Bid bon voyage to the good ship Denis Sullivan. Will she ever return to her birthplace, Milwaukee?

Our September 2016 departure from the Denis Sullivan’s dock, outside Discovery World on the Lake Michigan shore of Milwaukee. All photos by Kevin Lynch

We can absorb history in many ways, but it’s usually in a second-hand or secondary source way, like reading a book, or watching a documentary. Historically-attuned scholars and artists can surely illuminate the past with immeasurable brilliance and depth. The work of documentary-filmmaker supreme Ken Burns comes to mind, as do historians like Eric Foner, John Meacham, Shelby Foote, David S. Reynolds, Joseph Ellis, Sean Wilentz, David McCullough and others.

Yet for years, Milwaukee has been blessed with something even more vivid and experientially historical than those gifted people’s best efforts, even when they are talking as guest pundits on TV. I’m talking about a mainline to history as real as stepping aboard a tall sailing ship transporting you to the glory days of such vessels in the mid-1800s, the era of Moby-Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, and Typhoon. 1

In September of 2016, I was fortunate enough to take that step, off the Milwaukee harbor onto the city’s majestic flagship schooner S/V Denis Sullivan, for a Lake Michigan tour, which helped inspire this blog. It was motivated to do research for my novel about Herman Melville. I had visited an actual docked whaleship from the era, The Charles W. Morgan, in Mystic, Connecticut.

But I’d never actually sailed on a tall mast ship from that era, even if this one was a hybrid replica, built by volunteer Milwaukeeans – the world’s only re-creation of a 19th-century three-masted Great Lakes schooner. She was the flagship of both the state of Wisconsin and of the United Nations Environment Programme . .

And here you begin to get an inkling of our state’s loss, when the ship stripped of it’s tall masts — departed on October 8 for Boston, and it’s ultimate destination, St. Croix, now sold to a company in the Virgin Islands – as reported superbly by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Reporter Chelsey Lewis, in the in-depth article linked to below.

Noted Milwaukee folksinger David HB Drake, a vocal opponent of the sale, had a suggestion, as he posted on his Facebook page: “OMG– The Denis Sullivan has been sold to Boston.

This for me is like the Braves being sold to Atlanta…unthinkable!
There was no warning or opportunity given to the very people who built her and volunteered these 30 years to keep her afloat in Milwaukee. Had there been, perhaps a citizens groups could have bought her and kept her here or at least formed a partnership with the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc to keep her in Wisconsin.”

However, that museum is currently in the midst of its own campaign to raise $1.5 million to put the USS Cobia, its World War II submarine, in dry dock, Lewis reports. The Manitowoc museum considered possibly serving as a home port for the ship, but not the home port.

Other organizations, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “were considering partnering with Discovery World to use the ship for programming around the newly designated Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, but they, too, could not take primary ownership of the boat.”

Lewis reported on a former crewmember, Michael Gaithier, who expressed bitterness:

The boat was treated like an unwanted stepchild … it was neglected and not taken care of in the way that most tall ships with most healthy organizations behind them in this country have been taken care of

Back in September 2016, sail boats breeze by the port side rigging of the Denis Sullivan with the Milwaukee skyline in the background.

For my part, as an appreciative memory, I’ll convey some of our experience on the schooner. In September of 2016, there we were, riding the waves with the huge sails billowing to and fro, as the wind took us.

Ann Peterson in the deck of the schooner Denis Sullivan in September of 2016.

The historical schooner cruise was a birthday gift to me from my companion, Ann Peterson. And it was the palpable, wind-in-your-face, and even intoxicatingly moving experience I’d hoped for, even it proved too much for the steadiness of Ann, who started out gamely, as the picture above shows. Yet as the good ship dipped and swayed in the slightly feisty waters just beyond the Milwaukee harbor breakwaters, she grew a little green in the gills, and her chipper smile faded.

That’s part of the physical reality of being on open waters on such a vessel, but there’s so much more. You begin to get a sense of how a person can release oneself from the  confining and aggravating patterns of workaday and quotidian problems and pitfalls, and from the looming shadows of psychological malaise that life’s tensions and burdens can impose.

This sort of voyage lacks the tony creature-comforts and luxuries of an expensive cruise. Rather it does transport you back to a much heartier distant time, when brave people traveled and worked much closer to the elements of water, sun and wind. In reflection, one may draw from this elemental immediacy some sense of the holistic importance of water, covering the vast majority of the globe, and the ecosystems it sustains on water and land.

These are things that a writer like Melville, despite (and because of) being a whaler in his early adulthood, proved quite aware of, for a man of his time. His masterpiece novel  reveals that he had profound regard and respect for the whale and its place in “the watery part of the world,” as narrator Ishmael pointedly calls it, in his very first reference to the oceans, in “Loomings,” Chapter 1 of Moby-Dick. Or consider his gloriously attuned description of a great herd of nursing female whales in Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada.”  Such are some the educational aspects this vessel can pursue, though I’ve never taken an educational cruise on it, per se.

How resonant is the ship’s presence culturally? Well, for one example, renowned folk singer Pete Seeger recorded a song called “The Schooner Denis Sullivan” in 2001. 2

Here, Seeger sings his story-telling song a cappella:

Our 2016 cruise also allowed us to soak up the skyline of our modestly handsome city’s downtown, in ever-shifting contours, especially as the urban silhouette cuts itself against the increasing brilliance, then the warming glow of the setting sun in the West. (see photo sequence below). Looking upward, the towering, majestic sails overhead elicited a sort of poetry of rhythmic motion – sweeping, rippling, billowing and whispering.

The Milwaukee skyline from port side of the Denis Sullivan.

