OPUS jazz reunites for fun, fusion
July 2, 2012
By Jay Bullock
Nearly four decades ago, UW-Milwaukee student Larry Tresp answered a “Bass Player Wanted” sign on campus. He met fellow students Curt Hanrahan and Jim Sodke, and they formed the nucleus of one of Milwaukee’s jazz mainstays for the next twenty years—OPUS.
OPUS’s repertoire was, according to Tresp and newspaper clippings of the era, eclectic, but they primarily identified as a jazz-fusion band. Fusion, Tresp explained, “is a combination of the jazz idiom—improvisation—with a rock influence as opposed to swing or straight-ahead jazz.”
Think of groups like Weather Report, Soft Machine, and Spyro Gyra, solo artists like Chick Corea, and the kind of jazz-rock Miles Davis played in the 1970s and 80s.
OPUS had a successful run throughout those same decades, playing in Milwaukee and all over Wisconsin and the Midwest. They were regulars at the Miller Jazz Oasis at Summerfest and the college circuit, Tresp said.
As the popularity of jazz fusion waned in the wider culture, so did that of OPUS. They released their first full-length cassette of original material in 1989—Tresp said they “ran out of money” before they could make CDs—but soon found it difficult to attract audiences.
“Over the course of time,” Tresp said, “live contemporary jazz started to fade away. That kind of music just was not happening—everything went to ‘smooth jazz,’ and fusion wasn’t popular in the club scene anymore.”
OPUS disbanded, but the group members have kept in touch and occasionally played together since. Hanrahan and Sodke had together founded the Lakeshore Conservatory of Music in Racine in the mid-1980s. Tresp and Sodke are part of the Paul Spencer Band, the house band at Caroline’s Jazz Club. All five OPUS members, including drummer Brian Ford and guitarist Steve Lewandowski, are sometimes five-sevenths of the Curt Hanrahan Septet.
In February 2011, the group, minus Lewandowski, reunited for a short benefit concert at a church in Racine. That show, Tresp said, was a great reminder of what the band used to be. “We said, ‘It would be nice to do some OPUS stuff again, it would be cool to do a jazz fest again or a couple of concerts.’”
Tresp agreed to organize a website for the band and they started looking for venues. They found one at Bay View’s Tonic Tavern, which offers live jazz every Tuesday night. In March 2012, they played their first full OPUS reunion show there with all five members.
Knowing that there might be an audience for a reunited OPUS was encouraging. Tresp said, “We started working a little harder. We saw the potential, that maybe there’s some want out there for our eclectic style jazz again.”
Describing what is different about OPUS now, Tresp explained, “We’re so much more seasoned. You can’t teach 30 years of experience.”
And they’re not worried about running out of money again. “We’re not in it for the money,” he said. “We’re in it for our own musical enjoyment. We play our music for ourselves and hopefully people enjoy it.”
OPUS is playing original songs by Lewandowski, Hanrahan, and Sodke, as well as interpretations of songs by jazz-fusion artists like Pat Metheny and Alan Holdsworth. For some shows—though not at Chill on the Hill—they’ve also reunited with vocalist Anita Stemper, who sings jazz standards. Besides Chill on the Hill this summer, they can be seen around town, including Tonic Tavern, and in Waukesha at Jazz in Cutler Park.
OPUS Jazz Band plays Chill on the Hill Tuesday, July 10, at 6:30pm.
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