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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Paul Spencer’s Groovy Jazz

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Jazz shouldn’t be this good anymore. At a time when many conservatory trained musicians have reduced a great American art form to a noodling string of solos held together on a fragile string of familiar melody, Paul Spencer has produced a contemporary big-band album showcasing many styles and moods. The solos emerge organically from a crack ensemble playing in a steady groove.

A heavy share of the credit for the Paul Spencer Band’s self-released CD, Level Groove, goes to guitarist Steve Lewandowski. He composed all nine pieces, whose sources range widely from throbbing Latin to easygoing echoes of New Orleans, from the sunny melodic side of hard bop to the genre’s faster and knottier edge. Level Groove is the sort of emotive yet carefully shaped musical cycle that Gil Evans once composed.

Spencer, a drummer with nine previous CDs on his rsum, takes charge of the rhythm arrangements for Lewandowski’s compositions. Trumpeter Jeff Pietrangelo arranged the brass and woodwinds. Remarkably, Level Groove is a live album recorded at two of Spencer’s favorite venues, Caroline’s Jazz Club and Potawatomi Bingo’s Northern Lights Theater. Spencer describes Lewandowski, whose day job is teaching math for MPS, as “receptive to letting his ideas develop.

Once we have the arrangements, we play it and play it and it develops. Level Groove

was recorded two years ago. If we could record it again after two more years of playing the material, it would be different.” Spencer’s prolific career as a producer of a string of CDs, each different and many of them thematic, is a way of honoring veteran players with whom he has performed. Saxophonist Berkeley Fudge plays on Level Groove. Many of his band members have accumulated decades of stage experience and performed with such greats as Count Basie and Nancy Wilson. “It’s been a cross-section of Milwaukee jazz,” he says of his lineups.

One of Spencer’s discs paired octogenarian clarinetist Joe Aaron with his son, Rick, for their first-ever recording session together. For big shows at the Pabst and Northern Lights, Spencer has drawn audiences numbering in the hundreds.

But he is concerned, especially with the loss of Milwaukee’s jazz radio station, that younger generations aren’t being sufficiently exposed to the music. “What I do when I see a young crowd is bring the music to their level,” he explains.

“Hard bop, Latin jazz, anything with a groove. If you get them interested, they stay. If they like what they hear, they might want to go deeper.” The Paul Spencer Band performs 7:30 p.m., Feb. 8, at UW-Washington County in West Bend; and 9:30 p.m., Feb. 9, at Caroline’s Jazz Club.