Chapter 18 Fox Valley

Chapter 18

The Fox Valley

When I talked with my long-time friend John Harmon about albums that were important to him, I told him that I was personally going to put on the list his solo album (Rite of Passage, Stellar Records, 2001).  He replied that “I would put that in there, frankly, just because of a . . . couple of items in there I’m still pretty proud of.  But . . . the two Matrix albums that . . . I can’t say two; every damned one was so influential and powerful in my judgment in terms of . . . I mean much of that stuff had some of my personality stamped on it, just because the pieces were mine, but . . . we all know that every piece that was brought to the band was usually snipped and cut . . . I think that our whole body of Matrix recorded material is very special American music.  And it’s the most unique of its kind in the annals of all recorded jazz music.”  He spoke at considerable length about how the band put together those recordings, Matrix IX (RCA, 1977), Wizard (Warner Brothers, 1978), Tale of the Whale (Warner Brothers, 1979) and Harvest (Pablo, 1980).  Information about their availability is listed in the discography of Chapter 12.  When I pressed him about other records he has made, he confessed to being found of his duo album with Janet Planet, More Beautiful Than Planned (1995, on Stellar Records) (see below).

I would add that in 2017, John cut and released another solo album, From the Child Within (private release).  And in 2018, John and Janet released another lovely duo album (Da Capo, Stellar), although they are assisted by others on some of the tunes.  All of the compositions are Harmon originals; he wrote the lyrics for most of them, with Janet writing the lyrics for the remainder.


Zach Harmon had a minor part on Terence Blanchard’s album, A Tale of God’s Will (Requiem for Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007).  He had much more important contributions drumming on the 2009 Fresh Sound album of pianist Romain Collin, The Rise and Fall of Pipokuhn (which also includes Wisconsin bassist Joe Sanders), and on vocalist Sara Gazarek’s Blossom & Bee (Palmetto, 2012).  Zach has a supporting role on the John Harmon-Janet Planet 2018 release Da Capo (Stellar).


When I asked Janet Planet about what albums were important to her or were important in the development of her career, she immediately mentioned the intimate duo album with the superb pianist and her long-time collaborator John Harmon, More Beautiful Than Planned (1995).  (Another release by the two appeared in 2018, Da Capo.)  She was also quick to mention Passion from the Wreckage (2002), an album of songs associated with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, for voice and saxophone quartet (with saxophone work from Tom Washatka and Woody Mankowski).  She also chose her two latest albums, which she described as the “produced” ones – Of Thee I Sing, a collection of songs about places in the United States, and Janet Planet Sings the Bob Dylan SongbookOf Thee I Sing finds her in the company of her long-time collaborators, John Harmon, bassist John Gibson, Tom Washatka, guitarist Tom Theabo and drummer Danny Lueck, performing some lovely renditions of well-known and obscure songs.  The Dylan collection is more plaintive on the less complex (melodically and harmonically) Dylan songs from the ‘60s; Theabo’s guitar is prominent.  A somewhat surprising choice was the pop album she recorded for Gerard in the 1990s.  The next day she emailed me and said that since that wasn’t even a jazz album that maybe it shouldn’t be on the list and should be replaced with her intimate duo album with Tom Theabo, The Consequence of Two (2000), as that musical relationship and sound had been so important to her for so long.  All of Janet’s albums are on her label, Stellar Records.


Tom Washatka had only released one album as leader when I spoke with him.  1999’s Easy to Love features excellent Wisconsin musicians – pianists Matt Turner and Matt Buchman, drummer Ryan Korb and bassist Chuck Ledvina – playing recast standards and originals by Washatka and John Harmon.  Wisconsin native Scott Pingel, now principal string bassist with the San Francisco, and guitarist Tom Theabo also are featured on duets with Washatka.  But Tom is also an important contributor to other albums.  On both Matrix’s Proud Flesh (Summit, 2002) and Madisalsa’s Del Caribe al Corzón he plays several powerful, characteristic solos.  On his wife Janet Planet’s Passion from the Wreckage, an album of songs associated with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, for voice and saxophone quartet, Tom contributed two fine arrangements, and he and Woody Mankowski played all of the parts on the four-saxophone format of the album, including some short solo spots.  He is a major player on Janet’s Of Thee I Sing, and arranged roughly half the selections on her Bob Dylan Songbook, Vol. 1.  In 2013, Tom cut an album KWT4 of funky jazz tunes with his old band mates from Fire and Ice Tom Theabo and Tony Taylor, as well as bassist Kevin Wells.


John Gibson was on the Fire and Ice albums Island Dancer and Sweet Thunder.  He has been on a number of Janet Planet’s albums.  (Gibson has a supporting role on the John Harmon-Janet Planet 2018 release Da Capo (Stellar).)  He has also been on the albums of a number of singer-songwriters, including L.J. Booth, Jamie Lynn Fletcher, Helen Exner, and Rändi Fay.  He has also been on the albums of guitarists Tom Theabo (A Fine Sample) and Ricardo Vogt (A Place in Your Memory), and violinist Randy Sabien’s The Sounds of Fish Dreaming (see Chapter 19).  Gibson likes best his contributions to the 1995 Klavier album An Evening of Jazz With the John Harmon Trio (on which Gibson and drummer Dane Richeson are not credited), and Christine Salerno (see below) and Ziji’s 711.


