NOTE I’m re-posting this blog article because it needed a correction, and I acquired some notable additional information to flesh out my brief survey. — Kevernacular
NOTE I’m re-posting this blog article because it needed a correction, and I acquired some notable additional information to flesh out my brief survey. — Kevernacular
Jack Grassel playing his triple-neck guitar-bass-mandolin at Villa Terrace in a solo performance Sunday morning. Photos of Jack here and below by Mi/Jo, courtesy Jill Jensen.
I had a Saturday night-Sunday morning dilemma that country singers mournfully ponder, but it wasn’t about making up for excess, rather, if anything, neglect.
Saturday night I finished watching Peter Jackson’s wonderfully fascinating and moving three-part Beatles documentary Get Back. It reveals the world’s greatest pop music band in all their genius, idiosyncrasy and humanity. But everybody and their cousin has written and opined about that, which is worth all the praise it has received.1
Sunday morning I did not go to church, rather I attended a solo concert by Racine guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jack Grassel, a Wisconsin guitar god if we have one at all. 2 I suppose I could be accused of paganism because the dominant symbol of the event was the ancient, larger-than-life statue of Mercury, the Greek messenger of the gods, son of Zeus. But perhaps no other concert setting in Milwaukee possesses more radiant overtones of spiritual power commingling with serene aesthetic magnificence than Villa Terrace, Milwaukee’s own little corner of Renaissance Italy. The sculpture itself is a masterpiece of contrapposto, composed yet coiled. (see photos below, and at bottom).
Last Sunday morning, musical shape-shifter Jack Grassel situated himself in the archway directly aligned with the ancient statue of Mercury. Photo of the courtyard courtesy Villa Terrace.
Ah, but Mercury was known as a trickster, even with the other gods, what we might call today a shape-shifter.
As Jack Grassel was aligned directly behind Mercury – yet apparently visible to every listener from their courtyard vantage points – some symbolic affinity connected Jack and Mercury. For as long as I’ve known Jack, for multiple decades, he’s been something of a musical magician. But I have never seen him more of a trickster-shape-shifter than he was Sunday morning 3
He took us on a wobbling and bounding tightrope walk across the tensions between the creative artist and the public purveyor of said goods, or talents. Or, as he put it in an e-mail afterwards: “For years I’ve been chasing the carrot. Sunday, I actually caught it for the first time ever. Now I intend to hang on to it.”
That implies that he succeeded is his quest Sunday, on his own terms as they relate to engaging the audience in his perhaps-unprecedentedly entertaining shape-shifting (more on this shortly).
Part of my motivation for this blog post is not having appreciated Jack “in print” with any critical depth in recent years, although I have written about him years ago (and in my forthcoming book) when he was with the innovative Milwaukee jazz group What On Earth? He launched his solo career in earnest during the 20 years I spent in Madison, and in recent years I have considered him a friend as much as a critical subject. This, of course, doesn’t do the artist justice.
After the concert, I walked up to him and offered him high praise in indirect syntax. “I’ve been thinking hard about the best solo concert I’ve ever heard, and I really can’t think of a better one,” I said. Jack gave me a slightly quizzical smile. Now, upon reflection, I realize it was overpraise to a degree, and maybe Jack knew that immediately.
After all, he and I drove all the way to wintry Toronto in 1977 (with drummer Dave Ruetz, another member of What on Earth?), to hear Cecil Taylor, the Olympian jazz pianist. There Taylor performed two three-hour solo piano concerts, through afternoon and early evening. As Jack might concur, Taylor’s remains the greatest solo performance I’ve ever heard, though recitals by classical pianists Alicia de Larrocha and Richard Goode also stand vividly in my memory. Of course, Taylor’s was “high art” in a dynamic yet almost austere sense.
Jack Grassel is quite capable of “high” musical art, which he accomplishes almost every time he performs and, indeed, more overtly when, for example, when I witnessed him courageously sit in with The McCoy Tyner Quintet at the peak of that great pianist’s powers in the mid-1980s — and pull it off.
But Sunday Grassel was attempting something different — you might call it the advanced art of musical entertainment. Some of the credit for the loosening up of his sensibility should go to his spouse and regular working musical partner, jazz vocalist Jill Jensen. She was there Sunday, working the merch table, but honoring this as Jack’s show all the way.
