Dean Magraw, Musical Explorer

by Pamela Espeland · · November 14, 2008

How many Dean Magraws are there, anyway? There’s Dean Magraw the jazz cat. Dean Magraw the folkie. The rock star. Front-porch bluegrass picker. Bluesman. Celtic bard. World music man.

As MPR’s Euan Kerr has said, “Dean plays everything.”

“I view the so-called different styles of music as one big family of sound,” Magraw says. “Those little bins in the record store, the categories, they don’t do justice to the similarities between so-called different styles. … I don’t see them as separate, at war, superior, inferior, but as part of a continuum of us humans putting vibrations into the air, sharing that kind of healing energy, joy, safe and healthy expression of every emotion available.”

Dean Magraw, philosopher-shaman.

This weekend, Nov. 14-15, he brings his organ trio to the Artists’ Quarter for two nights of musical exploration. The trio is Magraw on guitar, Mikkel Romstad on Hammond B-3, and Kenny Horst on drums. It was formed during the Republican National Convention in September, when AQ owner Horst asked Magraw to play a night at his club and the other members of Magraw’s regular trio (bassist Jim Anton and drummer J.T. Bates) were unavailable.

Guitar and B-3 are a classic jazz pairing (John Scofield/Larry Goldings, Kenny Burrell/Jimmy Smith, Paul Bollenback/Joey DeFrancesco), and this isn’t the first time Magraw has explored it. In the mid-1980s, he was part of a foursome called Organ Grinder with Romstad, Horst, and Gary Berg on saxophones.

From bugle to guitar

Born in Minneapolis, Magraw grew up in St. Paul and began his music studies on bugle. He switched to trumpet, then discovered the guitar at age 13. “I went to a friend’s house to coax him to come outside. He was practicing guitar and said, ‘You gotta try this.’ He taught me the opening riff to ’19th Nervous Breakdown.’ From that moment, I was hooked.”

Magraw studied at the University of Minnesota and Berklee College of Music in Boston. He spent five years in Beantown, playing professionally and teaching. It never felt like home, so he returned to St. Paul and has lived here ever since, making a life of music – playing, composing, arranging, producing – and raising a family.

Magraw’s music is impossible to pigeonhole. For 15 years, he was half of a duo with mandolinist Peter Ostroushko. He has collaborated with Masahiro Nitta, who plays the traditional Japanese shamisen (three-stringed instrument); with Nigel Kennedy, Britain’s bad boy of the classical violin; with Nirmala Rajasekar, South Indian vocalist and player of the vina (a south Indian stringed instrument); with the singers Ruth MacKenzie and Claudia Schmidt; with the Irish supergroup Altan.

As a jazz cat, he leads his own trio and a quintet, performs with Red Planet and Shovel, and recently started a still unnamed trio with drummer and percussionist Jay Epstein and saxophonist Brandon Wozniak.

He plays and records with the rock’n’reel punk-folk group Boiled in Lead. He has released an album, “Raven” (2006), with Celtic multiinstrumentalist John Williams, and has recorded another with Hungarian guitarist Sándor Szabó that he hopes will be out soon. “It’s a cool improvisational recording,” Magraw says. “Sounds kind of like Bartók to me.”

‘Unmistakably Dean’

If you’re not familiar with Magraw, you may wonder how one person can play so many different kinds of music without being superficial. If you’ve seen him live or heard his recordings, you know that’s not a problem. The sounds that come from his guitar (most often a white Stratocaster; at the AQ, he’ll play a big Gibson L-5) are dreamy and down-to-earth, spacious and tight, hushed and wailing, stately and playful — sometimes all on the same night, or within the same tune.

After seeing Magraw at the Cedar in March, Joe Lang wrote: “The thing about Magraw is that he is capable of sitting in with most players, and adapting rather than assimilating to the session — which means that Magraw can fit in with almost anyone, but it’s always unmistakably Dean.”

As I write this, I’m listening to two recent Dean Magraw CDs: “Foxfire” (2008), a collection of solo guitar compositions, and “Unseen Rain” (2007), recorded with his regular trio. Two very different albums, both very Dean.

“Foxfire” includes a shimmering Carnatic reading of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” (Carnatic music is the classical music of southern India.) See and hear him play it here. “Unseen Rain” includes a jazzy version of Coltrane’s “Mr. Syms.”

Magraw loves Coltrane.

“In high school I did a report on jazz and started to collect records from friends. One had an aunt who had [Coltrane’s] ‘A Love Supreme.’ I was completely taken in by it. The atmosphere and the mood were all-engulfing. I was completely in that world as soon as those sounds started.”

What to expect at the AQ shows

At the AQ, we’ll probably hear “Mr. Syms” and more originals and arrangements by Coltrane. Magraw also promises “some of the traditional repertoire of the organ trio. Hopefully ‘Back at the Chicken Shack,’ the Jimmy Smith classic.”

On stage, he’s enormously entertaining. Experimental guitarist Steve Tibbetts has said that listening to Magraw’s music is “like listening to a dancer.” Watching him perform, it’s clear that he’s doing exactly what he wants to do. He exudes antic joy. When something makes him happy, and many things do, he punches the air and shouts “Wooooo!” His shirts are famously wild. Lately he favors a blood-red button-up.

If the Hammond B-3 isn’t your thing, you can catch Magraw at the Kitty Cat Klub Dec. 16 with his new unnamed trio. Or before then on Dec. 13 at the Cedar with John Williams. “What I’m doing in concert and the studio changes so often there’s no regularity, no abiding thread,” he says. “But I tend to have musical colleagues who are very open-minded.”

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