Tag Archives: Phil Gratteau

I’LL STRING ALONG WITH THEM: “STRAIGHT AHEAD,” THE DON STIERNBERG QUARTET

Listening to a new CD, my desires are simple.  Swing, lovely sonorities, collective empathy, improvisation that sounds easy and natural but is really expert, good recorded sound, respect for melody, an avoidance of cliche, variety in repertoire, approach, tempos.

I’m really easy to please.  It should sound like music.  And STRAIGHT AHEAD, by the Don Stiernberg Quartet (the leader on mandolin, Andy Brown, guitar, Jim Cox, drums, Phil Gratteau, drums) gets all the checkmarks and more.  I was in the middle of the second track when I started writing this post, which says something about the pleasure these four players create.

The only thing missing — a matter of economics, I am sure — are liner notes, so I hope that my words will fill the gap.  The press-release cliche might be, “Four Chicagoland veterans of the swing scene get together for a session, hitting all the marks from Ray Noble to Jacob do Bandolin and late Django, with affectionate glances at the Great American Songbook.”  I am satirizing the language of the emails that come to me introducing a variety of artists, but the substance is true.

Perhaps the place my press release would have as a headline would be NOT FAKE, NOT SHOWY.  Not tremolo-laden Come Back To Sorrento, not burn-the-fretboard-look-how-fast-I-can-play, but music.  I can’t overemphasize that: not overproduced product, but the real sound of people playing together with affection for the art, and affection for the listeners.

I also want to point to a freshness in the group’s melodic inventions.  A dozen times through my first listening, I was dreading the expected quote or cliche — the Wedding March, LOVE IN BLOOM, I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT — and these blessed fellows had their own sweet ideas, instead.  How very refreshing!  And while I was admiring the ease and pace of Don’s inventive lead, I kept on getting distracted by Andy — rhythm and solo; Phil and Jim’s great pulse and subtle sonic variety . . . hear Jim’s arco on ANOUMAN — that’s the way it’s supposed to sound, and Phil’s varied brush sweeps are a delight.

All I can say is that when I finished my first playing, all I wanted to do was hear it again.  And I’m now on my fourth go-round.  It’s not “Easy Listening” (does anyone remember that record-store category, which, translated, meant Inoffensive Aural Pillow?) but it certainly is easy to listen to.  And for me, there was no faux-astonishment: “Isn’t it wonderful he plays just fine jazz on a mandolin?”  It all sounds good: Don and the instrument are one: the quartet is a soulful sweet entity.

You can hear more here — and you can purchase a download or a disc.  The music is also available at Amazon and iTunes.  However you find it, it’s really worth finding.

May your happiness increase!

MELLOWLY: THE ANDY BROWN QUARTET at STUDIO5 (February 23, 2018): ANDY BROWN, JEREMY KAHN, JOE POLICASTRO, PHIL GRATTEAU

Guitarist Andy Brown makes lovely music on his own, and he has great taste in musicians.  Here he is with stellar friends, live at Studio5 in Evanston, Illinois, on February 23, 2018. The video — just posted on YouTube — contains six extended performances from that night.

The players are Andy; Jeremy Kahn, piano; Joe Policastro, string bass; Phil Gratteau, drums.  And the songs are CHEESECAKE; GROOVEYARD; ESTAMOS AI, IDLE MOMENTS; ZING! WENT THE STRINGS OF MY HEART; RECEIPT PLEASE.

I don’t think that this performance needs any explication from me: it’s beautifully balanced, sophisticated swinging jazz, melodic and playful.

And, to give credit where it is due, this concert was part of the Live at Studio5 Jazz Series: http://www.steverashidpresents.com.  Visit Andy’s website here.  And if you missed the November 2017 delicately profound duo-recital of Jeremy and Andy, I urge you to see it here.

May your happiness increase!

ANDY BROWN, SWING MASTER: “APPEL DIRECT”

Theoretically, I should not be able to write that the Chicago-based guitarist Andy Brown is in fact a Swing Master.  He is certainly too young and too healthy. He’s been on a skateboard.  He might even lack the maladjustments so common to Great Artists.  But these things have not limited his creative magic.

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There’s more delightful evidence at hand, a new Delmark CD, DIRECT CALL, which I would gladly dub SWING MASTERPIECE OF 2016.

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For those who’d rather trust their ears than this blog, here are samples from the CD.  And here is the riotously rocking title track — Django’s APPEL DIRECT:

The three other masters here are Phil Gratteau, drums; Jeremy Kahn, piano; Joe Policastro, string bass.  Like Andy, they know what and where it is.

The session was recorded in Chicago last September — beautiful sound thanks to my non-relative Scott Steinman: THE JEEP IS JUMPIN’ / PRISONER OF LOVE / EL CAJON / FUNK IN DEEP FREEZE / APPEL DIRECT / RELAXING / ONE MORNING IN MAY / CATCH ME / ELA E CARIOCA / FREAK OF THE WEEK.

In a crime novel whose name I forget, someone said, less politely, “Everybody can talk but not everyone has things to say.”  The art of swing improvisation is not something learned from the Real Book or from copying gestures to fool an audience. (Ending a performance of SHINY STOCKINGS with three Basie chords doesn’t make it Basie.)

Compelling, light-hearted, authentic swing and melodic improvisations are a matter of years of study — usually on the job.  The members of this quartet, although not Elders chronologically, are wise players whose art comes from playing, listening, thinking, feeling.

Some like their jazz to be startling, even abrupt.  It has to be “innovative” and “adventurous.”  I wouldn’t deny them such pleasures, but music that shouts BOO! in my ear is not for me.  I warm to jazz that delicately balances the familiar and the surprising, with comfort the result, as if I were a passenger with a driver I wholly trusted.  This comfort is felt immediately in the opening choruses of APPEL DIRECT.  “These players know how to sustain feeling and build on it; they won’t let me down or disappoint me.”

Although the CD is in no way a repertory project, I could settle into the joy of experiencing and anticipating right from the start: the same way I feel when (let us say) I heard Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones play an eight-bar introduction.  Basie and Charlie Christian.  Jimmie Rowles, Jim Hall, Leroy Vinnegar, Frank Butler. You can supply your own names.  Mastery and ease.

I urge you to check out the CD, and, even better, share the music with others . . . or do that most radical thing, hear this quartet in a Chicago club or elsewhere. I believe that you will feel uplifted, rewarded — by the sweetness of PRISONER OF LOVE, the rare energy of CATCH ME and the other swinging tunes.  It’s a beautifully integrated quartet, with each player generously giving of himself to the band.  And now I will play APPEL DIRECT again.

May your happiness increase!