip, R&B-jazzy song jammin’. 1

During a short stint in the 1970s, I worked at the North Shore Milwaukee audio store Sound Stage, and SD’s masterpiece album Aja, was our favorite demo record, to show off the equipment. You see, the album’s production level, with Victor Feldman’s souped-up marimbas like tolling redwoods, is about as high as the music can get you. It felt about that way Sunday, as high noon unfolded into the after’s Mary Jane-filled glow.

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  1. Steely Dane has recently won “best cover band” awards from both Madison Area Music Awards and Madison Magazine.