The Wisconsin mood was not good: temperatures in Milwaukee stayed well below zero; sharp winds howled through the city and its people. Worse, local television coverage for the upcoming Green Bay Packers playoff game was rumored to be blacked out.
Attempting an escape from this dire atmosphere, we braved the arctic cold and headed to the Jazz Estate, a small club that has provided live music to the faithful for many years. The room filled slowly. Ambient conversation was largely about the weather. At one point I heard the owner say that he was surprised by the large turnout. There were maybe 20 people in the place. Such “large” audiences are probably the reason for another unwelcome rumor-the Jazz Estate may be closing soon. We hope not. On this January night, at least, vibrant jazz was alive in Milwaukee.
The group scheduled to play for these winter-ravaged jazz devotees was the Mike Kubicki trio. It was my son who had encountered Kubicki at this same venue some months earlier. He came home asking if I had ever heard of Horace Silver. I played him a few things and promised to go along the next time Kubicki was in town. It takes very little coaxing to get me to the Jazz Estate. This intimate Milwaukee setting has more of a Manhattan jazz feel than most of the actual New York City clubs I have frequented.
As if he had heard why we had come, Kubicki began the night with Silver’s “Strollin’.” The trio then proceeded to offer an overview of important jazz pianists: compositions by Kenny Barron (“Voyage”), Cedar Walton (“Hindsight”) and a sensitive performance of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”
Kubicki knows how to play, but he also knows how to listen. Some of the most impressive moments of the night were the pianist’s sparse and effective accompaniments for his fellow musicians. The leader was generous throughout the evening, giving plenty of room to acoustic bassist Jim Paolo and to drummer Todd Howell. There were call and response segments with both players, and each was featured individually. But while the bass and drum solos were always engaging, the consistent highlight was hearing the trio’s combined efforts in full flight.
For his own part, Kubicki seems to enjoy playing various chord voicings more than impressing an audience with single-line runs. Still, when the piece called for it, Kubicki showed himself to be a versatile soloist. This is an accomplished jazz pianist who has been listening to the right records. The break tune for the first set was an uptempo take on Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap,” which concluded a remarkable 80 minutes of music.
After a short intermission the trio began again. Picking up right where they had left off, Hancock’s “And What if I Don’t?” was performed. More introspective than the first, this set included works by and about Thelonious Monk (including Barry Harris’s “Off Monk”). Later, the evening came full circle with another Silver composition, “St. Vitus Dance.”
On these later tunes Kubicki pushed himself to reach uncharted plateaus, offering the audience a chance to witness the growth of a talented pianist in a performance setting. It was exciting, and infinitely preferable to a safe and measured approach. This was experimentation; this was jazz!
Kubicki is from the Appleton area of Wisconsin. He performs live dates with some regularity. This is lucky for the Wisconsin heartland, since his degree in chemical engineering from Purdue and his day job as a contract attorney seem to have little to do with music. Here’s hoping that Kubicki will record soon and that he continues to pursue the elusive piano jazz muse he seeks. He is already well on his way, and Milwaukee’s music community is a better place because of it.