The golden age of jazz and American popular song converged in the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s. Then, and for many years afterward, great musicians reworked the Great American Songbook.
Today’s jazz players are braver. More and more of them avoid improvising on both yesterday’s hits, overexposed in elevators and dentist’s offices, and, for aesthetic reasons, today’s pop pap.
“Familiar Melodies” is an ideal example of worthwhile original music, imagined by Milwaukee jazz guitarist, Steve Lewandowski. A prominent presence on his town’s club scene, Lewandowski has composed and arranged for his own trio and the Paul Spencer Band, house combo at Caroline’s, a longtime Milwaukee jazz home.
Lewandowski also is a degreed teacher and first-called guitarist when touring Broadway shows drop into Wisconsin.
But playing jazz has been his main professional love since boyhood. As his interest in the music ripened, the progression into composing and arranging was natural, and polished over time. “Familiar Melodies” successfully treads the fine line between being derivative and too far out.
The CD’s level of musicianship is high. To interpret his melodies, the leader uses, mainly, a 1963 Gibson Super 400 and has recruited some of the upper Midwest’s best jazz musicians.
Foremost is clarinetist Chuck Hedges, who’s had many CDs as leader and been a sideman on countless others. In a half-century-plus career, Hedges has performed worldwide with some of swing’s best players. For years, Wisconsin’s finest reed player’s, jazz and classical, have dropped in on Hedges’ performances for aural lessons.
Neither Lewandowski nor vibes player Bob Maynard, the other two major soloists on this CD, are as widely known. But they hold their own with Hedges here and in their appearances together, often at Elm Grove’s jazz hub, the Grove.
Hedges lured Maynard out of a two-decade retirement and helped lift Bob’s lightning mallet work to new levels. Maynard and Lewandowski divide leadership of a trio, backed by veteran bassist George Welland. Few Wisconsin musicians neither know more tunes in more keys than Welland nor have backed more touring stars.
Lewandowski grew up in the Milwaukee area, marveling over local jazz guitar legends Don Momblow and George Pritchett. When keyboard wizard Frank DeMiles added Lewandowski to his roster of jazz students, Steve returned the favor as DeMiles’ student teacher.
As his horizons expanded while listening to Ron Cuzner’s radio “Dark Side,” Steve was swept away by Wes Montgomery’s octave work, Barney Kessel’s block chording and the lightning single note lines of both men and Pat Martino.
In 1992, Lewandowski met his wife-to-be, Lynn, a classically trained reed player, who contributes ably here on flute, piccolo and bass clarinet. Jeff Pietrangelo, an honored Milwaukee trumpet player whom Lewandowski gigged with at Caroline’s, also has some tasty moments on several tracks. As do Chicago mandolinist Don Stiernberg, Appleton bassist Mark Urness, rhythm guitarist John Parrott, tenor saxophonist Andrew Spodafora, and drummer Randy Charles.
There’s diversity here, from chamber swing to gypsy jazz, blues, sambas and more. My favorites, among many, are the fast samba “Passion Dance” and the cooking “Lilies and Tulips,” an obvious homage to Harry Woods’ 1927 evergreen “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” Both contain some of the session’s most creative improvising.
The sales of “Familiar Melodies” won’t rival the latest flavor-of- the-month rock band. But its pleasures run deep and wide.
Veteran Milwaukee jazz critic and columnist