It was the summer of 2012 when Jerry Grillo met pianist Joe Kral at Angelo’s Piano Lounge. Kral – trained by Willie Pickens and a veteran of clubs in Milwaukee, Chicago and New York – was sitting in for the evening’s performances, but Grillo could he was a special musician, one he'd want to work with.
"It was clear to me that he had very good training with a very good teacher," Grillo recalled. "You can hear it. The techniques. The approach to a song. The sensitivity. As a trained jazz musician myself, I can hear that, and I can sense what the combination of the piano player and myself is able to accomplish."
Grillo’s sense appears to have been correct, as the two have continued to work together over the past year. They still gig together at Angelo’s on Friday nights, as well as at other venues and events scattered throughout the city. The duo also recorded a few unreleased ballads to go along as a tribute to Elsa’s On The Park wall mural featuring the sheet music of "Stardust."
The experience of working with Kral in the studio on those tracks, combined with the pianist’s adept touch for classic ballads, inspired Grillo to create "Music Box," the local jazz legend’s latest recording project. Grillo will be celebrating the four-song ballad collection at a CD release show Friday night at the Jazz Gallery, 936 E. Center St.
The idea of releasing an album of ballads may come as an intriguing contrast to a music industry currently emphasizing energetic singles and poppy, catchy hooks. For Grillo and Kral, however, this is the music they wanted to do.
"We both like them so much," Grillo said. "All songs are written for a reason and with a message, but there are certain ballads that are written which have much more meaning to them than, say, an uptempo jazz or swing tune. We picked songs that have a lot to say, lyrically and musically."
Among the four songs included on the disc are "Always On My Mind," "Some Other Time" and "Blame It On My Youth." That last song, an ode to loves lost at a young age – performed by the likes of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra – is Grillo’s personal favorite of the four, but they all have a timeless quality that speaks to all audiences.
"The lyrics and what they say to people about relationships and feelings are all things involved with the human experience," Grillo said. "They’re universal. The song is going to last forever because every generation that hears that song is going to identify with it. And that’s not so true with songs written today."
Of course, that didn’t stop Grillo from trying. Completing the four-song set is "Lonely," featuring lyrics written by Grillo and music by Roe Fosco. A friend of his wrote the melody after her father passed away and let Grillo write his own lyrics for the song. What he ended up with was a love song about loneliness, emptiness and relationships ending for any variety of reasons.
"It’s a break-up song and all about loss, but it’s not really depressing," Grillo said. "None of these ballads are depressing. For me, ballads can be uplifting because they have messages that can help ease the pain."
He recorded it previously with a jazz trio with a more Latin tempo, but he wanted to give the song another, slower try with Kral. In fact, that’s what Grillo is attempting to do with the entirety of "Music Box": slowing down the songs in the hopes of making the meaning come out more.
"We did these at a very slow tempo so the lyrics could be totally understood," Grill said. "Because of the way (Kral) plays them and the way we interpret our feelings through the songs, that’s basically why I called it ‘Music Box,’" Grillo said.
"To me, that’s what it sounds like. Well, a music box that lasts a half hour. To me, it’s a similar feeling of sitting back, letting that music play, listening to it and letting your feelings go. People don’t do enough of that today in my opinion."
It’s an interesting and "meditative" direction for the local jazz icon’s latest recording, as well as possibly his last. No worries, local jazz fans: While touring and travelling the country have lost their appeal to Grillo, he still loves to perform and would even like to hop back into musical theater (he’s previously done "Cabaret," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Fantasticks"), possibly even to rejuvenate his cabaret show "Jerry Sings Broadway."
As for recording, though, his time is likely done. Probably.
"I think I’ve said what I pretty much have to say musically," Grillo said. "I’ve pretty much recorded the songs that I love the most. Each CD has songs that I’ve always wanted to sing. Sure, there are other songs that I do sing that I’ve never recorded that I love very much, but I’m not going go out and record them. "Music Box" will be the last CD I do, other than if I write all of my own songs. If I write all of my own songs, I’ll do another one."
Jerry Grillo and Joe Kral will be performing Friday, Nov. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Jazz Gallery with special guest Maddie Dietrich. The cover charge is $5, and copies of "Music Box," along with the rest of Grillo’s catalog, will be sold for $10.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.