Back on the deck, one of the crew members pulled out a fiddle, as did one of the guests and the pair parlayed out a lively Irish-style reel. (Blog story with link to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article continued, below photo sequence)

A crew member of the Denis Sullivan pulls out his fiddle to engage in a couple of Irish-style reels with a fiddle-playing passenger (not pictured).

 

Denis Sullivan Captain Carlos Canario at the schooner’s helm (gripping the steering wheel behind him) along Lake Michigan during our tour on the ship in 2016. Canario was the Relief Captain for Senior Captain Tiffany Krihwan, who has now departed and is now based in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the historically famous whaling town. t

In the tradition of Impressionist painters, see three views (above and below) of Milwaukee’s harbor and Hoan Bridge from the schooner Denis Sullivan, as the sun sets in the West.

An example of the sort of strange phenomenon one can experience out in the incalculable and evocative atmospheres of a Great Lake was this photo I took, from the Denis Sullivan. The ghostly spherical presence or optical effect hovers above the top of Summerfest’s Marcus Amphitheatre. I fancifully dub it “Sphere of sea god.”

***

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Reporter Chelsey Lewis admirably functions as a nautical and cultural historian in her comprehensive report on Milwaukee’s recent loss of the Denis Sullivan in the newspaper’s Sunday Life section. She provides an in-depth sounding, a voyage into the good ship’s past, present and future:

https://www.jsonline.com/story/travel/wisconsin/2022/10/27/how-milwaukee-built-and-lost-wisconsins-flagship-the-denis-sullivan/8198403001/.

The seeming tragedy is the story Ms. Lewis tells of the decision to sell, reportedly precipitated by the pandemic and the apparent failure to hire a new captain and first mate, after longtime ship Captain Tiffany Krihwan and her first mate were forced to leave by economic circumstances. Those included the shutting down of the ship for well over a year, along with Discovery World, to which it belonged. The reasons for the Denis Sullivan to be sold to another operation, World Ocean School, in, St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, remain questionable, especially given that there was a potential buyer in Chicago who would’ve kept the ship based in Milwaukee. The Chicago outfit, Tall Ship Windy, was prepared to make an offer close to the market value, about $1 million, Lewis reports.

By contrast, it is also troubling that Discovery World’s representatives refused to divulge the actual price of the ship’s sale. However, the successful sale should also underscore how distinguished and rare the Milwaukee-built schooner is for historical value, among other things, and the cultural loss Milwaukee is incurring. The sale rationale came down to a decision as to what is “best for the boat,” including maintaining one of its primary purposes as an educational entity. Why such a function could not continue to be maintained in Milwaukee remains unclear, aside from financial woes the operation is still apparently recovering from, post-pandemic.

The schooner’s powerful presence had also helped attract cultural events to its Discovery World dock, such as the evening concert by the popular Milwaukee jazz group VIVO, which was going on when we returned to dock in 2016.

Saxophonist-flutist Warren Wiegratz performs with VIVO, in a dockside concert going on as the Denis Sullivan, in background, moored after our September 2016 voyage on the 19th-century style schooner.

But read the Journal-Sentinel article to judge for yourself on the whole story of the city’s loss of the ship.

Lewis’s story does finally latch on strong rays of hope. The World Ocean School purchased the Milwaukee ship to replace it’s own flagship, which is now docked up for a few years for refurbishing. There’s a possibility they could be open to selling the Denis Sullivan back to Milwaukee when their own ship is ready to sail again. It is after all, a Great Lakes-style schooner. Still, one must consider such circumstances could change as drastically as the ever-roaming tides of the oceans and those Great Lakes, in all their magnificent and mystifying vagaries.

This two-sequence photo of Madison photographer Katrin Talbot (taken a few years before my trip on the ship) in collaborative research work for this writer’s Melville’s novel, shows some of the scale of the schooner Denis Sullivan. Retrospectively, Katrin seems to bid the ship farewell.

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1 In the afore-mentioned titles, authors Herman Melville (Moby-Dick), Richard Henry Dana Jr. (Two Years Before the Mast), and Joseph Conrad (Typhoon) gave us first-hand accounts, or concocted creative ships of transport themselves, in often-poetic prose. These were all based on their actual nautical experiences.

The mid-1800s were haunted by captains courageous and crazed, mighty sea creatures, countless sailors and whalers (drowned and survived), “widow’s walk” wives, and others who directly engaged in, or experienced, the drama and danger of 19th-century sea commerce, romance, and warfare (see Melville’s White-Jacket and Billy Budd, both set on warships).

2. Denis Sullivan Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Sullivan_(schooner))

 

 

The Fall Art Tour: Immersed in Wisconsin art in-the-making, and the gorgeous splendor of the Driftless region

 

Traveling companion Ann Peterson takes in the gloriously expansive vista from the property of Dodgeville artist Lauren Thuli. All Photos by Kevin Lynch, except as noted.

MINERAL POINT — Our car wended over and under the undulating curves of the Driftless region of Southwestern Wisconsin as we began the adventure of searching out artists studios nestled in picturesque nooks of the landscape. The term “driftless” murmurs ancient mystery and geological fact: a region virtually untouched by flattening glaciers during The Ice Age. The region also lacks the characteristic glacial deposits known as drift.

Ann Peterson and I had embarked on this season’s Fall Art Tour, the first time I had partaken in this since moving from Madison back to Wisconsin’s East Coast over a decade ago. 1

SATURDAY, AROUND DODGEVILLE AND IN MINERAL POINT

What a rewarding choice. Our very first stop reaffirmed the hoary adage that the greatest artist of all is Mother Nature. Not yet having my camera cued up, I can’t do justice to the two artists sharing the studio space of this first stop, Lauren Thuli and her brother James Koconis, two friendly artists adept at degrees of abstraction in oil painting. Lauren was especially accommodating, demonstrating to us how she blends beeswax and oil paint to get the particular tonal and textural effects that distinguish her abstract impressionist style.

