Craig Brenner – Passages
Craig Brenner is a Bloomington, Indiana based piano player, teacher and musician. His website tells us: “Craig is a blues, boogie woogie, and jazz pianist, composer, teacher, and recipient of numerous arts grants. Craig leads Craig Brenner & The Crawdads, is a member of The Ragin’ Texans, and has produced seven CDs. He is the founder of Bloomington Boogies: The Bloomington Blues & Boogie Woogie Piano Festival.” He has appeared with Bo Didley and opened for the likes of B. B. King, C. J. Chenier, Queen Ida, Buckwheat Zydeco, Gary Burton, Richard Thompson, Wayne Toups, Honeyboy Edwards, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, the Radiators, Duke Robillard, Jimmy Rogers, and Terrance Simien, and many more. I had heard of him before but never have seen or heard him live or on a recording before. Fortunately, that is no longer the case.
Brenner handles piano here and adds a little organ and vocals. For most of the album Dan Hostetler is on drums, Ron Kadish is on double bass, Joe Donnelly is on baritone sax and Gordon Bonham is on electric guitar. Merill Garbus is the vocalist, Craig’s son Nate appears on electric bass for three cuts, and Dena El Saffar handles the strings on the next to last cut. The final cut’s players are included below as they are a mostly different group.
The album begins with a pretty jazz piece entitled “Life Is Precious.” Featuring Brenner on piano along with drums and double bass, the cut has a bit of a lilting feeling and expresses hope and feelings about what the title describes. Next is “Tut’s Boogie Woogie,” and here are added baritone sax and electric guitar. The piano is predominant, but sax and guitar get their time soloing and do an admirable job. A mid-tempo boogie woogie, the band is tight and offers a thoughtful cut for the listener to enjoy.
We’re back to the trio with added vocals by Merrill Garbus on “No One Should Die Alone.” Brenner’s son Nate handles the bass here and on the next cut. A somber song, with ethereal vocals and restrained but cool piano. The lyrics describe what no one should have to do, which is pass from this world by themselves. “Spring Is Near” adds trumpet to the last song’s protagonists. The cut opens with some pretty horn work and then Grabus returns with some passionate lyrical efforts about the burgeoning of Spring. Brenner then offers up some equally thoughtfully delivered piano and works into a bouncy and slightly rollicking groove to fit the mood. Quass takes over on his horn for a great solo and then he, Garbus, and Brenner take us home to complete a really nice jazz number.
Brenner gets into some straight up blues with “Some Sexy Blues For Ya Right Here, Y’All.” The backline, he, double bass and baritone make up the players here. The cut begins with some slick piano work; the sax then gets it’s turn to solo and lays out some nice slow blues. The guitar then enters the mix and gives us it’s musical take on the piece. Brenner then takes over, jazzing up the slow blues a bit. The guitar returns for more thoughtful licks before Brenner completes the number for us. Sweetly done! It’s back to boogie time with “Paradiddle Boogie Woogie.” Merriam Webster defines paradiddle as, “a quick succession of drumbeats slower than a roll and alternating left- and right-hand strokes in a typical L-R-L-L, R-L-R-R pattern.” No bass here, but otherwise the lineup is the same as the last cut. Hostetler sets the pace throughout as piano, drums and baritone sax share fronting the group and playing together in this fast paced and fun boogie.
The next cut offers up a completely different approach, sound and style. It is a mix of viola and violin in a classical piece with a sacred feel to it and it is called “For My Brother.” The strings are beautifully played and overlayed with each other. This solemn cut is really well done and was all performed by Dena El Saffar. The album concludes with what I’d have to call techno reggae, entitled “Looking For A Job.” The song bemoans, “I send my resume here, I send my resume there,” with the frustration of looking for a job with a very unsuccessful feeling to the result. Here the ensemble varies from the rest of the album. Brenner and his wife Lori do the vocals, and he adds organ and piano here. Nate Brenner is on bass, synthesizer and other effects, Tim Brookshire is on drums, and Mike Baker is on guitar. Joe Donnelly adds his baritone sax again while Jake Beisar on alto sax and Dave Pavolka appears on trombone to round out the horn section. Synthesized reggae with an ultra-slow beat with layers of organ, horns, piano synth and sounds. It’s interesting and fun.
Brenner is a talented musician and songwriter. He composed and arranged all eight cuts in this CD which he calls a reflection of his past two years of life. Our world is small; it turns out Craig has often played at my wife’s nephew’s distillery in Bloomington and his step-daughter worked there. That’s far less than the proverbial six degrees of separation. I can’t wait to catch up with Craig and get to see and hear him play live. In the meantime, I can listen to his recordings. I’ll be stocking up on the other albums soon- this is really good stuff with an eclectic mix of styles and genres to enjoy. I highly recommend checking him out!