Chris Hanson Band
The Chris Hanson Band celebrates its second year together on New Year's Eve at Via Downer.
Just before the holiday season in 2010, violinist Glenn Asch got to talking with Russell Rossetto, one of three owners of Via on Downer at the East Side restaurant. Rossetto, a musician himself and a booster of the local music scene, mentioned that live music would be part of Via, as it always had been at Transfer, the group’s South Side pizzeria.
Asch immediately called guitarist Chris Hanson. Want to play Monday night?
“We’d played gigs together over the years,” Hanson said, in an interview Saturday. “We showed up and played and it went really well.”
Since then, the informal gig has led to the expanded Chris Hanson Band, a standing job at Via on the first Monday of every month, two CDs and, last but not least, the public New Year’s Eve party at Via Monday night. Hanson’s band will start at 9 p.m. and play until 1 a.m. or so. Before that, jazz guitarist Neil Davis will play solo.
Asch and Hanson just winged it for the first few months. They’re both seasoned professionals, and they stuck to jazz standards and a little country swing.
“We’d just bring our books and call off tunes,” Hanson said. “We figured it out when we got there.”
The practice of non-practice held with the addition of bassist Mike Britz and rhythm guitarist John Parrott.
“John showed up and I thought, Where’s the amp?” Hanson said.
Turns out Britz plays a 1930s Epiphone Emperor, an acoustic instrument designed to beef up the rhythm section of big bands of the era. It’s big and it’s loud, just the thing for the Hanson band, which rarely employs a drummer. Hanson joked that, by accident, they had more or less recreated the Hot Club of France, the legendary Parisian group that featured violinist Stephane Grappelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Almost from the start, Hanson, Asch and company have packed Via on those First Monday gigs. Then they cinched it up a notch by adding singer Rae Cassidy in the spring of 2011. Cassidy, just 20 at the time, showed an intuitive grasp of the vintage tunes and jazz style. She moved to New York in September to find her fortune; Cassidy’s farewell Via performance was both teary and celebratory.
When she arrived, the fellows decided the time had come to nail down some arrangements and practice like a real band. Since then, they’ve gotten together frequently at Hanson’s East Side attic studio, and Hanson has put together a book just for the band. Of course, the arrangements leave lots of room for improvisation and the inspiration of the moment.
Hanson, with co-founder and co-executive producer Mike Standal, runs MidCoast Music. They have created music for well over 1,000 network commercials, television shows and movies, and they have gone out of their way to employ and promote local musicians. So when Hanson wanted to record the band, everything was at hand.
Robin Pluer, a legendary Milwaukee chanteuse, became the band’s singer when Cassidy left for NYC. Pluer will sing with the band on New Year’s Eve. In addition to celebrating the dawn of 2013, they’ll launch the new CD the band has made with her.
“Robin had filled in now and then for Rae, and it went without a hitch,” Hanson said. “Rae brought in a whole 20s crowd, and now Robin has her audience.”
Attendance has been phenomenal. The musicians and their classic American Songbook repertoire, plus a dash of rock and country swing, seem to fit the East Side demo. And the price is right; Via doesn’t impose a cover charge on music nights, even though they always pay their musicians. Even on New Year’s Eve — no cover.
“It’s a college neighborhood, and jazz-friendly,” said Hanson, 53. “Since we play on Mondays, all the jazz players are off and can show up. It’s great to look out and see the generations come together and the neighborhood come together. Last time we played, I think my entire block was in the audience, and they brought all their kids. We start at 7:30 and end at about 10. This is someplace people our age can go to have a drink and hear a band.”
Again, New Year’s Eve will be a little different. Keyboard player Bob Pachner will join them, and again, start time is for this special occasion is 9 p.m. As it turns out, that’s just a little early for violinist Glenn Asch. He’s also a member of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which will play a Viennese-style New Year’s Eve concert, led by Andreas Delfs, that starts at 8 p.m. (And here’s a New Year’s Eve interview with Delfs.)
Like Asch, I’ll be dashing from the MSO to Via, and I’ll write up both events on New Year’s Day for TCD. And if you’re out and about on a musical Dec. 31 and spot me, say hello.
Strini’s New Year’s Eve Schedule:
8 p.m.-10 p.m.: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, featuring conductor Andreas Delfs in Viennese New Year’s Celebration.
9 p.m. – ?: The Chris Hanson Band, featuring Robin Pluer and Glenn Asch, Via on Downer, preceded by guitarist Neil Davis. Admission free — but you’ll buy me a drink, right?
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