But the key to this visit’s experiential climax was a sign outside their rural Dodgeville studio, shaped in an arrow, adorned with the words “spectacular view.” Down a slight slope several Adirondack chairs stand near the edge of an outcrop. When we walk to that edge, half of this part of the world seems to unfold expansively before our eyes, a stereo-visual effect, like the Biblical Red Sea parting before us. The land flows across our eyes in breathtakingly sumptuous waves, bursting with greenery turning golden. It allows us to feast on the magnitude of autumn glory in a full 180° spectrum. These first three photos (above and below) attempt to capture that in (left to right) sequence.


This seemingly ageless tree on the property near the previous vista location, typifies the abundance of amazingly mature, sometimes gigantic, old trees in the Driftless region. Note the width of this trunk by seeing the people standing beside it.

We were struck by the maturity of the trees in the region, and the buildings, for that matter. The Art Tour is a bit like taking a Time Machine travel back to the 19th century, when so many of Mineral Point buildings were erected. The town was was settled in 1822 by Cornish miners, a couple decades before Wisconsin achieved statehood. It’s among the oldest towns in the state.

Yet the time machine analogy only goes so far, as most of the artists are clearly 20th- and 21st century-style and beyond. 2 The most vivid example of the latter, among those we visited, is John Walte, in Dodgeville.

Entering his studio I spied a realistic image across the room and said, “Is that Edgar Allan Poe?”

“Yes, that’s Poe but that’s NOT my artwork!” a disembodied voice called out. The image was a reproduction poster which The Voice seemingly likes for the tragic drama of Poe’s life and the spectral magic of his writing. The Voice wasn’t the Wizard of Oz, it was somebody a bit wizardly but much smarter than that lovable but bumbling movie character. He was digital artist John Walte, hidden in an alcove created largely by computer towers and terminals.

When I found him and expressed interest in his digital art, Walte’s eyes lit up like a wired video-game demon, and he launched into a mind-bending discussion of how such artwork plays out as an inquiry into perception, cognition, illusion and physics. That hardly does justice to Walte’s heady soliloquy (with a few nudges from me) but I wasn’t taking any notes on this trip, nor recording anything aside from photos, for this photo essay.

His partner, painter Pamela Callahan, has un upstairs studio that I enjoyed in slightly different terms. Some of her work reminded me of a more lyrical, colorful, gestural abstraction of Philip Guston’s primitivist late style. But this is a photo essay so I’m minimizing my commentary…

John F. Walte is a brilliant, scientifically-gifted artist who specializes in cutting-edge digital art. And at a drop of a hat, he’ll tell you all about the abstruse theories and realities underlying his creative exploration.

Apologies for this crooked photo of a John Walte digital artwork. But that angle sort of accentuates the mind-bending, trippiness of his digital dreamscapes and futuristic auras. This piece is titled “Pseudo Kleinian Mod 2  v 4.0.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it. 

Pamela Callahan in her studio with her 360-degree painting column.

Three motifs of a new Pamela Callahan painting in genesis.

Classic fall harvest scene outside the Walde/Callahan art studios, in Dodgeville, located along Otter Creek, at ottercreekarts.com.

A hint of Stonehenge in the ruins of an ancient stone granary built in 1876 on the property of ceramicist Carol Naughton in Dodgeville.

Ceramic artist Carol Naughton in her studio display area. I purchased the fourth plate from the right, on the table beside Carol (see also below).

The sun sets on our first day of the Fall Arts Tour, outside the Carol Naughton studio, near Dodgeville.

The barn ruins at the Naughton Studio set the clock backwards again and having returned to Mineral Point for the evening, time seemed to reverse itself again. Among many buildings in Mineral Point that have survived generations since the 19th century is the repurposed Mineral Point Hotel, where we stayed. The hotel owners have transformed it into a wonderfully eclectic blend of Victorian, art-deco and French decor. Ann called it her favorite hotel, ever. (See photos below) Then walking back to the hotel, from our Italian dinner at Popolo, a nearby restaurant, she declared this “the most romantic trip we’ve ever taken.” OK, we’ve never been to Europe. But no doubt, there’s something magical about the Fall Art Tour in Southwest Wisconsin.

The Mineral Point Hotel where we stayed, is utterly charming, even transporting.

A view of dusk through a window in our room at The Mineral Point Hotel.

A feature of our Mineral Point Hotel room was this small attached balcony, elegantly overlooking the street and the staircase inside. I spent some sleepless time reading in the balcony Saturday night. Among the balcony’s details were four oversize black ceramic chess pieces on the deep window ledge.

SUNDAY MORNING IN MINERAL POINT 

 

Artist Diana Johnston throws the umpteenth clay bowl of her long career, at Brewery Pottery, a limestone former brewery building in Mineral Point, now an artists studio and retail art and gift shop.
Comical pewter pet refrigerator magnets in the Brewery Pottery gift shop.
Brewery Pottery’s large kiln (at left) for firing ceramics.

Built in 1850, the original Mineral Point brewery building was hit by a tornado in 1878. That may account for this exposed brickwork in the back of Brewery Pottery’s current kiln and firing room, in background (reverse view of previous photo).  

