In my previous review of another Wisconsin jazz act Clamnation, I said that the biggest fatal flaw for any local act across the country is a lack of will to expand their musical horizons that would make any local music scene unique. New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and the state of California serve as examples of how those musicians there can create sounds that will leave the listener with a sense of musical pleasure.
Once again, we revisit the Wisconsin with "Live At The Uptowner," a live collaboration between drummer Ernie Adams and guitarists Jack Grassel and Kirk Tatnall. It is on this CD that a new kind of instrument makes its way onto center stage. The instrument is called the Superax. The superax, invented by Grassel, is a guitar-like instrument which allows guitar and bass playing simultaneously without relying on a bassist or a second six stringer. Both Grassel and Tatnall play the superax on all tracks and have been perfecting and practicing this invention for years,
This live recording took place on January 22, 2002 at The Uptowner, a corner bar in Milwaukee. Both Grassel and Tatnall regularly perform there once a month. With Milwaukee native Adams, they chose this one particular night to document what could have been an important national jazz event.
"Jade Castles" starts off strong with a metallic sounding drum intro by Adams that turns heavily percussive. Grassel and Tatnall join in on their superaxes with a sound combining chords from guitar, bass and organ riffs without relying on the bassist or organist. While the solo changes are adequate, the track soon becomes too winded and soon lacks the musical fire that's supposed to overpower the ongoing chatter in the background. The mid-tempo "Song for Bill" improves with a superax guitar-like solo based on chords and notes, thought still not enough to drown out the sounds of what seemed to be a disinterested audience.
"Last Night of the Samurai" and "Mom and Dad Blues" improve the musical comraderie with Adams providing pulse pounding drum solos and Grassel and Tatnall trading tasty guitar solos and bass grooves with the latter track that reeks of a hint of George Benson's style of playing. By the time of the final track, "Noctilucent Vectors," the superaxes are going from a sinister grimy feel to an impressive wah-wah moment with frequent solo changes. Then all three musicians build the piece up to a messy acid-influenced crescendo.
This is an impressive live recording which, with the exception of the intrusive background noise, does it's best to highlight three rising musicians as well as the introduction of an outstanding guitar-like instrument. It would have served the CD a little better, though, if it had included liner notes that mentioned which parts of the superax were played by Grassel and Tatnall. But knowing that Grassel invented the instrument in the first place and that ego is a necessity for any musician, he takes most of the credit. And since it's been five years since this performance, it would be interesting to see where the superax has been to and where it's headed. That would be worth hearing.