By STEVE SEYMOUR
A jazz album recorded at Michigan Technological University in Houghton continues to echo persistently, although it was laid down more than three decades ago.
"Some Like It Hot, Some Like It Cool," was the brainchild of Don Keranen, founder of the jazz studies program, and featured the Jazz Lab Band on one side and the Larry Scott Quartet on the flip.
"It was Don's idea and we were all behind it," recalled Mike Irish, one of just two student musicians to appear with both bands on the recording.
Irish told me the album was recorded in Fisher Hall on the MTU campus in a "pretty hectic" two-day period in April, 1974. Tech student Rick Fisher produced the sessions for Fisher Sound and Recording using a top-of-the line Crown 2-track tape machine.
Keranen's involvement with the project went beyond conceiving the idea. As assistant professor of music, he had created the university's Jazz Lab Band in the fall of 1967. The band was composed of 20 students from all curricula except music, since the Upper Peninsula school does not offer a degree in that field.
The Jazz Lab Band proved to be quite popular, touring statewide from 1968-1974. They appeared at Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba, Northern Michigan Uinversity in Marquette, Suomi College in Hancock and Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie. They also performed on campuses in Dearborn, Duluth and Eau Claire. The band hosted concerts by jazz greats Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. They also demonstrated their improvisational skills on WLUC-TV in Marquette.
With a core rhythm section of Irish on guitar, Dan Clore on piano, Bob Jacobsen on bass, and drummer Jeff Marcin, the Jazz Lab Band's impressive array of trumpets, trombones and saxophones was used to full effect in recording the five tracks for the "hot" side of the platter. Selections included "Shiny Stockings," "Eli's Coming," "Here's That Rainy Day" and "Bill's Blues." Irish's favorite from the top side is "A Little Minor Booze" by Willie Maiden. "Jack Buckler, our lead alto who was an alumni of the Quincy Jones and Woody Herman bands, just tears it up," Irish relates.
Three lengthy compositions, meanwhile, performed by the Larry Scott Quartet, make up the "cool" portion of the project. "Air on a G Thing" and "Dawn," are both by Scott, then a physics major; while Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" rounds out the ensemble side.
The group was formed in Oct., 1973, to enable its members a more intimate style than possible with a larger group. Besides Scott on keyboards, the group included Irish on guitar and electric bass, Marcin on drums and faculty member Keranen on electric bass, piccolo, flute and alto saxophone. They "cooked" immediately and performed weekly at the infamous Homonyn Lounge at the Library Bar in downtown Houghton.
Gaining popularity, the quartet played a jazz concert on campus in December and followed that with a ten-stop tour of Michigan schools in Feb., 1974. Their busy schedule continued as they performed at the Seventh Annual Jazz Festival at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in March and at a concert of their own during Tech Arts Festival Week in April, where the band was recorded for the LP. That was followed shortly thereafter by a performance at Northern Michigan University during the annual NMU-MTU Jazz Festival.
When issued, the history-making long-play jazz album featured a pair of black & white photos on the cover taken by Charles Eshbach of the school's communications services department. To illustrate their style, the Jazz Lab Band, clothed in towels, was pictured in a sauna, while the quartet was photographed in snow.
The jazz studies department prospered over the years, but Keranen, a native of Baraga, became restless. In 1990, he quit to pursue his dream of making his living as a jazz musician. He was well received in New York City, Miami and Jamaica, where he was known as Doctor Keys, a reference to his piano mastery. Keranen, still beloved by faculty and former students, died unexpectedly in 2002.
You might think that would draw this story to a close, but Keranen's jazz studies department is now headed by one of his former students and bandmate from three decades ago, Mike Irish. He's no slacker as a teacher, having earned numerous awards. As a jazz guitarist, Irish has performed with Clark Terry, Louis Bellson, Dizzy Gillespie, Rob McConnell, Don Ellis, Steve Houghton and Frank Mantooth. He also has two solo jazz compact discs to his credit, "Northern Standard Time" and "Last Month of the Year."
For a school which doesn't offer a music major, jazz continues to be a crucial part of life on the Houghton campus. To prove it, the department is planning a big reunion bash March 23&24 at the Rozsa Center to celebrate "40 Years of Jazz at MTU- Still Cooler than the Lake."
According to Irish, "The JLB Alumni Band will ride again and the current Jazz Lab Band will be in concert with guest artists Steve Wiest, former lead trombone with Maynard Ferguson, and Steve Zenz, a top-call drummer from Milwaukee, on Mar. 24. It's going to be a great weekend."
Actually, you might call it an echo from the past.