Janet Planet’s Bob Dylan Big Band Album

janet_planet_smBY George Halas

At least one knowledgeable reviewer considers the 2010 release, “Janet Planet Sings The Bob Dylan Songbook, Vol. 1” to be an important and significant – as well as a very good – album, but it was largely overlooked by the critics.

December will see the release of the follow-up, “Janet Planet: Just Like a Woman,” featuring big band arrangements of those Dylan songs.

“A few years ago a dear friend of mine, Kyle Knoke, came to me with this idea of doing an album of “jazzy arrangements” of Bob Dylan tunes,” Planet said. “At first I was hesitant because, to be honest, I knew a few Bob Dylan tunes as a kid but never delved in to his poetry, his musicality, or even his historic significance like so many Dylan fans have.”

The critics may have missed it, but musicians did not.

“After we recorded “Janet Planet Sings The Bob Dylan Songbook Vol. 1” and put it out on the internet, the saga began,” Planet continued. “A big band director in Norway heard the CD online and coincidentally, called (the late) Fred Sturm, head of Jazz Studies at Lawrence University, with whom he had worked in the past.  The director from Norway had no idea that Fred was a dear friend of ours, much less that we lived in the same community.  The director said ‘have you ever heard of this singer, Janet Planet?’”

Fred was blown away.  “Of course. I know her well!”

“That was the beginning,” Planet said. “A plan emerged to arrange all 13 songs from the original release for big band.  The big band in Norway is made up of professionals and some part-timers, so the arrangements had to hit a mark of being on a certain level for this band.  In other words, it couldn’t be too difficult to play, yet still needed to be musical.  Tom Washatka, Fred Sturm and Matt Turner went to work taking these tunes and arranging them for a 17-piece band.”

Planet began attracting other parts of the planet as well.

“The other component of international connection is the fact that much of the post production was done via email,” she said.  “Darryl John Kennedy, a native of Wisconsin who now lives in Egypt, came to the Fox Jazz Fest when we headlined two years ago.  Long story short, he is very knowledgeable, and works on movie scores and produces pop singers in Egypt.  He not only became a good friend, but helped me through some difficult vocal times. He is also an expert on essential oils.  He gave me specific instructions with oil mixtures that helped me to sing and, take the best care of my instrument. He also introduced me to some vocal warm ups that I still use today.”

Ultimately, great ideas need money.

“An undertaking such as this has been, yet again, a learning experience for me and my husband, Tom Washatka,” Planet explained. “How do we get these arrangements recorded?  Where do we find a budget for this?  A former vocal student of mine told me to try Kickstarter, an online crowd funding website.  My student said, ‘people want to be involved in the process, they’ll want to help finance, it’s about the collective,’ getting more people involved, giving what they can.” 

Tom and Janet have always done things themselves.

“And we had a hard time with the concept,” Planet said “because we rarely ask anyone for any help, much less financially. We’ve had executive producers in the past and small groups of investors, but never crowds of people.  We finally put together a campaign and launched it online.  To be honest we were skeptical.  We thought, if it works, great, if not, we’ll start saving.” 

It became a success.

“We raised enough to pay musicians and studio time,” Planet said “and we recorded it at Lawrence University because of the technical capabilities. Tom put together a group of musicians from Wisconsin. Keeping it local.”

In addition to their stellar playing, the Washatka’s are both music educators.

“We’ve already performed many of the arrangements at the University of Minnesota, a great start because Minnesota is Dylan’s home state,” she said.  “The educational aspects emerge on many levels.  At U of M, we were part of workshops that discussed the poetry of Dylan and the orchestration that accompanies the lyric.  We were also able to speak on what we do as career musicians who have and continue to own and operate our own recording studio and record label.  Then, we were on a panel that included students of composition and a Dylan expert.  That was igniting to say the least.  We spoke on the concepts of bringing America’s original art form, jazz, and America’s true original, Bob Dylan, together.  The arrangements are playable by good college bands and in some cases, high school-level big bands.”

There is more education to come. 

“I’ve yet to have a chance to mentor singers to sing the book,” she said. “It’s extremely challenging on many levels and takes quite a bit of knowledge of jazz, folk and blues, to do so.  The ranges of the arrangements, both texturally and dynamically, are very challenging.” 

Planet is proud of bringing world focus to the Fox Cities.

“Mostly, it’s about the fact that we are locally grown,” she said.  “The world is small, yet the appreciation of the arts in our community can often be over-looked.  Everyone is local, somewhere.  The fact that the world came to us, and that this project could make some noise is intriguing, because to our knowledge, nothing like this has been done to this extent before, and that is also good for our community.  Dylan and big band jazz? Only in Wisconsin!”

There were highlights along the way.

“One was working with our friends in the band,” Planet said.

The project brought together some of the best players in the area, including trumpet players John Shipper, Jim Doherty, Kevin Short and Marty Robinson, trombonists Ken Skitch, Claude Cailliet, Bill Dennee and Dave Sawall, saxophonists Woody Mankowski, Marc Jimos, John Greiner, and Steve Johnson as well as Washatka. Turner played piano, Tom Theabo and Kelvin Kaspar contributed their superb guitar playing while bassist Andy Sachen and drummer Danny Lueck rounded out the rhythm section.

Planet also appreciates the bigger picture.

“I have to add, that everything we do in this community is with heart, hard work and the curiosity to continue to learn, take chances and share,” Planet said.  “Musicians do that. The science of music is about vibrations, the humanity of music is about connection and community.  What we contribute to our own community, and how we share our passions is what connects us and makes us whole.  Because it’s a small world, isn’t it?”

For updates and the actual release date, follow Janet Planet on Facebook.

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