He situated himself comfortably in the very American tradition of carnivalesque, traveling sideshows and vaudeville – the one-man band. This shouldn’t be too surprising given his deep history as a state champion accordion player in his youth. Ever since, he’s been one of the most rigorously dedicated musicians I have ever met. As for the artist-entertainer push-pull, he’s always maintained stern standards in live performance even though he’s also consistently exhibited a ready sense of humor and musical zaniness. His jazz efforts include a wide range of recordings, including a dazzling collaboration with the great swing-to-bop guitarist Tal Farlow, an album unassumingly titled Two Guys with Guitars.
Having played with the Milwaukee Symphony a number of times, Grassel struck up an artistic connection with then-musical Musical director Lukas Foss, whom he quoted or paraphrased by saying, “all serious music has humor in it.” He set out to prove that Sunday, his tongue firmly in cheek..
Indeed, there was even some “humor” in Cecil Taylor’s 1977 performance, in the absurdity of it’s most over-the-top and improbably moments of physical assault upon the piano. At times, I laughed in amazement. By conventional standards of pianistics, this was definitely Mercurial shape-sifting, even in Taylor’s panther-like dance-move entrances and exits.
As to Jack’s mission today, Jill Jensen makes an important distinction, as they often perform fairly obscure material across a wide range of styles: “We’re not doing crowd pleasers. We’re trying to be the crowd pleaser,” she says.
How did Jack please the crowd Sunday?
Throughout, Grassel, complemented his artful juggling of his self-designed, triple-necked guitar-bass-mandolin with deft electronic keyboard playing, which also set up looped rhythmic patterns he would play against on other instruments. I hope you begin to sense Grassel’s wizardly and mercurial shape shifting, which certainly would’ve impressed PT Barnum, while maintaining Grassel’s own standards of musicality and wit.
That, however, included a solemn interlude in which Grassel requested the audience not applaud afterwards. He played his own composition “Ghost Ridge,” set against indigenous-style rhythms, on a Native American wooden flute, to honor victims of a genocidal massacre. His playing met the passing winds and invited them to caress the Indian mounds and righteous memory.
By contrast, the extraordinary concert ended on a note so light that the piece’s notes literally floated away. Grassel picked up a bright yellow toy saxophone and, when he started playing, bubbles floated out of the horn’s bell, evoking perhaps for some of the “certified” senior citizens, the bubbling visual effect of Lawrence Welk, in perhaps slightly satirical manner.
Grassel may think he’s only just now “grabbed the carrot,” but you need to go back to 1986 to note when he started making a successful impression at a national level. That was the year his breakout album Magic Cereal, gained both some critical and commercial appeal, making it onto jazz radio station playlists, as far as the market went for such meaty but ingeniously snappy fusion jazz. Magic Cereal managed to vibe both weird and engagingly friendly, with sophisticated electro-sonics but street-right rhythms. His chord changes may sometimes lean sideways into the wind, but he always sustains his floating aura, like a magician rising right out of your morning Cheerios, which might transform into bubbles.
Grassel’s been a successful working musician ever since, even after nearly dying from a respiratory condition contracted while working at Milwaukee Area Technical College, which forced him to retire from classroom teaching.
Nowadays his sets with singer Jill Jensen range from Mose Allison through James Taylor, and Sade through “Besame Mucho.” “The lines between genres are really blurring,” Grassel says. Jensen recalls another remark from an audience member. “‘What do you call what you’re doing? I really like it!’” By way of explanation, she says, “We’re still under the umbrella of jazz but we massage the songs to sound like us.”
Sunday, Grassel stretched and massaged that umbrella until it encompassed the attendant Greek god himself and his uncannily mercurial powers, for at least an hour and a half.
Jack Grassel and Jill Jensen will perform from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, at Sam’s Place Jazz Cafe, 3338 N. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr., in Milwaukee.
“We will play a nonstop 2-hour set of adventurous material,” Grassel promises.
1 Aside from the three-disc film video Get Back, which retails for $34.99, the best version of the album the group was trying to make is Let It Be…Naked, rather than the re-issue of the original Let It Be album, with lots of outtakes. The group’s explicitly stated purpose throughout the several weeks of preparing for a recorded concert was to do a “live album,” whether before an audience in the studio without any overdubbing, such as the souped-up strings of Phil Spector, on the original release, which Paul McCartney hated. Let It Be…Naked is the unadorned, rather rootsy album as it should have been, which is a mix of live performances from their heart-rending and impassioned last public performance atop the windswept Apple studios in downtown London (which nearly got them arrested), and “live” studio renditions.
Repair of the statue is reportedly at the top of the current villa administration’s “to do” list after having been severely damaged by Wisconsin weather over the years.
