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Monday, March 30, 2009

Jerry Grillo’s Sentimental Journey

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Several years ago Jerry Grillo was one of the most prolific jazz performers in town, recording no less than seven CDs from 1994 through the middle of the present decade and singing consistently in local clubs. He didn't fall silent as much as he became quieter, playing modest duets at Paddy's Pub and weddings and corporate parties with the Nick Contorno big band.

"I was content for a while not scratching around for gigs," Grillo says, explaining that his father died recently and his mother has been unwell. "It puts one in a contemplative mood," he continues. "For a while I didn't feel like doing anything."

Grillo returned recently with a new CD called Some of theBest, a digitally remastered career retrospective culled from many of his previous CDs, plus a live bonus track and an alternate take of Frankie Avalon's hit "Venus." It's the culmination of his contemplative phase.

"I started thinking of all the musicians I've worked with over all these years," he says, explaining that at one time he toyed with ideas of either a bluesy album or a disc of songs newer than his usual repertoire of Gershwin, Ellington and songs from the golden years of popular songcraft. "The project became more of a sentimental thing, more of a tribute situation. And it was easier to do."

From the get-go Grillo attracted many of Milwaukee's best jazz musicians. On electric guitar: Jack Grassel, Kirk Tatnall and Steve Peplin. Barry Velleman and Scott Currier have been heard on piano. Randy Maio, Charles McFarlan, Jeff Hamann and Tom McGirr are among the rhythm players. Milwaukee expatriate Julie Wood lent her saxophone on occasion. All are represented on Some of theBest, a set that includes edgy experimentation and straight ballads, '30s swing and '50s pop.

Although Grillo had dabbled over the years in cover bands and musical theater, he was a late bloomer as a jazz singer, tossing his hat into the bullring only after retiring from Milwaukee Public Schools. Some encouraged him to follow his star in cities where lights are brighter, but Grillo refused to leave.

"I love my house. I love the city. I'm thrilled with what's happening here-other than the winters," he explains. "There were so many negatives about moving. But the big reason was all the musicians I could work with here. I feel these people could play anywhere in the world with anybody. They are exceptional."

He pauses for a moment and adds, referring to Some of theBest, "Maybe this is the final product. I don't know if I'll actually make another CD" in a world of rampant piracy and an imploding music industry. "But I'm adding songs to my repertoire and I have the people who can play them."

Jerry Grillo performs April 3 at Paddy's Pub with Kirk Tatnall on bass and guitar, Randy Maio on drums and John Hefter on piano; and April 18 at Baby Grand with Barry Velleman.