Tucked away in a quiet Mineral Point neighborhood is humble, affable but gifted artist Clyde Paton. Here he displays his India ink rendering of the studio of the noted Mineral Point ceramic sculptor Bruce Howdle, who died a few years ago.
Clyde Paton prompted a brief search on Howdle’s online legacy. His work often grew to epic scale relief murals.
I recall him from my last Fall Art Tour trip here, too long ago, so I end with another quick “Time Machine” reverse gear to honor that artist.
Though his Bruce Howdle Studios Facebook page still lists 1K followers, I’m uncertain if Howdle’s studios are still open in any capacity.
The late Bruce Howdle working on one of his ceramic murals. His Mineral Point studios also offered pottery throwing classes (with part of a Howdle mural visible in upper part of that photo.(above). Photos courtesy Bruce Howdle Studios.
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1 The annual October art tour encompasses four nearby towns — Mineral Point, Dodgeville, Baraboo, and Spring Green, allowing a tour of the stunning autumn landscape as you search for artists studios throughout the region. The tour brochure has a detailed map. We relied mostly on virtual navigator “Siri.”
For more information on the 2022 Fall Art Tour visit their site, and plan ahead for next fall: https://fallarttour.com/
It’s a romantic, adventurous gift with a special someone, or for anyone wanting to enjoy Wisconsin’s natural and artistic bounty.
2 We sampled a only small portion of the tour’s studios. Among the four towns, there were 49 studios open for visitors.

The Atlantic’s own editor-in-chief explains why it is my favorite magazine

The cover of the print edition of the November 2022 The Atlantic. Courtesy The Atlantic

Not long ago, I said to a friend who, like most people today, does most of his reading online, that The Atlantic is the last magazine I would still subscribe to, if all others fell to the wayside by choice or circumstance.

I don’t normally tout publications per se in this blog, but The Atlantic has been my favorite for quite a long time, and now it’s editor has written a piece in the November issue that helps to explain why it is worthy of being a person’s favorite.

Much of this has to do with the publication’s storied history, having been born as an abolitionist magazine shortly before the Civil War. But current editor Jeffrey Goldberg opens his piece called “The American Idea” with an 1861 letter from Julia Ward Howe, expressing her melancholy and insecurities to the editor at the time. The editor, James T. Fields, was wise enough not to touch the copy of the poem she submitted with her letter. He gave it a title and published “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the first page of the February 1862 edition. “(Howe received, in return, a $5 freelance fee and immortality.)”, Goldberg adds drolly.

He goes on to point out that The Atlantic, in its 166th year of continuous publication, also published for the first time, “Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and the first chapters of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, and Rachel Carson’s meditations on the oceans, and Einstein’s denunciation of atomic weapons, and so on, ad infinitum.”

Further, The Atlantic‘s founding mission statement (reproduced in Goldberg’s article) was signed by various luminaries including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who appeared in the first issue; Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came up with The Atlantic‘s name; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would become the magazine’s Civil War correspondent; Herman Melville (Moby-Dick), and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), America’s most popular author at the time.

Goldberg’s only expressed regret about that time is that, given that Moby-Dick is his favorite American novel, that  Melville never found a way to contribute. That would be my sentiment exactly regarding Melville, who ended up publishing short pieces for Harpers, another long-time American magazine.

I have many reasons why the current magazine is my favorite, partly for it’s intelligence, it’s allegiance to no group, party or clique, and its cultural and political range. “We always try very hard to be interesting. That is a prerequisite,” Goldberg explains.

They succeed, too, which is why, even though some stories are long “thumbsuckers,” they almost invariably hold my interest and, if I don’t finish them, it’s my failing.

Here is Goldberg’s introductory article in the latest issue in full: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/11/165th-anniversary-atlantic-magazine-founding/671523/

p.s. As for your blogger, I submitted an article once — about Wisconsin guitar innovator Les Paul, Bob Dylan and Michael Bloomfield — to The Atlantic and, though chagrined, I was honored to receive a personalized, hand-written “no thank you” note from an editor from the magazine. The article was eventually published in NoDepression.com. Here’s the note. which I valued enough to frame.

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Milwaukee trumpeter Eric Jacobson’s quintet celebrates the album release of “Discover” this weekend, at Blu

May be an image of 6 people, people playing musical instruments and text that says 'CLĄY SCHAUB Blu REGGIE THOMAS DAVE BAYLES 7PM OCT. 21 & 22 Eric Jacobson Quintet GEOF BRADFIELD CD release party "DISCOVER" BRUCE BARTH RIC JACOBSO ERIC JACOBSON ORIGIN RECORDS'

CD release party: for Discover by The Eric Jacobson Quintet, 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14 and Saturday, Oct 15, Blu nightclub, Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. Milwaukee. Admission is free. 

Eric Jacobson is as accomplished and striking as any trumpeter in the upper Midwest. He has the brash, forceful power of a hard-bopper like Lee Morgan and the harmonic sophistication of a Freddie Hubbard or Woody Shaw.

That’s the leading edge of why attention must be paid by modern jazz fans of most any persuasion to his new Origin records CD release Discover, and his two-night CD-release performance at Blu nightclub, in Milwaukee, on Friday and Saturday.

Blu regularly has top-notch local and touring jazz artists, but the venue is also notable for the most spectacular view of any music venue in the city, situated at the top floor of the 23-story Pfister Hotel tower, overlooking downtown Milwaukee, the Hoan Bridge, and the lakefront, with the Calatrava Windhover Hall of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the War Memorial Center, all visible from Blu’s sky view windows. In the evening, the view becomes noirishly glamorous.

Eric Jacobson has performed with Grammy© Award Winners Phil Woods, Benny Golson, Brian Lynch, Tito Puente Jr., and Eric Benet. He is a top-call trumpeter for high-profile gigs in Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago. Jaconson performs in the windy city at the Green Mill, Jazz Showcase, Winter’s Jazz Club, and Andy’s Jazz Club with some of the top Chicago groups including The Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Chicago Yestet, Bakerzmillion, and Mark Colby’s Quintet.