“The nearly 8-foot-tall, two-ton statue of Hermes – aka Mercury, messenger of the gods, son of Zeus – that has graced the arcaded courtyard of Villa Terrace, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., since the museum opened, is believed to date to the first or second century A.D. and has parts that may be even older”… Restored in the 17th century – reportedly by master Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, though without definitive attribution (it may have also been the work of Francois Duquesnoy) – the statue is believed to have been purchased in Italy by American collector Mary Clark Thompson.” https://onmilwaukee.com/articles/villa-terrace-hermes-mercury
Klassik demonstrates how he blends a wide array of sonic and instrumental enhancement of his singing and rapping, here at an event at the forMartha wellness center on Center Street. All photos by Samer Ghani
Though it happened a week ago, this event still thunders through my memory, like a bolt of lightning across the Milwaukee skyline.
Because I’ve written in some depth about the book it celebrated, I’ll try to be quick, too. But I wanted to share some photos by Samer Ghani, of author Joey Grihalva’s reading and performance event with Kellen “Klassik” Abston, at the end of the recent Center Street Daze, last week.
The setting was unassuming, the new storefront forMartha, a wellness center on Center Street. Grihalva read from his new “biography-autobiography” The Milwaukeean, which is ostensibly a biography of his friend, hip-hop rapper-singer-songwriter-keyboardist Klassik. (The book is available at some retail outlets in Milwaukee, or directly from the author, who provides free shipping, here: https://www.joeygrihalva.com/product/the-milwaukeean )
Yet, including an array of wise-before-their time city voices, the book’s story amounts to a slightly oblique, thirty-something-crafted portrait of Milwaukee itself, which Klassik ingeniously thinks of as a “character” as much as a place. (Grihalva and Abston are close in age and friendship.) You see, Milwaukee wears the faces of countless young Black men with comparable personal stories, rife with tragedy, who grew up, lived and died, before their time.
And yet, Kellen Abston has survived, and finally begun to thrive, through simple twists of fate, spiritual will and a wealth of talent.
So, Grihalva, author of the pictorial history Milwaukee Jazz, has fashioned a story that reverberates closely with the heart of Abston’s daunting personal odyssey, ” A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph,” the book’s subtitle.
Here’s my previously posted review of the book:
At the reading/performance Grihalva also played recorded interviews that didn’t all make it into the book, including an extended interview with Milwaukee singer Adekola Adedapo about the “discovery” of a young Kellen Abston at a Heath Brothers jazz workshop, where the 10-year-old wowed people with an extended version of “Over the Rainbow” on saxophone.
Klassik and author Joey Grihalva share a light moment during their reading and performance event for the publication of Grihalva’s book about Klassik, “The Milwaukeean.”
This event alternated between book passage readings and Klassik’s performance, a rhythmic flurry of dancing, singing, rapping and electronic sound manipulation, which had an almost electrifying effect in such a small space, his voice often ranging into a gripping falsetto. At one point he sang “Not till everybody’s free in your mind…freedom has a price!”
His final untitled song swelled with startling power. At its climax, Kellen reached out repeatedly and implored the intimate audience, “Won’t you lift me up? Won’t you lift me up?” The effect had this listener feeling both the depths and the heights of the singer’s deep emotional cavern. I wasn’t alone. Afterwards, one burly, bearded man walked outside, leaned back against a car and said, “I almost came to tears.”
Klassik said he had written the song on July 4th, and this was its debut performance. One thinks back to Frederick Douglass’s bitterly eloquent public speech on July 4, 1875. It was a portrayal of the American Dream and its Constitutional ideals, betrayed by slavery and racism, Yet the speech also combined a despairing view of the political climate with criticisms of the black community and appeals for blacks to improve themselves.
Klassik, for his part, now strives “to make something beautiful,” in sunlit defiance of the shroud of ugliness and hatred that still haunts America.
Sometimes, in his effort “to make something beautiful” his voice cuts through black clouds of pain, soaring so high as if he might “kiss the sky.” And then come down like a bird, floating, winged by triumph.
Klassik is now busy preparing music for live performances to accompany Milwaukee Chamber Theater’s play Where Did We Sit on the Bus? running Sept.30 to Oct. 23.
At times, Klassik connected powerfully with his intimate audience at forMartha wellness center.
