Review of Dean Magraw’s Unseen Rain

By Andrea Canter, Jazz Police - June 2007

“Dissolving the individual ‘I’ in the dynamic liquid
of the collective ‘us,’ a new entity is unleashed, capable
of seeking ever-higher levels of expressions unavailable to the isolated
player. You know… a band.”
–Dean Magraw

One of the most prolific and popular musicians based in the Twin Cities,
guitarist Dean Magraw is also one of the most eclectic, with a thirty-year
career spanning genres and cultures, from blues to classical to folk
and jazz, from Japanese and Indian to Celtic and middle American. His
new release, Unseen Rain, reflects his many influences, but perhaps none
more strongly than his allegience to John Coltrane.

On hearing Unseen Rain, fans of Dean Magraw’s ethereal lines,
wandering melodies and global influences will not be disappointed. Other
than two covers (John Coltrane’s “Mr. Syms” and Harold
Arlen’s “Out of This World”), the program is entirely
originals from Magraw and one co-written with bassist Jim Anton (“Plum
Blossom”). Coltrane seems to penetrate several tracks, however;
Magraw’s cryptic liner notes indicate “a respectful nod to
the John Coltrane arrangement” of “Out of This World,” as
well as a Coltrane salute on the original “Three Voices.” “Bird
in the House” suggests the bop master’s influence, while
there are threads of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern roots here and
there.

Of the 8 originals, the opening title track stands out as a 21st century
hymn with Jim’s deep, solemn bass notes, JT Bates’ soft brushes
on drums and Dean’s stately guitar, the latter conjuring a horn
in a backwoods church service. About half way along, Anton picks up the
pace with more quirky bass phrases in counterpoint to Magraw; the drums
become more assertive. It’s a showcase for Magraw’s ability
to make minor alterations that create significant impact in the guitar
passage—a longer or shorter sustain, more or less whine. Dean describes “Keep
the Faith” as “a phoenix rising from the ashes of death and
grief,” confirming this image with a dark melodic line from over
some equally dark basslines and hollow thunks from JT. Magraw picks up
the pace with some elastic fingerwork, supported by increasing percussion
activity while Anton takes off with his own dark thoughts.

“Isabella” is a brighter composition, with funky percussion
joined by equally funky strings in with an upbeat, forward motion. The
form is repetitive with a few breaks. Anton takes a deep burbling solo
placated by Dean’s chords and JT’s ever-present pulse. As
Magraw comes back with thick combinations of chords and plucked phrases,
there’s a joyous urge to hit the dance floor. There’s a similar
joyous groove on “Eva Arriving,” Magraw providing some keyboard-like
zings over the heavy beats of drum and bass. JT particularly offers a
wide range of support, throwing in a little bit of everything possible
from the drumkit. “Bird in the House” also offers a far-flung
menagerie of sound, at times making it difficult to distinguish what’s
created by strings versus percussion. On his liner notes, Dean asks “Is
it Charlie Parker swinging post mortem, or is it the young starling patiently
herded to the open glass doorway?” Perhaps it is Parker’s
ghost pushing the trio through several themes, generally snakey and sinister.
If not entirely in sync with the notes, the threesome seem to swing in
unison. When JT takes his solo, one is reminded that the audio is only
half the show with this drummer—he is always fun to watch.

The jointly penned “Plum Blossom” (by Magraw and Anton)
similarly prompts a desire for the visual, starting out like a weird
warning signal, a whine in two octaves. Dean aptly describes this track
as a “sinuous melody discovered by Jim Anton, with Dean acting
as grateful assistant.” Their conversation heats up, venturing
off into wild spaces of sound and harmony. More earthly is Magraw’s “These
Voices,” with what sounds like acoustic guitar, suggesting Joe
Pass has stopped by the studio. Notes Dean, “We can still feel
the sounds of the Great masters filtering through the light of their
discoveries and the darkness of their struggles, Viva John Coltrane!” Anton
also emotes cello-like acoustic tones, even conjuring a horn as the trio
moves through this lovely ballad with hints of Spain and lyrical shimmer. “Mali” carries
a more global, world folk music feel, featuring a duet of whiney bass
and clacky drumset.

The two covers tip the scales toward Coltrane more overtly. “Mr.
Syms” (Dean notes that “some say Coltrane wrote this blues
for his barber”) brings back a more acoustic guitar sound, but
with lots of bubble and pop thanks to Anton. Magraw nevertheless creates
a wide array of sounds as does Anton, and again I wish I had the visual
perspective on this track. Anton gives this arrangement its character
as much as Magraw and Bates give it its texture. The closing track is
an elongated (11+ minutes) arrangement of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer
classic, “Out of This World,” which Magraw notes is “interpreted
with a respectful nod to the John Coltrane arrangement as well as some
events of our accidental design.” Over the ostinato bass, the whining
electronic melody sings with horn-like tone, giving it a Middle Eastern
vibe—truly out of this world. After about five minutes, the trio
shifts orbit, entering a universe of high-pitched whistles, squeals,
and gurgles. It’s a fitting finale to a program exposing the sonic
possibilities of guitar, bass and drum in the hands of such creative
artists as Magraw, Anton and Bates.

The Musicians

Starting out on bugle, St. Paul native Dean Magraw studied classical
guitar at the University of Minnesota and Berklee College of Music in
Boston. For many years, Magraw was half of a popular partnership with
mandolin virtuoso Peter Ostroushko. Straddling jazz, folk, bluegrass
and more, he has performed with and/or recorded with Ruth McKenzie, Claudia
Schmidt and Greg Brown, among others; he has explored his Celtic heritage
performing with Celtic accordionist John Williams. Other collaborations
include Japanese shamisen prodigy Nitta Masahiro, classical violinist
Nigel Kennedy, South Indian vocalist and vina virtuoso Nirmala Rajasheker,
songstress and storyteller Ruth MacKenzie, Irish supergroup Altan, Garrison
Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and jazz bassist Anthony Cox. Magraw’s
first solo recording, Broken Silence, won the NAIRD 1994 Best Acoustic
Instrumental Album of the Year. Dean released Seventh One in 1998, the
solo album Heavy Meadow in 2004, Raven with John Williams in 2006; and
appears on Claudia Schmidt’s 2006 release, Live at the Dakota with
his quintet. Of Dean Magraw, Steve Tibbetts wrote, “It’s guitar,
but it’s so liquid, lyrical and effortless that it’s like listening to
a dancer.”

Dean’s long-time collaborator, bassist Jim Anton has a similarly
eclectic resume, including recording and touring with Steve Tibbetts,
Bradley Joseph, Jesse Johnson , Will Hale, Willie Wisely, Choying Drolma,
Peter Ostroushko, Mandy Moore, John Gorka, Joey McIntyre, Delta Goodrem,
Glen Phillips, and Jonny Lang. Locally he has also performed with Doctor
Mambo’s Combo, Greazy Meal and Chris Cunningham’s trio.

Drummer JT Bates is another fixture on the Twin Cities music scene,
an agile percussionist who is equally at home in rock, mainstream jazz
and experimental music settings. An early member of the Motion Poets,
his regular gigs these days include Fat Kid Wednesdays, Slow Skate and
the Kelly Rossum Quartet; he’s hosted a weekly jazz night at the
Clown Lounge and anchors a number of ensembles at the Minnesota Sur Seine
Festival.