He’s also Jazz Education Director of the Milwaukee Jazz Institute, after having spent many years on the faculty of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. (continued below)

Eric Jacobson

The CD release party will feature Chicago saxophonist Geof Bradfield, bassist Clay Schaub, and drummer Dave Bayles, Milwaukee’s premier straight-ahead jazz drummer.

Bradfield, who played on Discover, has recorded on more than 50 albums, including eight as a leader. The DownBeat Critics Poll has named Bradfield a Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist and Arranger multiple years.

Quite notably the gig will also include two pianists, Bruce Barth, who also played on Discover, on Friday; and Reggie Thomas, on Saturday, both acclaimed players from from the East Coast. The bandstand should be burning and swinging, among other luminous qualities. And admission is free.

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Peter Mulvey and SistaStrings imagine a promised land right on our own soil

 

Singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey (center) is touring with SistaStrings (Monique Ross, cello, and Chauntee Ross, violin) and drummer Nathan Kilen. Courtesy The Bluegrass Situation

Peter Mulvey & SistaStrings will present album release performances at 7 p.m. Saturday, October 8 at The Bur Oak in Madison, and at 8 p.m. Sunday, October 9 at Colectivo Coffee Backroom, 2211 N. Prospect Avenue in Milwaukee. 

For tickets and the full tour schedule, visit: https://www.petermulvey.com/

ALBUM REVIEW: Peter Mulvey & SistaStrings Love is the Only Thing (Righteous Babe Records)

If only we had more people of power and influence with the spiritual wiles and wisdom of singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey. We’d be doing much better than barely muddling through as a society, even risking our democracy. Mulvey’s new album, with the marvelous Milwaukee string-playing duo SistaStrings, delivers a variety of truths and revelations and invokes extraordinarily capacious compassion.

Album cover courtesy americanahighway.com

First comes exquisite overtones on his acoustic guitar, introducing the traditional “Shenandoah,” yearningly lovely, feeling like a ritual blessing.  “Soft Animal” ensues, with an idea from poet Mary Oliver, which evokes the “soft animal” within each of us, slightly Emersonian in its sense of inner sacredness, even as a breathing creature. Mulvey brings that animal vividly to life, with the Ross sisters’ violin and cello boosting it with warmly vibrant utterances, here and consistently throughout.

“Oh My Dear (The Demagogue)” pulls back the curtain of illusion but doesn’t simply point fingers: “What kind of storm blew through?/ The demagogue, the general, the priest/ who needed you most but loved you the least.” Then it shifts from rhetorical second to first person: “I couldn’t hear you while I was out in the wind/ I traded your life for my original sin.”

“Old Men Drinking Seagram’s” candidly scrutinizes the facile discriminations, bred of cultural isolation (or misinformation?), of the haves towards the have-nots. Why is it, the more people have, the more they resist, with a hollow righteousness, sharing it?

Then, funky and caffeinated, “You and (Everybody Else)” eloquently bemoans another current reality, people addicted to “staring at a screen”: “They gave you everything that you could want/ now you’re sitting there hungry like a ghost…full of nothing that you want/ you and everybody else.”

“Pray for Rain,” epigraphed with a James Baldwin quote, is the most pointedly political song: “Now the better angels have fled this field/ and the people sway to a devil’s song/ every bittersweet seed has come to fruit/ common mercy deserts the throng…” But notice how often Mulvey traffics in mythically terms rather than gratuitously naming names. This allows us to consider the historical roles of all humanity in our great failings.

Mulvey switches gears to the profoundly personal on “See You on the Other Side,” which grapples, finally affirmatively, with the murky metaphysics of death. Yet that ties in with poignant power to the album’s most moving piece, “Song for Michael Brown,” the young black man infamously shot and left dead in a trail of blood on a Missouri street, which inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Here, Mulvey and his extraordinarily simpatico accompanists plea for compassion for everyone involved, of all colors and persuasions, “and most especially for the next child we know will fall.” And then, as if imploring a wailing wall: “I know God loves us. I know God loves us. I know God loves us. I don’t know how,” sung with raw passion.

Its gravitas buoyed by hope, this amounts to one of the most humanely open-hearted songs I’ve heard in recent years. As elsewhere, the song conveys the intimacy of deep feeling in its textures of fine engineering, recorded live at Cafe Carpe, the almost-famous little Midwestern engine of singer-songwriting that always could.

Peter Mulvey. Courtesy The Bur Oak

The album ends with the title song (written by Chuck Prophet) with the refrain, “Love is a hurting thing. Ah, but love is the only thing!” Throughout the album’s fetchingly hilly melodies, the tender textures of Mulvey’s scarred soul seem palpable in his voice. Sage-like, he poetically renders ideas revealing that compassion has many colors and many coats, and surely there’s at least one to fit any listener, to make their heart grow stronger, and warmer. Mulvey, long an iconoclastic activist, embodies such broad possibilities.

Canny and knowing of darkness and hatred, he remains persuasive, with extraordinary grace and street-smart artistry, which leaves no one left behind because, in the world he still envisions, love has long coattails. This is song-making of a high, healing order, just for these times.

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Growing Hope for America: An anniversary revisit to the 25th Farm Aid in Milwaukee

It’s one day removed from the date but I am honoring the anniversary of a great concert in Milwaukee history by posting my review of Farm Aim 25,  at Miller Park on October 2, 2010.

October 2, 2010 

Farm Aid 25 Does Heavy Hauling for America’s Family Farmers

MILWAUKEE — It took a quarter of a century for the players in this farm system to make it to the majors.