Chris Swansen’s recording career was quite varied.  An album recorded in 1962, Who Is Gary Burton?, with the teenager who had just burst on the scene as a major force on jazz vibraphone, features several nice Swansen valve trombone solos, in the company of such veterans as Clark Terry and Phil Woods.  This RCA LP was finally released on CD (Essential Jazz Classics) in 2013.  One can find recorded Stan Kenton concerts that included Swansen.  However, none of these were released when they were made, and Swansen is but a member of the band, not a featured soloist.  Swansen conducted the large orchestra for Phil Woods’s 1969 Verve album Round Trip.  Swansen’s two synthesizer albums from the mid-1970s are not jazz albums, but they frequently do have a jazz sensibility.  They are also interesting artifacts from the early days of synthesizer music, with Swansen originals and music ranging from Bach to Mick Jagger.  Pulaski Highway and Album II have been released on a single CD on the Creel Pone label.  Swansen’s two albums from 1979 and 1984 with Phil Woods are straight-ahead jazz albums, with Phil’s working quartet, with Swansen’s synthesizers layered on top, often like a big band horn section.  Crazy Horse features mostly the music of Swansen, with a couple of standards and jazz tunes.  Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was nominated for a Grammy award, if mostly bebop tunes, and Charlie Parker’s daughter Kim sings on several tracks.  The Sea Breeze LP was released on CD just two year after its LP release (Rykodisc).  Sweet Thunder, which was released under Janet Planet’s name and featured the Fire and Ice band of the period (Swansen, Tom Washatka, John Harmon, Tom Theabo, John Gibson and Tony Taylor) was recorded on LP for Sea Breeze in 1986.


Dane Richeson has played on quite a few albums, by a variety of artists.  Here are ones that he mentioned to me as “favorites” when we visited in 2011.  “I think some of the Ken Schaphorst CDs that I played [on].  There’s the big band one that was in New York, called Purple (Naxos, 1998).  I thought there was some nice playing on that.  And his first one that he produced from LU called When the Moon Jumps (1994, Accurate Records).  And that’s with Medeski, Martin and Wood, and also with Donny McCaslin . . . It’s a really nice record.  I was happy with the playing.  And Billy [Martin] and I kind of divided up the drumming.”  About the records he made with vocalist Jackie Allen (see Chapter 13), he said, “Jackie’s stuff is pretty highly produced, and, but I did all the drumming and percussion, and marimba, I mean I played a [lot] . . . We recorded a couple of those in some [of the] big studios in Chicago, so I just unloaded a van full of everything; you know, a marimba and congas and just everything.  And then it’s a matter of creating, orchestrating all of the percussion and stuff.  And I thought that her record, that first one actually, The Men in My Life (A440 Music, 2003), I thought had some nice stuff on it.”  Incidentally, on Allen’s one major label release, Tangled (Blue Note, 2006), Richeson was accidently left out of the credits, although he plays drums throughout.  Richeson finally self-released an album under his leadership in 2013, Maxim Confit.  In the notes to the album, Richeson wrote:  “Maxim Confit is a mix of jazz and world music influences that features renown artists such as David Liebman—saxophone, Joe Locke–vibes/marimba, Jamey Haddad–drums/percussion, Bill Carrothers–piano, Vic Juris—guitar, Michael Spiro–percussion.”  Besides Bill Carrothers, Richeson’s other Lawrence colleagues José Encarnacion, Mark Urness and Matt Turner (see Chapter 19) are also on the album, as is Wisconsin musician Woody Mankowski.


Brad Curran can be heard on two releases by the Fox Valley’s Big Band Reunion.  Frank’s Place (1999, Stellar) features vocalist Janet Planet; Curran has a couple of solos.  He also solos on the band’s 2005 self-release One for Jeannie.  Curran is prominent on the Mohawk Avenue Jazz Band’s 2009 self-release, Bootleg Copy.


Christine Salerno recorded two albums with her band Ziji:  Blumen (1995) and 711 (no date listed).  Other players mentioned in this chapter who appear on one or both of these albums include Dane Richeson, John Gibson, Dave Sullivan, Woody Mankowski (on vocals) and John Salerno.  Prominent saxophonist/flutist Nelson Rangell is a guest on both albums; guest celebrity musicians on 711 are harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy and guitarist Chuck Loeb.


Dave Sullivan plays guitar on the Chuck Hedges albums Sweet and Lovely and Just for You (see Chapter 10 discography), Just Jammin‘ (Arbors, 2002) (all of these with the Milwaukee Connection) and the Chuck Hedges Swingtet Chicago Live (Recorded live at Fitzgerald’s), from 2005 (Voltaire).


Marty Robinson released an album with bassist Bill Grimes in 2002.  Standards – Volume One is just what it says – great tunes (some not nearly as well known as others).  The quartet is filled out by drummer Troy Davis and the distinguished Reggie Thomas on piano.


Fred Sturm recorded several albums with his bands at Lawrence University.  The hr Big Band of Cologne, Germany recorded two albums of Fred’s inventive big band arrangements on their label:  ¡Libertango!  Homage an Astor Piazzolla (2001) and Do It Again – hr Big Band Plays Three Decades Of Steely Dan (2003).

I regret that in the book I did not mention that one of Fred’s arrangements for Phil Woods (a smoking chart on Woods’s “All Bird’s Children”) was released on Woods’s album Celebration! (Concord, 1997); the album was nominated for a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance.