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Don Stiernberg and Jurek Jablonski - Tale of Two CDs

View From The Inside - A Tale of Two CDs

I have known some of the five musicians who have played on the CDs Jazzical and Good Numbers for a very long time. In addition to reviewing these two albums, I am going to try to share some insight into the men behind the music, in addition to the music itself.

Though I have been to many enjoyable venues, there are two that I’ve considered to be a “home base” of sorts. And it was at these two locations where I heard five of these six fine musicians.

Andy Brown, Jim Cox, Don Stiernberg

The first time I ever heard the two Chicago greats, mandolin player, Don Stiernberg, and bassist, Jim Cox, perform was in the 1980s at the popular Orphan’s on Lincoln Avenue, and they weren’t even playing jazz. At least not on the nights l watched and listened to them, as they accompanied folk/rock vocalists Megon McDonough and Thom Bishop. Although McDonough has since widened her musical repertoire to at times include jazz (1996’s My One And Only Love), she was not performing it at the time. But when you are discussing master musicians like Stiernberg and Cox, the sheer quality and musical impact of their performances transcends the particular style that they are happening to be playing.

I’ve admired them long before I heard them play jazz. And Stiernberg’s keen sense of humor, while very much a viable part of his live performances, is not necessarily showcased when in the recording studio. The moral of the story is that if you are required to get up out of your armchair to hear a live performance and catch all the nuances, just do it.

Orphan’s was my preferred musical venue at the time, and it was also here where I would later hear Chicago icon Judy Roberts. Roberts was an early influence on Stiernberg. “Way back in those early years, she’d actually let me sit in with her band,” said Stiernberg, in an interview once, while still marveling at the memory.

She was playing with Manhattan Transfer original member Laurel Masse. During an interview with Phil Ponce on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” in April 2014, Stiernberg was asked if he encountered preconceptions about the mandolin and what types of music it should be used for.

“Oh yeah,” Stiernberg said. “Of course, the Italian music connection—people think of pizza parlors and [Stiernberg says, plays a riff on his mandolin that sounds more like it should be coming from a gondolier in Venice than a musician in Chicago] or, naturally people think about bluegrass music because that is where the mandolin gets used most frequently.” [plays a twangy-sounding mandolin riff]

Stiernberg was then asked by Ponce about his late mentor, close friend and country music legend Jethro Burns and his comedic partner Homer [Henry Haynes]. “Homer and Jethro were famous as country comedians. Homer played the guitar, and Jethro, the mandolin. And their act basically was to parody the popular songs of the day, mostly in a country vane, but they also took up pop songs,” Stiernberg said. “Throughout his (Jethro Burns) career he lived in Evanston since 1948, he lived right here in town. Later on in his life, after Homer had passed and he was wondering what to do, he started teaching the mandolin and my mother heard an ad on WFMT on the “Midnight Special” show: ‘Study mandolin with the great Jethro Burns…’ So, I got sent in for lessons. I got very keen on it when I met him, when I went in for my first lesson. From the moment he first started talking to me, I wanted to be him—he was just the coolest guy in the world. My brother played banjo and guitar—this is back in the Folk Music era—and somebody had given him a mandolin, and he did not have time to play it so l appropriated it. Jethro is my hero and he taught me how to play right from the beginning. I was lucky. I studied with him during my high school years, then I went away to college, and when I came back he was starting a little band at that point and he asked me to play with him. Neither of my parents played, but they were huge music fans—aficionados. My mom had the folk music records and my dad had the jazz records, which in a way is how the mandolin makes sense, because it is involved with both those styles. …”

Stiernberg goes on to discuss in the interview what he considered to be a career highlight that ties in nicely with a theme of this article: jazz musicians and classical music coexisting. “…A few years ago, a friend of mine who plays viola in the CSO, Tom Wright, who is also a fantastic mandolin and guitar player, was put in charge with making the mandolin section for Verdi’s Otello. Riccardo Muti, the maestro, wanted it to be true to the score and have as many mandolins as he could get. So we wound up with six, of which, I was one. It was a huge thrill to experience Maestro Muti. Also, Carnegie Hall—we got to play one show out there and we did three shows here in town. It’s recorded; the record is out and it was on the classical music charts. I gotta tell you—that was the hardest mandolin playing that I have done in my life. [The music] was just awkward. It was in a funny key, really fast. I put lighter strings on my mandolin. I tried every trick just to get the part, but the experience was so exciting. Riccardo Muti is a very inspiring musician. It’s all about the music and it’s really positive. I got so excited at Carnegie Hall that I actually played all the notes correctly.”

