JACK GRASSEL AND JILL JENSEN – It’s About the Music
(2006 Frozen Sky)
The husband-and-wife team of vocalist Jill Jensen and guitarist/bassist Jack Grassel has been impressing audiences in Milwaukee and the southeastern part of the state for eight-plus years. It’s a shame that no one sees fit to book them in the Madison area because this partnership is first-class. There is plenty of evidence to support that claim on the duo’s second release It’s About the Music, a sprawling, twelve-track collection of jazz and pop standards and four new Grassel compositions set to big-band arrangements, smaller bands, and even strings. Some twenty-seven musicians participated in its recording, including legendary drummer Paul Wertico, Howard Levy (Bela Fleck & the Flecktones) and Argentine guitarist Guillermo Espinasse. Six years in the making, the album follows 2000’s Seems Like Dreams. Things almost came to a tragic end in 2004 when Grassel was given a small chance of surviving a heart infection and toxic shock. His miraculous recovery and the realization of this exceptional project is a triumph.
Particularly fitting is the inclusion of Melissa Manchester & Carole Bayer-Sager’s “Come in From the Rain,” (recorded in 1975 by Manchester) a tender ballad of comfort and protection. This is a beautiful arrangement by the renowned Walt Stuart (Frank Sinatra’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” Glenn Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction”) and is graced by Levy’s soulful harmonica and Jensen’s vocals, which positively sparkle. Stuart’s big-band arrangement on the album’s opener, “Beyond the Sea” is exhilarating, and another Stuart arrangement on “Benny’s From Heaven” is fun, with Grassel expertly playing the walking bass line. The track with Espinasse, his own song “Isla Mujeres,” was recorded in Cancun, Mexico and is an exotic song, sung in Spanish by Jensen. Grassel takes liberties with “Girl From Ipanema,” both in the chord progression and by adding new lyrics and fusing it to Michael Franks’ “Lady Wants to Know.” Pat Crawford’s bass flute is hypnotic on this track. Lawrence University/Milwaukee Area Technical College instructor and musician extraordinaire Steve Peplin conducts the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s principal players on the hauntingly beautiful “Lonely Woman” to close the disc.
Grassel’s compositions range from the playful “Song for Your Mother” where he is admonished for not practicing, to the social commentary of “After Orwell,” a song featuring a sweet, extended acoustic guitar solo, spectacular drumming from Wertico, and a Georgian choir. “Gee Flat Blues” features the piano work of Dean Lee. Grassel gets the chance to stretch out on guitar as well. The deep and magnificent “It Comes with the Snow” is Grassel’s signature piece in this collection. This track is highlighted by Ann Morse-Hambrock’s harp and Rick Embach’s vibes as well as the percussion of Dane Richeson, who makes several splendid contributions to It’s About the Music.
Jensen’s voice is clear, strong, confident and rich in tone throughout this entire recording. Highly expressive, she is a rare vocal talent. She clearly holds her fellow musicians in high regard and is always mindful of the respect the standards deserve, but is also playful, and has clearly learned to express herself from a joyful center.
Enough cannot be said about the quality of It’s About the Music, which should not only easily walk away with a handful of WAMIs but should also be seriously considered for a Grammy.