Lucky Break: The Debut of Jerry Wicentowski
By Rod Moag
One of several things that makes this album stand out is the fact that all the big names on it are sidemen, while the featured vocalist is a relative unknown, unknown unless you were one of a small circle of teenagers in New York City in the 60's who like Jody Stecher, Andy Statman, and Tony Trischka who got turned on to bluegrass, studied it seriously, and honed their skills to an awesome level. Unlike those just named, Jerry Wicentowski did not go on to a full time career in music, opting instead to pursue higher studies in his Jewish faith in both Israel and the U.S., for a number of years, then becoming a financial advisor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just 90 miles from the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he and I met and performed together in a group called The Bluegrass Hoppers in the late 1960s.
Even if you know nothing about Jerry's background, your attention will be commanded by his outstanding vocal performances on this, his first solo album. His high clear voice carries on the tradition of the pioneers in bluegrass, especially Bill Monroe and Red Alan, but he is far from a pale immitation or carbon copy of those early greats. Jerry's performances here have uniqueness, depth of feeling, and most important, respect and reverence for the music.
The twelve tracks on the album represent a skillful blending of classics and thoughtfully chosen new material. Traditional numbers (five in all) include "Little Maggie," "Live and Let Live," and "Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On" -- a Kity Wells hit from the 50's made into a bluegrass chestnut by Red Alan. The remaining two are traditional songs, heard in most available recordings in oldtimey style. Jerry brings two more classic pieces solidly into the bluegrass catalog with excellent versions of "The Miner's Child" and "Mary of the Wild Moor." Yes, the Bailey Brothers recorded "Mary of the Wild Moor," but try and find a copy of it.
The seven newer songs in this project also come from outside the bluegrass mainstream, though three of the writers will be familiar. The Iris deMent, song "Sweet is the Melody" may be best known to bluegrass fans. The liner notes mistakenly credit Robin and Linda Williams' composition "They All Faded Away" to Iris, also (these things happen). Two songs are penned by Hot Rise member Tim O'Brien, who sings tenor on everything but Jerry's three solo tracks. The curious thing about O'Brien's work here (as sideman) is that you don't know that it's him singing tenor. The unique vocal quality so audible on Tim's solo work and his duets with sister Molly is not found here. Instead, he blends seamlessly with Jerry's lead vocals in a way that lets the distinctive quality of Jerry's voice show through. He is identifyable on one track, but more about that later. One of Tim's songs, "Tempest of a Jealous Love," will appear on Vol. 36 of Prime Cuts of Bluegrass, with tracks by Allison Kraus, the Butch Baldassari Trio, and others.
The other sidemen are less self-effacing than O'Brien. Byron Berline's 5-string fiddle is unmistakeable and impeccably tasteful on every track, both leads and fills, hard-driving or incredibly sweet as the song requires, his low string adding a special touch and feeling. Andy Statman's mandolin playing is phenomenal in many places. He has not recorded bluegrass material for a long time (he is one of the premier klesmer clarinetists around New York), but you wouldn't know it from his playing. He uses those notes way up on the neck better than anyone you'll hear with the possible exception of Grisman. Equally arresting is the way he uses silence, holding off on starting a line to build tension, only to release it in a dazzling cascade of notes, or sometimes riding a single high note for longer than you would think anyone should, but it works and adds a distinctiveness to Andy's playing that on its own makes the album worth acquiring. Scott Vestal's banjo, too, is solid, but perhaps least recognizeable. If there's anything negative to report about this album it's that in a couple of places where Statman is doing something incredible in a mandolin break, he's too far down in the mix to pick out every subtle bit of virtuosity.
Overall, however, this is by far the best mixed album I've heard in a good while. Much of the credit for this goes to co-producer and Bluegrass Boys veteran, Mark Hembree, who also plays bass throughout and contributes tastefully understated baratone vocals on several tracks. I understand that Mark could not get the mix he wanted with the rock-oriented studio engineer in the Milwaukee studio, where all tracks but O'Brien's vocals were recorded. In frustration he took the unmixed master to Nashville, and this probably saved the album from being just another badly mixed bluegrass album of the 90's. Hembree bucks the current trend of keeping the guitar so low in the mix that virtually all you hear are the lead instruments and the bass. The only way you know there's a guitar in the band on many modern bluegrass recordings (with some notable exceptions) is when it takes a break, or by a faint G-run once in a while. Jerry's album takes us back to the classic sound of bluegrass where the guitar is well-heard and the bass is neither electric nor overpowering. What ever happened to the concept of "blend."
A couple other things deserve mention to represent this album adequately. The first, and perhaps most telling, endorsement of the overall quality of the album is that, after hearing it, Dave Freeman decided to distribute the album nationally through his County Record Sales - a remarkable distinction for a private non-label album by an unknown artist. Additional notable tracks on the CD are the title cut, Lucky Break (recorded several years ago by Roland White) and a fantastic performance of Junior Brown's song Venom Wearing Denham. The most unusual number of all is the haunting Conversation in the Womb from the pen of Toronto songwriter, Abie Rotenberg. This gripping, and somewhat eery, selection adds another minor key song to the bluegrass repertoire (it's now a bluegrass song owing to Jerry's sensitive rendition). More notable than the minor key, however, is the theme of the piece. Birth is used as a metaphor for our journey into the next world, and the thoughts and fears that the two brothers express while together in the womb are poignantly conveyed by the alternating voices of Jerry and Tim O'Brien - and here's where Tim's voice is recognizeable. I won't spoil it by telling you how the song ends - you have to get the album to find out.
I believe this is the most exciting bluegrass album to come out a quite a while, and I say that realizing it puts a number of very fine albums in second place. If the few weeks of experience are any indication, it only takes hearing one or two cuts to convince bluegrass fans and non-bluegrassers alike to obtain their own copy for extended listening. The album does tend to reach out and get you hooked. This is not the first recording Jerry Wicentowski has made. The Bluegrass Hoppers (mentioned above) had a nationally distributed album in the late 60's. Jerry's vocal performances on that long out-of-print vinyl are surprisingly similar in quality to his new offering.
This would be an outstanding album even if Jerry were a top nationally known full time touring act. For a local part time performer to come up with a project of this outstanding quality is truly remarkable. I predict great success for this album, including a second pressing very soon. Jerry, I hope you're already working on a follow-up album; you're definitely gonna need one. My only reservation is "what can you possibly do to top this first effort."