Cheeseheads meet Chicago in jazz "concerto grosso," tonight at Jazz Showcase

Neil Tesser - Chicago Jazz Music Examiner - June 6, 2011

Tonight only, the Jazz Showcase presents an unusual big-band offering from The Grilly Brothers. Better known for their recently rejuvenated sextet – which they’d kept in mothballs for the better part of three decades, before re-emerging over the two years – Lanny Grilly (drums) and his brother Dave (reeds) have figured a way to extend their reach to large ensembles.

Their Showcase gig will feature the University of Wisconsin Jazz Orchestra from Milwaukee; that band, comprising professional as well as college musicians, is led by Milwaukee reedman Curt Hanrahan. (Hanrahan, a diamond-toned tenor saxist and hard-blowing flutist, recently released his own small-group album on the Blujazz label; entitled SoulJourner, it powerfully evokes some of the more rewarding experimentations of the early-70s mainstream.)

As Lanny Grilly explains, the idea behind this event – and behind a similar pairing with Symphonic Orchestra – dates back a mere four centuries or so:
“It’s the "Concerto Grosso" concept, from the Baroque era,” he explains, referring to a form in which musical ideas bounced between a small group of soloists and the larger orchestra. In this case, arranger Mike Hartigan has substituted the Grilly Brothers Sextet for the Baroque soloists – the idea being to create a similar dialog between the jazz big band and the combo up front. The compositions, written by the sextet’s pianist Jeff Kier, all come from the Grilly Brothers’ 2010 album Goin’ Places.

Lanny Grilly has already trotted out this sort of collaboration. About a year ago, he and Hartigan worked up symphonic arrangements of these same tunes, applying the concerto grosso technique to high-school and college orchestras. One such concert took place, pairing the combo with the Evanston Township HS orchestra. Nonetheless, he believes the newly written big-band arrangements will “have more traction” as he programs educational clinics around the midwest.

Some of the arrangements are up and running at the Grillys’ web site, and they have a brash, solid quality with plenty of variety. Whereas listeners can point to a huge discography in which soloists work with big band, you almost never hear a self-contained unit acting as “the soloist”; when the sextet’s own improvisers take over for a couple of choruses against the big-band backdrop, the contrast in textures provides an extra punch.

The Grilly Brothers Sextet – which also includes trumpeter Nick Drozdoff, bassist Brian Sandstrom, and percussionist Eddie Mason – plays tonight at 8 and 10. The evening promises excellent musicianship, as well as the debut of an intriguing concept. The fact that it might have educational value – at a time when “arts in the schools” has become an oxymoron – counts as a bonus.