By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 12, 2004 at 5:08 AM

Jazz musician Jeno Somlai is not one to play it safe. Sure, for his debut CD, he ensured success by hiring some of the best musicians in town to record with one of the best producers at one of the best studios.

But, unlike many musicians making their recorded debuts, Somlai was not afraid to include his own tunes. In fact, his compositions make up half of "Let It Go."

And, even gutsier, Somlai, trained as a percussionist, plays piano on six of the disc's nine songs. And he's only been playing that instrument for four years!

We talked to Somlai about "Let It Go" and where you can see him and his group in Milwaukee.

OMC: Can you tell us a little about your background?

JS: I was born in Racine. I got my first drum set when I was two and started playing in bands when I was 13. After living in several different areas of the country, I moved from the East Coast to Milwaukee in 1991 and studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music under Scott Wenzel. After graduating from the conservatory I joined the faculty and began playing out in the Milwaukee area.

My first experiences with Latin jazz were playing with Luis Diaz and La Chazz. "Let It Go" is my first CD. During the past two years, I've written and arranged quite a bit of music. Going into the studio for this first CD was nice because I had about 15-20 tunes to choose from that I either wrote or arranged.

OMC: The material on the disc in interestingly diverse, with some straight-ahead jazz, some Latin jazz and even a cover of a Stevie Wonder tune. What musicians inspire you and how did you select the covers for the CD?

JS: In general, every genre of music inspires me, as long as it's honest -- as long as someone's writing from their heart. But the musicians that influence this recording are Eddie Palmieri, Brian Lynch, Batacumbele, Stevie Wonder, Cedar Walton, Luis Diaz, Mark Davis, Steve Einerson and Ricky Germanson. The covers for the CD are all tunes that I like and could hear a latin arrangement to them.

OMC: How confident were you recording as a pianist, since you've only been playing for four years? Are you pleased with the result?

JS: I was confident with my comping and my montounos. As far as being an accomplished pianist, I still have a ways to go. That was one of the reasons why I wanted Mark Davis and Steve Einerson to play on the disc, out of respect for all the great piano players I listen to. This is also another reason why I recorded the CD because the only way my piano playing is going to get better is in live situations with the group.

OMC: How did you assemble such a crack team of musicians for the sessions?

JS: I'm lucky that everybody on the CD is a friend and it just so happens that all these friends are extremely talented. This also holds true for my friend who did the design for the CD, Mike Magestro, and my mom who created the picture of the hand for the cover art.

OMC: How about recording with Mike Standal at Burst in Wauwatosa, what was that experience like for you?

JS: Awesome! Mike is an extremely talented musician, producer, writer and arranger. One of the reasons I asked him to produce the CD was because I already knew he was a great musician from playing with him and seeing him live, but I also knew he had a great set of ears from all the work he did down at Burst. Kyle White, who's the engineer on the CD, is just as talented. Being that this was my first CD, I didn't know how it would turn out and was really pleasantly surprised. I owe a lot of credit to Mike and Kyle for that.

OMC: Do you currently have any gigs? Where do you regularly play?

JS: We have a gig coming up Nov. 6 at the Jazz Estate on Murray. This session will include a salsa rhythm section, congas, timbales, bongos and no drums -- a first for the group. We will also be playing at Joe Katz's new club, The Highbury, on Oct. 28. from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m.

I really would like this group to work a lot, so I'm concentrating on getting airplay and gigs out of town. I've gotten airplay across the country so far, most recently tonight on Andy Harlow's show in Miami on WDNA 88.9.

Jeno Somlai's Web site is jenosomlai.net. A link to purchase the CD can be found there.

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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.