By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 08, 2010 at 9:05 AM

Despite his many years on the scene, jazz guitarist and composer Steve Peplin's fine new disc, "Infinite Stairways" -- sheathed in an eye-catching 3-D sleeve -- is his debut as sole leader of a session.

"Infinite Stairways" is a fine set of straight-ahead post-bop jazz that Peplin describes as "a conservative Blue Note-style jazz record."

Peplin's sidemen on the disc include trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, drummer Sam Belton, ULU's Aaron Gardner and Marsalis alum John Price. 

Some of the many steps in Peplin's career have included performing with everyone from Mel Rhyne to Doc Severinsen, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to De La Buena.

He's also a faculty member in the jazz programs at two Wisconsin institutions of higher learning and is a major fixture on Milwaukee's sometimes under-appreciated jazz scene. He writes for Guitar One magazine and has done a number of transcription books for Milwaukee-based Hal Leonard Publishing Co.

Because we haven't profiled him before, we let Peplin give you his own version of his background before we discussed the new record. Can you give us a quick recap of the Steve Peplin story?

Steve Peplin: Sure, I'll give you the crazy version. I started out on a Muppets drumset -- with Animal on the bass drum head -- which I bought with my allowance at a rummage sale in the prison mines of Liberia (cough). Screwed around on trumpet, got kicked out of band for refusing to march, got kicked off the baseball team for having really long hair, had knee surgery and started playing guitar at 16.

I was the singer and writer for numerous rock bands. A friend told me about the MATC music program which I attended and met a very influential musician and mentor, Jack Grassel, who somehow got me into jazz which I found infinitely more rewarding and challenging than any other music.

After getting my associate degree there I went to Berklee College of Music in '94. They gave me a decent deal and I graduated with a Bachelor's in composition in '96.
Jack called me up and offered me a teaching position at MATC and I've been there since teaching guitar, composition, honor's ensemble and so forth. The program is wonderful, as I have all the freedom I require to be able to teach and get real practice in at the same time.

I am also the jazz guitar professor at Lawrence University in Appleton which is a great honor for me as that jazz program keeps winning Downbeat awards and has a great bunch of monster players/educators there. Fred Sturm is there!

I'm currently playing for 13 jazz related bands including Jamie Breiwick's Choirfight, Out for Blood with Neil Davis and Andrew Spadafora, Isiah Joshua, Ben Hans, the Scott Currier Quintet, others and of course my own groups. I'm playing around three to five gigs a week in situations where the music isn't just there for subliminal background purposes.

I'll rarely take a gig if there's a TV on while the band is playing or if the place is serving food. As Miles Davis said, "I didn't come here to eat."

OMC: Who are your biggest influences? Are you automatically more interested in jazz guitarists than other instrumentalists or not necessarily?

SP: My grandmother Lorraine was a professional organist for almost 70 years, so she had a profound effect on me.

My biggest influences are not guitar players, but musicians. Top three: (John) Coltrane, (Thelonious) Monk, McCoy Tyner. Musicians who play guitar that I like: Grant Green, Pat Martino, (Bill) Frisell, (Marc) Ribot sometimes. Oh, Joe Pass of course. I Love John Zorn, Arnold Schoenberg, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Wu-Tang Clan, Tool and, of course, Slayer.

OMC: Since it was your debut, did you feel more pressure than if it was, say, your third record?

SP: Actually, I have been involved in so much, from all these bands to teaching to composing chamber music, etc. that I decided to sort of start over with a conservative Blue Note-style jazz record under the guidance of my friend and exec producer Pancho Tomaselli who runs SOLA records in L.A.

He's also allowing me fund and record this large scale chamber symphony called "The Apology"' in which Lucifer decides to give it all up and apologize to Jehovah, etc. Symphonic composition is a real time eater.

OMC: Did you feel added pressure?

SP: This is more of a re-do debut. I feel the pressure of gravity more than any other phantom Prozac-related pressures. I think these types of pressure come from fame seekers. If I was all about that I would definitely not have chosen jazz, which isn't popular among the culturally disinclined or the those who love watching air-guitar championships and so forth. So, "no" is my labyrinthine answer.

OMC: Had you thought over the years of what your debut would sound like and look like? Does "Infinite Stairways" resemble those notions?

SP: I never really had a concrete image of what my sound was or anything like that. I was sort of an eclectic for about 15 years and just fully devoted myself as a guitarist to jazz within the last five, mainly because of the sense of creative freedom and adventure I feel from this genre. Ryan Fitzpatrick's artwork on "Infinite Stairways" exceeded my hopes as not only is the artwork fabulous -- magic and quantum physics symbology, etc. -- but it's all rendered in 3D and includes 3D glasses.

OMC: The record is a nice post-bop session that recalls great works by Kenny Burrell and other jazz guitarists. But the opener -- a solo reading of Coltrane's "Countdown" -- feels a little different. It has a different tone and seems to reach even further back to meld Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt with Trane. Did you put it up front to make a statement?

SP: Well the first jazz record I ever purchased was "Countdown" -- alternate takes from the "Giant Steps" session. True that neither Charlie Christian's nor Django's influences can be totally avoided, but "Countdown" presents a harmonic language that is far removed from the harmonic situations those guys were dealing with. I'm trying to meld Martino, Green and Trane here really, with a good dose of counterpoint, which is my obsession.

OMC: Everyone seem to lament the death of jazz in Milwaukee, but a record like "Infinite Stairways" seems to refute that notion. What's your take on the state of jazz here?

SP: Shucks, I missed the funeral. Was "smooth jazz" there as Kenny G with the Five deadly Vipers a la Kill Bill? No really, jazz is far from dead. On the contrary, I'm pleasantly surprised at it's vitality and recent surge. Bobby, no offense but that's like saying "wine is dead." Here is proof that jazz is alive and screaming in Milwaukee.

OMC: Now that you've cracked the seal and released your second "debut," will we have to wait another 15-odd years for another CD?

SP: No, I don't think so. I've got two CDs in the can with the Davis / Peplin Duo -- every first Thursday starting in June at the Jazz Estate -- and I'm working on several projects. Devin Drobka and Aaron Darrell will be on the Davis / Peplin studio album. The other was recorded at our former Lemon Lounge stint. I'm recording some Out For Blood shows at our Hi-Hat gig every other Monday. 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.