But Farm Aid 25 proved it ain’t no game though, heck, it was at least as fun as any Brewers outing, to judge from the 35,000 who rocked Miller Park Saturday, along with the many dedicated musicians who filled the ten-hour event.

Farm Aid 25 at Miller Park. Courtesy Onmilwaukee.com

The first Farm Aid drew 78,000 in Champaign, Illinois in 1985. Today it’s the longest-running concert benefit in the U.S, having raised $37 million over those years. And co-founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp – who all performed Saturday with style and passion – have been stars for decades. So the event’s 25th anniversary in its first major league stadium only served to remind people of a team effort as heroic as a two-outs, walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

The hero’s stance is somewhat different now. Farm Aid now does heavy work on the promotional tractor hauling the local sustainable food movement to public awareness. They’re helping push for organized family farming and healthy food choices as refurbished tools for economic revitalization of America through “family farm food systems” based on alliances, economic stewardship and well being of community and public health (see farmaid.org for more information on this)

They still proselytize for the ongoing plight of America’s family farmers in the face of corporate farming’s razing of the small farm business model. In the pre-concert press conference, Neil Young, Farm Aids’ resident corporate gadfly, asserted that big-business farms “create and spread disease and are inhumane to animals” and ravage the ecosystem.

Yet, as perennial good guy Nelson says, “We started out trying to save the family farmer and now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.”

Farm Aid to mark 25th anniversary at Miller Park

Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 25 in Milwaukee OnMilwaukee.com

With a majority of this huge throng appearing to be under 30, the message seemed to connect with the generation that must take up the mantle of leadership.

Many of them sang along from memory to lyrics of musicians old enough to be pa or grandpa. While Mellencamp did his harrowing farm tragedy saga, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” even a young stadium security guard sang along, with his back to the stage and eyes diligently scanning the crowd.

Yes, there’d been plenty of tailgating beforehand, which kept attendance at a slow trickle-in though the early afternoon acts like Randy Rogers, Robert Francis, Jamey Johnson and the Blackwood Quartet. Among those, the act too many missed was Johnson, whose Moses beard and hair hang as long as his foghorn voice resounds deep, seeping into the darkest caverns of the heart, with deftly self-deprecating storytelling. His Depression-survivor song “In Color” deserves to be a widely-covered classic, though I doubt anyone could deliver such craggy authenticity as does Johnson.

Though now middle-aged thick and lovable-attire slob, Mellencamp can still ignite and work a crowd – into what Quakers call (not so) gentle persuasion: At one point he asked all of the cell-phone toting fans to immediately call a friend to “thank them for supporting Farm Aid.”

He even grabbed one fan’s phone and thanked a doubtlessly startled “Steve,” on the call’s receiving end.

Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp at Farm Aid 25. Courtesy milwaukeejournal-sentinel.com

By then, the crowd seemed primed to attack the back forty, after a bracing but short set from Milwaukee’s own seminal roots rockers The Bo Deans, and a beguiling one from Philadelphia folk-soul troubadour Amos Lee, and another by the appealingly high-energy alt-roots rock Band of Horses, who are galloping up record charts these days.

Milwaukee’s own, The Bodeans, at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel.com

Yet the crowd perked up for the almost effortless charm of two young pop music phenoms, Norah Jones and Jason Mraz. The line-up’s only female act, Texas-raised singer-songwriter-pianist-guitarist Jones recently relocated to New York. She captivated with her sophisticated new look – punky page boy and fishnet stockings — and fluent eclectic flair, shifting from her sultry sweetheart mega hit “Come Away With Me” to Johnny Cash’s honk-tony beer lament “Cry, Cry, Cry” to her own increasingly dark and thoughtful originals.

Norah Jones at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel

By contrast, Mraz seems like his own brand of endless sunshine with a voice as boyish as Paul Simon’s but stadium-impact strong and with songs carrying a high melodic calorie count. He woos the listener like the boy Romeo next door, or the strapping young farmer down the road. He actually runs an avocado farm in California when not doing music or surfing. Too cool.

Between the Jones and Mraz sets, Jeff Tweedy — leader of the immensely popular and arty roots-rock band Wilco – delivered a curiously tepid solo set that suggested his true gifts are as a musical conceptualist/bandleader/songwriter.

You get the stylistic gist here — Farm Aid welcomes virtually all American music genres under its big farmer’s market tent. And to wit, many fans also partook of the outdoor Homegrown Market and chatted with farmers about their issues and tasty wares even through cold wind and some rain. That interaction is part of the important underlying purposes of this musical harvest.

Back inside, time-conscious bandleaders too infrequently introduced their faithful band members. But the show rarely dragged with Willie Nelson stepping in to add his “Texas herb” aroma to the sets of Jones and Lee, and with contemporary country star Kenny Chesney showing gleaming vocal pipes and sporting a New Orleans Saints cap instead of the expected ten-gallon hat.

And few complained about nepotism when Willie’s son Lukas Nelson scored a set, because he’s inherited the old man’s showmanship. No knockoff though, the younger Nelson’s style strives to virtually channel the ghost of short-lived blues rock guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. His guitar-string biting impressed some, but made you wonder if Willie feeds the kid enough.

Dave Matthews, the Gen-X rock star who joined the Farm Aid board of directors in 2001 and is the fourth perennial headliner, started his duo set with guitar ace Tim Reynolds by unleashing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which felt like a man reliving the song’s wild tale as a primal-scream dream. His intensity cranked the crowd up to a level that Mellencamp rode masterfully.