Rusty Jones, Jurek Jablonski and Jim Cox

I first met pianist Jurek Jablonski when I was introduced to him by our mutual friend, drummer, Rusty Jones, in the winter of 2015. I honestly do not remember exactly where or when l first met Rusty, but I can say for sure that I really got to know him and we became friends while he was appearing with pianist Jodie Christian’s band at another venue l regarded as a kind of musical “home base,” long after Orphan’s had gone the way of many other venues, like Katerina’s on lrving Park Road in the city.

Katerina’s was a terrific little supper club with great food and music. This was where I had first heard many of those jazz performers who would go on to be my favorite musical artists.

I would certainly include guitarist Andy Brown among them. Brown has been a longtime fixture on the Chicago music scene. And in 2009, while reviewing his collaborative performances at Katerina’s with vocalist Jeannie Lambert, I wrote: “His guitar playing is always melodic, understated and involving, drawing the audience in with multiple techniques and textures instead of the guitar pyrotechnics that other players like to show off with. [It has] a fuller, richer, more complete sound that suggests the presence of multiple instruments existing only in the mind’s eye.”

In the last few years, Brown has received some long overdue attention and praise from the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat magazine and others. But this leaves us wondering: What took you so long to catch up with Chicago Jazz Magazine?

It is a testimony to Brown and all the other musicians on these two albums that artists so capable and talented are comfortable and confident putting themselves in positions where as sidemen they are mostly supporting a colleague in the starring role on an album or live appearance.

Even with all of his decades in music, Stiernberg said in an interview with Howard Reich, regarding the recording he was a bit “reluctant to follow guitarist Brown and bassist Cox” and [did] “advise that the new album feature the trio alone, leaving him somewhat exposed.”

He added he was kind of afraid of going with just the smaller instrumentation, and that “Andy and Jim bolstered his confidence.”

Good Numbers

Don Stiernberg with Andy Brown,

Jim Cox

Don Stiernberg – Mandolin, electric

mandolin, vocals

Jim Cox – Bass

Andy Brown – Guitar

Highlights of this recording include the very first track, “There Will Never Be Another You” (Warren/Gordon) and “I Thought About You”(Van Heusen/Mercer), both of which treat us to a taste of Stiernberg’s vocal skills.

I suppose that a genuine disadvantage of having attained an almost legendary proficiency at a particular instrument, as Stiernberg has with the mandolin, is the possible tendency of some listeners to look past his other musical skills. But be warned—Stiernberg brings such a healthy dose of home- spun honesty, sincerity and warmth to his vocals that they are virtually certain to put a smile on the face of the most critical listeners. When he sings the lyrics, “I peeped through the crack/looked down the track,” you feel that you are truly right there with him.

Since Stiernberg has recently been exploring the limits of his musical courage (as by having less back up instrumentation on this album), perhaps we can really put his bravery to the test by suggesting the possibility of his doing a future recording with all vocals accompanying his mandolin wizardry.

For those of you who still misguidedly question the choice of mandolin for a jazz tune, please listen to what Stiernberg and this instrument bring to “Just One of Those Things” (Porter). Here, the mandolin “voice” almost perfectly captures the spirit of Porter’s almost too clever lyrics: “we tried/it did not work, so let’s move on.” Brown enters at about the midway point, reinforcing Cox and adding additional depth. On a well-worn standard like this, the change from the usual instrumentation can be easily appreciated.

“Invitation” (Kaper/Webster) is presented as a bit more straightforward, a shade less moody, mysterious and generally more upbeat than in some other renditions. The superb timing of Cox and Brown keep the overall effect just edgy enough to hold our interest. Stiernberg’s original “The Mayor of Swingville” (Stiernberg) gives all three musicians a chance to highlight their individual sound, yet remain part of a lively trio. This is a jazz piece written with a major mandolin contribution in mind. Whereas many of the other great tunes presented here can be successfully played on the mandolin, this one sounds as though it was actually written with the mandolin’s voice in mind.

