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Jamie Breiwick and Barry Velleman Reinvent Jazz Standards

Jan. 17, 2012
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I'll never forget the band's set at the Charles Allis Art Museum on that hot summer night last July. The sunset burst through the venue's windows as if Choir Fight's immaculate presence was evidence of divine intervention. By the end of the performance, the audience watched every shade of red and yellow coalesce as the sun slowed its course to the west.

The band, led by trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, recreated the sensation of home with family in the winter, of greatness lost to the wheel of time. There was also my sneaking suspicion that jazz was not where it could be, that even if Milwaukee musicians were innovating, it wasn't getting reported.

For that reason Breiwick has been busy the last few years spearheading a slow, steady revitalization of jazz in the Milwaukee area. Between weekly jam sessions, larger, cutting-edge ensembles (including Choir Fight, Clamnation and Stellar Regions) and duties with Milwaukee Jazz Vision, a nonprofit he co-founded with guitarist Neil Davis, it's a wonder Breiwick finds time to be a schoolteacher, husband and father of three on top of it all.

His ambition to drive forward jazz education and awareness is an ongoing response to the perception that jazz is dead, an inference that area musicians would dispute on a variety of grounds. Perhaps more than anything, Breiwick's latest release, Serenity, a duo with pianist Barry Velleman, proves the two are undeclared masters of their trade.

Breiwick's chance meeting with Velleman at a wedding gig months ago bears the anecdotal spontaneity that would inspire a famous release like Bill Evans and Jim Hall's Undercurrent, or Clark Terry and Red Mitchell's To Duke and Basie, where innovation of jazz standards is basically a byproduct of the master musicians involved.

Recorded in one two-hour burst, the 13 tracks of Serenity flow with the vibe of a loosened-up rehearsal; this interaction not only sidesteps their reputation as popular sidemen, but also frees up the flow of the tunes' harmonic complexity, to give the players, along with the audience, some expressive breathing room in tunes like Benny Golson's "Stablemates" and Miles Davis' "Milestones."

Both players' introspection is informed by the advanced styles of their heroes, and as a result we hear conversations not normally found between a trumpet and an old Steinway. Velleman, whose personality suggests an elder's mastery, is often a perfect match for Breiwick's wilder explorations. Velleman weaves back and forth with the trumpeter, in and out of fast midtempos and restrained balladry, directing his voicings accordingly as Breiwick emotes through several genres, often within selections.

Particularly on older standards like Henry Mancini's "The Days of Wine and Roses" and Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean," Breiwick and Velleman read each other like old fragments of poetry, of good times remembered. A safe guess is Velleman has outgrown the music through decades of experience, and finds himself flirting once again with the lyrics in order to de-sentimentalize the original; Breiwick, on the other hand, sounds more concerned with absolving the tradition of those words, of taking them into new and uncharted musical spaces.

Breiwick now holds quite the stake in Milwaukee jazz, both in terms of creative opportunity and professional oversight. Velleman seems content to innovate when the phone rings for him, like the ghost of jazz past that lives within these standards; Breiwick appears to hold the key to their future.


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