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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether Jazz, Hip-Hop or Electronic, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick rides the waves

Jazz artist Jamie Breiwick’s voice and vision have steadily grown, like rippling concentric circles, since he first caught the attention of fellow musicians, critics, and the public. The wind of his trumpet blowing plays a factor, but the wavelike depths arose from his extraordinary knowledge and honoring of the modern jazz tradition, while finding places in contemporary pop vernaculars for his voice, and realizing the wellsprings of his own creative identity.

That analogy seems apt as his seminal inspiration was Miles Davis, who shaped the tides of jazz time for decades, with an uncanny, lyrical and impressionistic sensibility, even as funky as he could get. “I had a Miles t-shirt in high school that I wore constantly,” Breiwick recalls. “The breadth of music he made is really staggering, whether bebop, free, rock, fusion, electronic, experimental, pop, hip-hop. He really blazed a lot of trails and left us with a lifetime of inspiration.”

Right now, Breiwick ranks among the four or five most important jazz musicians in Wisconsin and, among them, the youngest one on a still-rising arc of creative possibility. His prolific recorded output includes with De La Buena, and the influential 25-year band Clamnation. The pandemic threw many artists askew, but Breiwick pressed full-speed ahead, with voluminous recording and releasing on his own B-Side Recordings label.

The group KASE: Jamie Breiwick, trumpet and electronics; John Christensen, bass; knowsthetime, turntables and electronics. 

Breiwick’s graphic design talents sped this output. He creates all his own album covers (and those of others) with an imaginative but clean, post-1960s Blue Note Records compositional style. He just published a book of his jazz cover designs concurrently with an emblematic album, KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House. His jazz-hip-hop-electronics trio, with bassist John Christensen and turntablist Jordan Lee, joined Klassik, perhaps the region’s most musically gifted improv hip-hop singer-song maker, who also plays keyboards and saxophone. KASE logically expands Breiwick’s creative ripples into exploring “sonic landscapes” – Miles ahead, atmospheric, wonder-inducing.

The cassette cover of “KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House,” designed by Jamie Breiwick. Courtesy B-Side Graphics

Breiwick’s recorded and group projects have probed ground-breaking jazzers, including Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and world-music traveler Don Cherry. He’s also played and recorded transcribed Davis solos for two Hal Leonard play-along books, among six various he’s recorded.  He values innovative contemporaries like Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire and Nicholas Payton, “an incredible trumpet player and musical conceptualist,” and “a thought leader and outspoken BAM (Black American Music) advocate.” He also teaches music at Prairie School, near Racine. How good is Breiwick teaching music? In 2013, he was nominated for the first-ever Grammy Music Educator Award, selected as one of 200 semi-finalists among over 30,000 nominees.

The cover of The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet.

Shortly before the pandemic, Breiwick recorded The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet, a New York trio recording on the leading independent label Ropeadope, with internationally acclaimed drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson, thus extending his national modern-jazz bona fides.

Breiwick plays a live date (here and in photo at top) with renowned drummer Matt Wilson and bassist John Tate.

Breiwick leaves popular success largely to his evolution and artistic authenticity.

“I think it is all in the delivery – people can tell if you are sincere or not. I try to create music and art that I would like myself and try not to be too corny or contrived, while at the same time recognizing my influences. What did Coltrane say? ‘You can play a shoestring if you are sincere,’ I think that is perfect.”

But he knows jazz musicians always need help in America’s capitalist society. Today they can increasingly help each other with online resources. In 2010, Breiwick co-founded Milwaukee Jazz Vision, an online organization that promotes jazz and its community in the Milwaukee area.

His visual-designer talents suggest deeper creative destinations. “It is a similar path of discovery. Visual art and music relate in so many ways – texture, structure, organization, color, tone. Five or six of my favorite designers are also musicians. There’s some sort of elemental connection between the two disciplines…Miles Davis was an incredible painter. Jean-Michel Basquiat deeply loved music and often used musical imagery or references such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in his works.”

Perhaps his most daring recent recording is Solve for X, duets with a longtime collaborator. Guitarist-synthesist Jay Mollerskov took samples of Breiwick’s own trumpet solos, to create sonic counterpoints and textural backdrops for Breiwick to play against. It works like a musical mosaic – outward refracting, rather than narcissistic. That’s because Breiwick knows of whence he came, as a trumpeter and creator.

“I’m inspired by a lot of things, all sorts of music, visual art, architecture, history, stories, traveling,” he says. “I am just trying to better find out who I am, and ultimately just trying to keep moving forward.”

“Like (trumpeter) Clark Terry said, ‘Emulate, assimilate, innovate.’”

So, Breiwick’s self-discovery proceeds. As to forward progress, only time, his seemingly ever-expanding wave, will tell.

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This article was originally published in slightly shorter form in the May 2022 print magazine edition of The Shepherd Express, available free at many locations around Milwaukee County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Solve for X” finds Jamie Breiwick and Jay Mollerskov as a musical Holmes and Watson?

Review: Jamie Breiwick & Jay Mollerskov – Solve for X (B Side)

Jamie Breiwick emerged by leaps and bounds as the most important jazz musician on the Milwaukee scene in 2021. The trumpeter-composer-conceptualizer works in both straight-ahead and cutting-edge realms.

His hip-hop/jazz trio KASE opened for Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective at the Marcus PAC, and he released a stunning bevy of albums, mostly on his own B Side label, but also, The Jewel (Live at The Dead Poet), a trio date on Ropeadope, with internationally-known drummer Matt Wilson, recorded live in New York.

Among the self-released albums, his latest, Solve for X, may be his strongest experimental album yet. The album cover by local printmaker Jay Arpin, depicting a massive iceberg, suggests the project’s quietly vast ambition and its “granular synthesis.” The album comprises “electronic works based completely on Jamie’s trumpet playing as the sole sound source.” The enigmatic title, borrowed from the Arpin print’s, suggests a creative inquiry as profound as the dimensions and revealing textures of the largely-submerged iceberg – the two musicians as a sort of musical Holmes and Watson, investigating a mysterious symbol perhaps signifying evidence of climate catastrophe.

Breiwick’s longtime friend, guitarist-synthesist Jay Mollerskov, took recordings of the trumpeter’s themes and solos, and mutated them into “granular landscapes” for the elegantly winged horn, a myriad of textures and tones. Breiwick displays exceptionally sustained lyricism.

On “Strata,” the ascending atmospheric spaciousness seems to virtually lift you out of your chair, beyond yourself, as if gazing down on the earth (in another strata), even suggesting a pensive moral pondering of humanity below. Here and elsewhere, the minimalist tonal aesthetic offers maximal textural effect.

“Traces of Things,” with its episodic fragments, suggests Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Finally, “Reflect” delicately grounds the sonic outer limits like a mile-high kite-string, with rather gorgeous horn playing, including Breiwick’s son, Nolan, dueting with his father on trumpet.

Yet another Breiwick-brainchild album, KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House, was just released this week, featuring Klassik, the brilliant Milwaukee-based hip-hop singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.

For more information, visit:

B Side Recordings

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This review was originally published in slightly shorter form, in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/solve-for-x-by-jamie-breiwick-b-side/