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Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009

Jack Grassel’s Mexican Holiday

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A day or two into his honeymoon, Milwaukee jazz guitarist Jack Grassel realized he wasn’t having a good time. It wasn’t his fault. Nor could he blame the company he was keeping, his bride, singer and longtime collaborator Jill Jensen. The problem was the antiseptic surroundings. “Cancun was a bum steer,” Grassel says. And so, in search of adventure, Grassel and Jensen set out by boat for nearby Isla Mujeres. “It’s the old Mexico,” Grassel explains, approvingly. “Nothing higher than two stories. It was like paradise.”

While eating at one of the island’s restaurants, they were treated to a performance by an agile-fingered jazz guitarist, an Argentinean called Guillermo Espinasse. “I went back to our hotel, got my guitar and sat in with him,” Grassel says. And Grassel returned to the Mexican island again and again in the months to come, sometimes gigging with Espinasse along the Riviera Maya. On one of those trips, the two guitarists recorded an album, El Refugio. The CD has just been released on Grassel’s Frozen Sky label.

El Refugio is a collection of jazz and pop standards performed as guitar duets. The opener, a mellifluous version of “Tequila,” echoes Les Paul in a jazz mood. The usually melancholy “Autumn Leaves” becomes a dexterous romp, rhythmic and propulsive, playing the melody from all sides. “These were songs we had in common. We had language and cultural barriers,” Grassel explains. “We had to pick the songs we both knew.

“Guillermo plays the whole guitar, the way I can play, with bass and chords at the same time,” he continues. “This means we can play jazz without a bassist or drummer. I’ve seldom come across a guitarist as good as Guillermo.”

Espinasse studied with Gypsy guitarist Oscar Aleman, a contemporary of Django Reinhardt, before pushing off to New York. Although he once played with Jaco Pastorius, he was defeated by the cold climate and the English language, and returned south to settle on relatively remote Isla Mujeres.

El Refugio is not the only new release on Frozen Sky. Here in Milwaukee, Grassel recently reissued one of his finest LPs on CD, a blazingly venturesome band recording called Magic Cereal, featuring serrated guitar runs Robert Fripp might envy over a hard-hitting fusion ensemble. On the live circuit, Grassel remains busy, though not at the pace of the past. “In 1982 I played 514 gigs. In 2008, only 137,” he says matter-of-factly. Opportunities for musicians to play for pay have shrunk like the polar ice since the days when Grassel sometimes worked from 9 a.m. to midnight.

Jack Grassel and Jill Jensen perform 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sept. 20 at Carleton Grange Pub’s Sunday jazz brunch, and 7-10 p.m. Sept. 25 at the HobNob in Racine.

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