|“...so many moods and colors on Definition, their crowning achievement to date in a career that spans four decades.”
- Bill Milkowski
Contributor to Down Beat and Jazziz. He is also the author of “JACO: The Extraordinaryand Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” and co-author of “Here And Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino” (both on Backbeat Books)
|Celebrating 35 years of recording and performing together the midwest based jazz band OPUS continues to define it’s roots in jazz, with it’s latest release “Definition”, a collection of eleven original compositions showing the quintet’s continued growth, versatility, and musical depth.
As individuals, OPUS members are artists in their own right. Guitarist Steve Lewandowski is a solo as well as freelance artist and has earned the respect of colleagues and fans alike as a passionate and intelligent composer/musician. Jim Sodke is in demand as a multi-keyboardist/conductor in the Milwaukee/Chicago area whose original compositions have been heard and performed internationally. Saxophone and flutist Curt Hanrahan is a recording and solo artist and music educator ??with three solo CDs Blujazz label. Larry Tresp works as a freelance bassist in the Milwaukee/Chicago area. Brian Ford is also in demand as a freelance drummer and Latin percussionist, performing regionally at concerts and clubs, and is published, with a full curriculum of instructional materials for drums and percussion.
As a collective, OPUS is a Midwest icon of straight-ahead and fusion jazz. The band has a long history of club, festival, and college performances, and was featured in 1980 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In 2013, OPUS premiered three works for orchestra and jazz quintet with the Racine Symphony Orchestra. The band has shared the stage with musical luminaries such as Freddie Hubbard, Spyro Gyra, Bill Bruford, Dizzy Gillespie, Pat Metheny, and many others.
From saxophonist Curt Hanrahan’s bluesy “Seattle”, to keyboardist Jim Sodke’s colorful “Pastels”, to guitarist Steve Lewandowski’s flowing “Definition”, the listener is led through a surprising variety of jazz styles, with bassist Larry Tresp and percussionist Brian Ford keeping the grooves tight and rolling throughout. There is enough contained here to satisfy anyone’s musical palette!.
From the liner notes of the OPUS Defination:
Back in fusion’s golden age, during the mid ‘70s, there were bands in cities all across the country emulating the sounds of Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Tony Williams’ Lifetime and Return To Forever. Blending rock and jazz into this exciting new hybrid was the thing to do back then. And in Milwaukee, where I came of age musically, there was no shortage of bands pursuing that fusion muse. Guitarist Daryl Stuermer (of Jean Luc-Ponty and Genesis fame) was showcasing his virtuosic fretboard facility with Sweetbottom in their weekly residency at The Bull Ring. And there were other Milwaukee bands I admired in fusion’s heyday, but none more than OPUS. I remember seeing them at the Kenwood Inn on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus and was immediately impressed that they had incorporated tunes from Jaco Pastorius’ groundbreaking, self-titled 1976 solo debut. I continued to follow OPUS at their various gigs around town until I finally left for New York in 1980.
Which brings us to now. Thirty-five years and seemingly three or more lifetimes later, our paths cross again. Miraculously, the original band -- guitarist Steve Lewandowski, keyboardist Jim Sodke, saxophonist Curt Hanrahan, bassist Larry Tresp and drummer Brian Ford -- is still intact and sounding better than I remembered them. “We’ve gotten older and wiser and more settled,” says Lewandowski of his OPUS bandmates. “I hear more relaxed playing, I hear more mature playing, I hear more influences coming out. And I hear more definition in everybody’s playing.” All of which makes this a very appropriate album title.
Playing a Gibson Super 400, Lewandowski delivers warm-toned elegance on the opener, his title track to Definition, which he explains began as a jazz waltz and morphed into a straight 6/4 arrangement during rehearsals for this recording session. Hanrahan plays unisons on flute alongside Lewandowski’s guitar through the appealing head before each of the principal soloists gets a chance to stretch on this upbeat Metheny-esque number. Drummer Ford also gets a solo taste at the tag and takes full advantage.
Shifting gears from buoyant to burning, Lewandowski next reveals a decided Pat Martino influence on his uptempo organ-fueled romp, “Ultra Blue.” As he says, “Every time Pat Martino comes through the Showcase in Chicago I go to see him because he’s one of my heroes.” Sodke’s organ solo here is right in that spirit of early ‘60s organ groups. And catch Lewandowski’s heated exchanges with Hanrahan’s soprano sax at the end of this exhilarating jam.
Sodke switches to piano for his gentle “Pastels,” a reflective minor key number that has Hanrahan pushing the harmonic envelope on soprano sax against Sodke’s spacious accompaniment and also features Lewandowski exploring some darker terrain in his solo.
Lewandowski breaks out his Wes Montgomery octaves on the mellow groover “Jocko (The Monkey).” Says the guitarist, “That whole early ‘60s scene with Wes, Pat Martino, George Benson and Grant Green is something that I’ve come to love.” Hanrahan also turns in some bold tenor work on this Latin-tinged number.
Shifting gears once again, they head into a kind of gospel-ish vibe on Hanrahan’s “Seattle,” which has Lewandowski shifting to a Gibson ES-347 for a more stinging bluesy effect on his solo. Hanrahan’s old school tenor playing is also prominently featured on this soulful number. Lewandowski’s other Latin-tinged number, “In a Dream,” is another that showcases his fondness for octaves. Hanrahan switches to flute here. Hanrahan, Lewandowski and Sodke all turn in outstanding solos here.
Hanrahan’s two other compositions on Definition, “Santa Fe” and “Imp,” are stylistically polar opposites. While “Santa Fe” opens with solo guitar and courts a more spacious, open-ended, ECM-ish vibe, featuring a probing soprano sax solo along the way, “Imp” is a more tightly-wrapped number brimming with difficult, angular unisons on the head before giving way to unbridled swing. All the soloists thrive on this post-bop riff, particularly Hanrahan, who kills on his baritone sax solo.
Lewandowski’s beautiful ballad “Azure Blue” opens with Tresp’s bowed melodic bass line against Sodke’s sparse chords and Ford’s gentle brushwork. The piece proceeds patiently on the strength of the guitarist’s profound restraint, sounding as deep and dark and alluring as his hero Pat Martino playing “‘Round Midnight.” Once again shifting moods, Lewandowski joins with Hanrahan’s flute on the buoyant head to “Coqui,” a tune inspired by the sound of the indigenous frogs of Puerto Rico. Sodke gives this number a wholly different texture with his Fender Rhodes playing and also delivers an ebullient solo on that electric keyboard. Tresp also turns in a nimble electric bass solo on this feel-good number.
The eclectic collection closes with Sodke’s “No Time For Tears,” a kind of resting place for OPUS to land after traveling through so many moods and colors on Definition, their crowning achievement to date in a career that spans four decades.