Jodie Christian’s band used to play at Katerina’s once a month. And although I usually got there early and had dinner, as was my custom, Rusty would always get there first, finishing setting up his drums. When he was done, Rusty would sit down at a table with me and we would have dinner together. Rusty always had a hamburger prepared as rare as he could get the kitchen to serve it. He would comment on my latest article in CJM, ask me about which local musicians I had heard, and share stories with me about some of his musical experiences with the bands of George Shearing, Marian McPartland, Patricia Barber, Frank D’Rone, Judy Roberts, as well as those of dear friends Larry Novak and Marc Pompe. After I had a stroke and was living at an extended care facility not far from him, he was a regular visitor and our friendship grew.

One day, Rusty told me that he had been working in the recording studio on a very unique CD with Jim Cox and Jurek Jablonski that featured music somewhere between jazz and classical. The album was to be a showcase for the music of Jablonski, and he asked if I would be open to meeting him and discussing writing the liner notes for it. I agreed. I met Jablonski, listened to what the trio had recorded and ultimately Jazzical was the result. The heartbreaking tragedy was that soon after the completion of the recording, Rusty suddenly died from a suspected heart ailment. He is still very much missed.

The idea to combine jazz and classical music is not new. In 1961, composer Gunther Schuller described, “a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music,” to which he coined the term “Third Stream.” Purists on both sides have raised objections to the tainting of their favorite music style with the other. But according to Schuller, “by designating the music as a separate ‘Third Stream’, the other two mainstreams could go about their way unaffected by the attempts at fusion.”

Though perhaps not precisely the same, and certainly with less emphasis on stringed instruments, I feel that the musical offerings of Jablonski do share a similar mood and tone with the so-called semi-classical and extremely popular works of conductor/arranger Annunzio Paolo Mantovani—minus about a hundred members of Mantovani’s huge, legendary cascading string section, of course.


Jurek Jablonski – Piano

Rusty Jones – Drums

Jim Cox – Bass

The transitions from song to song on this recording are handled so precisely and with such pinpoint accuracy that I had to ask the artists themselves if it was accomplished with the benefit of some post- recording digital wizardry. But no—it was simply the result of painstaking practice and execution, which we can only nod our heads to and marvel at. Highlights include these brilliantly executed medleys:

Cole Porter medley: A romantic piano solo by Jablonski on “Easy To Love” leads off and sets the mood. Cox and Jones have joined in by the start of “Begin the Beguine,” and the pace quickens. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is highlighted by Jablonski’ s haunting keyboard, while “C’est Magnifique” and “I Love Paris” are briskly presented. This directly leads into Jones beginning “Night and Day” almost like a military march with Cox adding texture. Jablonski shines on “It’s All Right With Me” and finishes the medley by suggesting more than playing “It’s De-Lovely.”

Richard Rogers medley: Jablonski uses his solo on “With a Song In My Heart/Blue Moon” to introduce this medley. Jones and Cox join in on “Lady Is a Tramp” as the energy builds. Cox uses his bow to give a romantic mood to “Lover.” Jones’ snappy use of brushes gives “Manhattan” an urban feel. “My Romance,” “If I Loved You,” “Climb Every Mountain” and “My Favorite Things” (in an unusual 5/4 time) are presented with a sense of hope and optimism. Finally, Jablonski artfully combines “My Funny Valentine” with the cadence from “Leyenda” (Albeniz) to create a unique finale to this artful presentation.

Close Enough For Love medley (Mandel): Deft and articulate fingerwork enable Jablonski to extract every last nuance of subtle elegance from this romantic melody. The discerning listener can appreciate that although moody, it is never allowed to drag or sound rushed as it might in less skillful hands. The tune finishes with increasingly soft and gentle taps—almost caresses—of the keyboard that gradually fade to silence.

Jablonski added this last song to this album as a tribute to Rusty, whom he remembers attending a jam session with in the summer of 2015.

“We sat together listening to the other musicians, when pianist Larry Novak began playing a rich and inventive harmony I was unfamiliar with. It reminded me of a song from my youth when I was studying music in Poland. Rusty, with his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, knew exactly what tune it was. I will forever associate this beautiful composition and this memory with my dear friend Rusty Jones.”

And in a little while, I think I am going to relax, change clothes and go and get some dinner—I want to find a hamburger prepared as rare as I can get the kitchen to serve it.

About Randy Freedman

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

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