By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Oct 10, 2006 at 5:21 AM
Oddly enough, ever since Milwaukee musician Ethan Keller officially went solo, his music's been more collaborative than ever.

Some might remember him from his days in jam outfit Greenscene -- a band he started at age 16 and fronted through 2003. Others may have caught a glimpse of his freestyle at Linneman's open mic nights in between pizza deliveries in Riverwest, or even his occasional sit-in in with The Estate jazz staple, The Erotic Adventures of the Static Chicken.

Now, at age 27, Keller is diving head first into new musical territory, but not without taking some of his talented friends along for the ride.

"Honestly, I do love to team up with other writers -- it's exhilarating and beats writing alone," he says. "When I play a show, I hire players for their unique gifts. I love to see how people interpret some shell of a song structure I throw at them; in fact, I live for it. My infatuation with jazz lets me enjoy the rawness of improvisation and spur of the moment ideas. The real difference between now and then is that Greenscene wasn't the right storefront to display new emotions, lyrics and ideas. I consciously chose to take a new road."

His solo debut, "Face Light," is an optimistic and funk-filled ride through poetic exploration, religious inquiry and meandering guitars, and although his immediate influences are obvious -- Steely Dan, G. Love & Special Sauce, Yes, even sounding a bit like Lenny Kravitz on "Christopher's Sister" -- there is no way to commit the collection of 12 tracks to any specific genre of music.

Teaming up with a pool of local talent, including The Westfall's Kris Crow on organ and electric piano, Jeremy Kuzniar on drums, Jesse Sheehan on saxophone and Matt Turner on electric and upright base, "Face Light" flows fluidly from groovy, scat tracks to soulful rock songs, never faltering or losing sight of Keller's inherent sense of his own style.

"I think I've gotten more sophisticated with music and lyrics. Not only digging deeper into music theory and jazz, but also deeper into real poetry and raw emotion. However, I'm always looking back to when I first started writing. I always try and revisit my old mentality when it was more about simplicity. I'm even going to try and record a bunch of old songs of mine, because I still think there's something good and genuine about those youthful ideas."

Keller says that there were several things about his childhood that have influenced his songwriting evolution, a major one being that his father was a Catholic priest and his mother a nun, both of whom left their respective orders to start a family -- so it's not surprising that his music is dotted with religious references, and when he pens songs like, "Papa, Please Write Me a Sermon," he's not being metaphorical in the least.

"I was the apple that fell furthest from the tree, but now I've come back to the church," he says. "I even sing in the choir with my dad. It was a slow, careful, logical journey back. 'Face Light' has songs written at the beginning of that journey through last year, and has a general 'awakening' theme."

"Face Light" is out now and available via his Web site (see link below). Keller plays a show with Momentary at Maharaja, 1550 N. Farwell Ave., Friday, Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. It's $7 at the door.
Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”