Yet, for this baby boomer, and surely many others, this all climaxed with Young’s set. He remains an uncanny blend of wizardly yet unpretentious song-storyteller/melody-spinner prone to deft feedback theatrics and spontaneous speeches. Few seem to care about farmers as much as he does. But an eloquent riff on being an aware consumer for small farm support –“read the label” is his mantra – immediately lost any hint of browbeating when Young launched into “Long May Young Run.” This is a gloriously warm-hearted salutation to a friend he last saw alive “in Blind River in 1962.” The winsome melody and sentiment seem to suggest – with a new line crucially added to the original lyrics – that the never-forgotten friend was a farmer.

Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young at Farm Aid 25. milwaukeejournal-sentinel 

Young’s always had a quirky a genius for balancing his fiery social consciousness with mournful, humane soul. Accompanied only by his own scruffy-scarecrow presence and solitary electric guitar, Young’s “Ohio” still seared into memories of the Vietnam war-era killing of four Kent State University student protesters by National Guard members.

Of course, Farm Aid always provides the salve of Willie Nelson to top off even reopened psychic wounds, and to send everyone home buzzed on musical vibe. That’s from toking up on ol’ Willie, twirling his smoky, behind-the-beat phrasing around another blessedly-crafted song. His concert-closing set ranged from tough blues-rock led by son Lukas, to reggae rhythms, to “one for Waylon.” On cue, all the headliners joined onstage to sing “Good-Hearted Woman,” a comfortable-as-worn-blue-jeans song by Nelson’s fellow progressive-country “outlaw,” the late, great Waylon Jennings.

Concert epics like this don’t get much more golden.

It was well after 11 p.m. and co-sponsor Direct TV had been telecasting the concert since Mraz’s set at 5, so one hoped the ideals and passion of this extraordinarily well-conceived and executed effort may spread like the winds of change, rather than like locusts or chemical farming-borne disease.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, long may Farm Aid run.

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This review was originally published in YourNews.com, Madison edition

For videos about the Milwaukee event, go to www.farmaid.org.)

Discover tonight in the light of darkness: Jazz opens the doors of imagination

“Retroreflector” album cover. Design by B-Side Graphics

Andrew Trim. Courtesy Andrew Murray Triim

Concert Notice:

Retroreflector (Andrew Murray Trim), and Hanging Hearts will perform tonight (Tuesday, September 20), starting at 8 PM, at The Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave. in Milwaukee’s Bayview neighborhood. 

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GONGGGG!

Hear ye, hear ye!

Discover tonight in the light of darkness: Jazz opens the doors of imagination: Jazz opens the doors of imagination. This is the night to lay bare the lifeblood of possibility dwelling within the fecund womb of two extraordinarily creative bands, Retroreflector and Hanging Hearts. They’re two of the most audaciously adventurous “jazz” groups in the Midwest. I quotationally modify the word jazz because, as capacious as the term is, these two band seep into it’s vast realm from their very own secret inlets, deeply blessed in shadows and substrata. yet capable of virtual starbursts and meteor showers.

I have written about Retroreflector as an album title under the guise of Milwaukee-based guitarist-composer Andrew Murray Trim. Here is that review:

Guitarist Andrew Trim reaches for the moon on “Retroreflector”

But now the Retroflector term has become nominal. And who, or what, is the name retrospectively reflecting? The entity that rises most immediately  to mind is WEATHER REPORT, perhaps the most celebrated and exploratory and maybe among the funkiest jazz-fusion band of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s: Weather Report. That may seem incrongruous given that that historical band did not include a guitar — this band’s leader’s primary axe.

Also what certainly distinguishes Hanging Hearts from any presumption of Weather Reports vast realm is that the former group’s saxophonist, Chris Weller, primarily plays tenor, whereas Wayne Shorter, who made his name as a tenor saxophonist and astonishingly gifted composer, played primarily soprano saxophone in the group co-founded and led with keyboardist-composer Joe Zawinul.

Okay. I am not suggesting that either of these bands is nearly as accomplished as Weather Report, given that group’s longevity and profuse and consistent acclaim. Rather. these bands seem to possess the uncanny blend of some of the myriad aspects that made that legendry group’s music magic, as much as just about anything.

And after listening to some of their music, one might make the slippery generalization that Hanging Hearts is a saxophonist’s band (including a keyboardist and drummer) whereas Retroreflector is not quite as explicitly and obviously a guitarist’s band. (Geographically, both bands are Chicago-based.)

Hanging Hearts (L-R), Chris Weller, saxophone; Quin Kirchner, drums; Cole DeGenova, keyboards. 

Hanging Hearts most recent album cover.

Weather Report, by contrast, was a diaphanous amalgam of, at its best, democratic collective improvisation. That was the overall impression of their self-titled first album in 1973, and they continued in that vein until the band began latching onto funk grooves (their third album included, they claim, the first-ever recoded hip-hop rhythm and rap) which simplified their music, by laying down repeated bass patterns and ostinatos, upon which other players jammed. That said, I think these two Chicago bands strive for such ideals.

I won’t go into further detail because perhaps the most important thing at this late date is to make your plans to catch these group’s tonight, if possible, although I do recommend you take a look at my above-posted review of the album Retroreflector.

I just tend to doubt that you will be disappointed if you are open to courageous leaps off the cliff, into the virtual arms of atmosphere.

See you at tonight at The Cactus Club!

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A jazz giant speaks to our times on Ethan Philion’s “Meditations on Mingus”

Album review: Ethan Philion Meditations on Mingus (Sunnyside)

Ethan Philion will present the full-ensemble “Meditations on Mingus” at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Sept. 2, and at the North Street Cabaret in Madison on Sept. 10, and a quartet version at Bar Centro in Milwaukee on Sept. 11.

