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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.

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