Here’s a YouTube of a set of the quartet, recorded live in March:
George Shearing, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich, at the Madison Square Garden Jazz Festival in New York, in 1959. Photo: Herb Snitzer /MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY
Sure, pianist George Shearing (pictured, above left) was literally blind, to color and everything else (and once made an album with all three Black Montgomery brothers –Wes, Buddy and Monk). Nevertheless, this photo – which prompted this brief essay – signifies, for me, the pan-racial solidarity of jazz as a social model, including brash, super-egotistical Buddy Rich — in 1959. 1
I’m no Rich expert but, a cursory examination of his noteworthy 1967 album Speak No Evil, reveals how integrated his sensibilities and practices were by then. The title tune is by the great African-American saxophonist composer Wayne Shorter. The album also includes compositions by black artists Earth, Wind and Fire; Natalie Cole; The Pointer Sisters; and The Isley Brothers. His band at the time featured these black musicians: arranger Richard Evans, piano soloist Kenny Barron, bassist Bob Cranshaw, tuba player Howard Johnson, and vocalist Retta Hughes. Speak no evil, indeed.
There were certainly plenty more of integrated jazz bands by 1967, but let’s especially note examples of pioneering pre-’60s white bandleaders whom one might assume could travel and work easier in racially charged regions of America without the “white man’s burden” which is actually “the black man’s burden,” (as author/editor Greg Tate has eloquently documented 2.) of conforming to societal restrictions on integration, and thus helped advance the burgeoning civil rights movement.
The integration saga begins with Benny Goodman who hired star soloists from the Ellington and Basie Orchestras for 1938 at his epic Carnegie Hall concert, and his contemporary quartet with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibist Lionel Hampton. Earlier in the ’30s, he’d hired Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and arranger Fletcher Henderson. In the ’40, Goodman hired guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and saxophonist Wardell Gray.
Among notable 1950s Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz musicians and bands and musicians were Chano Pozo, Machito, Chico O’Farrell, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Prez Prado, Astor Piazolla, Xavier Cugat, singer Harry Belafonte and, yes, that the eclectic Brit George Shearing.
Then in the ’50s, among the most noatable integration developments came from Milwaukee-native and big band leader Woody Herman. He hired a variety of African American musicians in the 1950s, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeters Ernie Royal, Reunald Jones, Nat Adderley, and Howard McGee, and bassists Keter Betts and Major Holley bass. Charlie Parker was guest soloist with the band in early ’50’s.
Herman also hired (white) trumpeter-singer Billie Rogers, one of the first female instrumentalists in a male-dominated band who wasn’t a singe or pianist. *
Speaking of women, in the 1940s, we can’t forget the integrated all-woman big band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
The saxophone section of the 1940s tri-racial orchestra The International Sweethearts of Rhythm Courtesy Rosalind Cron
Besides Shearing, Herman and Buddy Rich, integrated bands with white leaders included The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lennie Tristano, Art Pepper, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Stan Getz, the black and white co-leadership and integrated personnel of the standard-setting Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and The J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quartet.
Among integrated black leaders of the late 1950s: Miles Davis (famously on Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue), Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, 3 John Coltrane, George Russell, Sarah Vaughan and Bud Powell, who recorded with Buddy Rich back in 1951.
Also, pioneering Black pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams worked with white trombonist Jack Teagarden, and had arranger Milt Orent assist in arrangements for her ambitious 1940s Zodiac Suite.
I know I am forgetting other “integral” leaders from both races.
l’ll just touch lightly on matters of early modern jazz “influence.” Bebop rose as a virtuosic, self-consciously Black-innovated style (like most all major jazz idioms) to deter whites from “stealing” and profiting by mimicking and marketing their style — as happened profligately with swing. Still, bop had a few notable Bud Powell-influenced white pianists, such as Dodo Mamarosa, Joe Albany, and Al Haig. Among 1950s white pianists influenced by Thelonious Monk (and perhaps Herbie Nichols) was the tragically-short-lived Richard Twardzik. 4.
Perhaps an efficient way to enhance and conclude this brief historical integration story is to note the 1950s phenomenon of “cool jazz,” and here I’m plucking straight from Wikipedia, to dispel the notion this popular genre was the exclusive realm of white West Coast musicians: “Some observers looked down upon West Coast jazz because many of its musicians were white, and because some listeners, critics, and historians perceived that the music was too cerebral, effete, or effeminate, or that it lacked swing. However, African American musicians played in the style, including Curtis Counce, John Lewis, Chico Hamilton, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Buddy Collette, Red Callender, Harold Land, Eugene Wright and Hampton Hawes.”
* Thanks to Curt Hanrahan, music director of The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra, for information on Woody Herman.
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/
This article was previously published in The Shepherd Express: MJO article
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
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
This review was first publised in shorter form in The Shepherd Express: Brian Lynch Songbook review
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.
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?