Imagine a sculptor laboring over the Mount Rushmore of modern jazz giants and, somehow, forgetting about Charles Mingus. Through some boisterous psychic phenomenon, Mingus would barge into the artist’s consciousness and muscle his way into the layout of great granite figures. Mingus had a personality as large as his talents, and his social consciousness. These qualities all arise in a simmering stew called Meditations on Mingus by Chicago bassist-arranger and bandleader Ethan Philion.

Key to this project’s accomplishment is Philion understanding how pointedly Mingus’s 1960s music addresses America’s open societal wounds and flaws of today. This 10-piece band (including Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson) bristles, wails, and swings like a 10-headed-demon inspired by the jazz gods. Mingus emerged from jazz god Ellington, retaining The Duke’s gifts for lyricism and fine detail. Yet Mingus upped the quotient of fiery, chest-pounding large-ensemble jazz.

Ethan Philion’s Mingus Big Band live at the Green Mill in Chicago. Courtesy ethanpilion.com

For example, on the opening “Once Upon a Time in a Holding Corporation called Old America,” the music ripples and reaches for the sky while keeping its collective feet deep in the funky earth. It evokes the profound income inequality that is worse today than ever. “Haitian Fight Song” boils and stomps, exemplifying how Mingus horn ensembles could mutate into one strangely beautiful creature of defiance.

“Pithecanthropus Erectus” is a striking musical portrait of homo sapiens rising from ape to human; it’s superbly orchestrated myriad voices, from cacophony to harmonized reason (and back), comments on the struggles of “man” to truly achieve humanity. Philion’s liner notes include an ominous Mingus quote to help signify the tune: “His own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave…deny him not only the right of ever being a man, but finally destroy him completely.”

Bassist-arranger-bandleader Ethan Philion with trumpeter Victor Garcia. Courtesy Ethan Philion

Blues-infused, mournful and dramatic, “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” is a vivid small-picture evocation of a man’s incarceration, strengthened and sustained by dreams of freedom.

By contrast, “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” is an ironically titled big picture on prison’s institutional racism. In 1971, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller notoriously rejected a requested visit to Attica Prison to address the black inmates’ grievances, thus spurring a prison uprising, which 1,000 white state troopers smashed by killing 33 inmates and 10 hostages. President Richard Nixon spun the tragedy as a triumph of governmental justice. Medical examiners confirmed that all but the deaths of one officer and three inmates were caused by law enforcement gunfire.[1][10] The New York Times writer Fred Ferretti said the rebellion concluded in “mass deaths that four days of taut negotiations had sought to avert”. The Attica Uprising has been described as a historical event in the prisoners’ rights movement.

Throughout Meditations, Philion conveys Mingus’s brilliance with tight-yet-liberated ensembles, bounding with call-and-response passages, and an inner fire that spurs soloists to heights of fire and ardor (especially alto sax player Rajiv Halim, on the bracing “Prayer for Passive Resistance”).

In referring back to the music as I wrote this, I’m continually captivated by the richness of the compositions, arrangements and the colorful soloists. Jazz doesn’t get any better.

Remember Rockefeller, sure, but remember Mingus indeed – hearing this album he’s as alive as a man breathing right down your neck.

Charles Mingus. Courtesy New England Conservatory of Music

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This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express, here: Mingus music review

For information on, and to purchase, this album, visit: https://ethanphilion.com/home

 

 

 

 

 

Jazz has led the way in integration as a social and cultural model at least since 1938

Jazz has led the way in integration as a social and cultural model at least since 1938

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

 

 

The Beatles or Jack Grassel? The Wisconsin guy wins out, riding the wings of Mercury

 

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?

  • He played Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” but stylistically as if blues giant Muddy Waters would’ve done it. So Presley’s proto-hip-hopping rhythms turned dolorous and dark, as if a slightly more ominous threat, if you don’t “lay offa mah blue suede shoes!”
  • He played an abbreviated version of the slow movement of Rodrigo’s gorgeous Concierto de Aranjuez, made famous by trumpeter Miles Davis and Gil Evans on the album Sketches of Spain. This made sense in that the piece is originally a guitar concerto. Grassel even pulled out a harmonica, which somewhat evoked Davis’s poignantly eloquent trumpeting, but without mimicry. This did surprising justice as a solo performance of a piece best known as a concerto with a full jazz orchestra.
  • He sang jazz singer-songwriter-pianist Mose Allison’s  “Certified Senior Citizen,” which includes:                                                                                                       I’m a certified senior citizen
    ‘Scuse me while I take my nap
    You don’t like my drivin’, I don’t like your jivin’
    Just don’t give me that ole timer crap                                                                    He did this not to suggest the audience was old-timers, but because, as he explained, he now was “certified” himself.
  • He also credibly sang Sting’s “Sister Moon” in a high baritone approximating that singer-songwriter’s register, though without the resonant romanticism of Sting’s voice.
  • A one point, he even sat down and played a home-made drum set which includes a donging cast-aluminum pot lid from Jill’s kitchen. He evidently practices at home with typical zeal on drums, about which Jill afterwards commented dryly “is grounds…” The second time he sat down at the set, he pre-empted sentiments by saying, “Oh no, not the drums!”

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.  

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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.

2. Now that Les Paul is gone, I suppose it’s a toss-up for resident “Wisconsin guitar god” between Grassel and Greg Koch, who was much more visible, even through the pandemic (unlike Grassel), with regular You Tube video performances. 

3. Bobby Tanzilo, “Restoring Villa Terrace’s Hermes/Mercury Statue,” Milwaukee.com.

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

The Villa Terrace Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki