CD ReviewsLive At The Old Mint by Craig Brenner, with Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and Lori Brenner
"There is just not enough good boogie-woogie music being recorded anymore, and fortunately the drought has ended with Craig Brenner’s first new album since 2009, Live at the Old Mint. He has assembled a collection of blues and boogie-woogie tracks from his live shows that will surely lift your mood!
Craig is one of the best-educated pianists around; after attending college in Florida he moved to the Hoosier State in the mid-1970s to study at the Indiana University School of Music and he never left. Since then, Brenner has studied classical, jazz and boogie-woogie piano with the masters of each genre, and has received multiple grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. He is serious about his craft, and it shows in his performance.
This certainly is a live album, but this is not just a recording of one show at the Old US Mint in New Orleans (and it really is an old mint, in case you were wondering). This CD is actually a collection of 14 songs culled from 5 different performances spanning seven years. Included are 10 songs from two shows at Old US Mint, three more from two shows from Artsgarden in Indianapolis, and a track from a radio show that he and his wife did in 2013. This set avoids being a hodgepodge thanks to the wonderful job of mixing and mastering done by Jacob Belser of Primary Sound Studios in Bloomington, Indiana – for the most part there is a very consistent sound, feel and flow to the music.
Brenner produced this album himself, and it includes six compositions that he wrote as well as a nice collection of songs that could easily be the final exam for a musician that is seeking a doctorate in blues and boogie-woogie piano. One of these is the first song in the set, “I Stepped in Quicksand” written by the legendary jazz and blues pianist, Charles Brown. Craig takes this one on his own, and there is a fun jazz influence on this one that goes well with his thin, yet pleasant, tenor vocals. The piano sounds clear on this one and there is only a hint of hiss and sibilance, which is to be expected on a live recording of this type.
From there he heads into one of his own compositions, “To Boogie or Not to Boogie,” one of the eight songs on this disc that he recorded with Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on congas. I would never think of combining congas and hard-hitting piano music, but it works on this straight-up boogie-woogie tune, probably because of the talent behind those drums. Roberts is a Crescent City native who turned his percussion work into a career that included performing and recording with heavyweight artists that include Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, The Meters, Snooks Eaglin, Gatemouth Brown, Willie Tee and Dr. John.
The covers are all super-cool! They include gems like “Train Blues”, a faithful rework of Lux Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train Blues” which has a glorious saloon piano sound. Or Brenner’s version of Pinetop Smith’s 1928 seminal hit “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” his joyous hammering of Professor Longhair’s “Hey Now Baby,” and the familiar sounds of Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train.” But the standout of these has to be “Mess Around,” a song written by Atlantic Records president and founder Ahmet Ertegun which was one of Ray Charles’ first hits in 1953. The audience really gets into this song and claps along as Craig hoots the vocals and Roberts keep the beat with his congas. This must be something to see live, and of course everyone can commiserate that they don’t want their little girl to mess around.
One of the more fun tunes is Brenner’s original “Crawdad Shuffle” that he performed with his significant other, Lori, at the Indiana University Radio-Television Center in Bloomington in 2013. This instrumental features Mrs. Brenner on a rubboard which is placed far forward in the mix, and Craig almost takes a supporting role to its hypnotic scrapings. The rubboard and congas are not ordinarily leading instruments, and it is fascinating that Brenner can pair up with these percussion instruments and allow them to shine.
The tunes on this CD go by quickly, and before you know it the final track, “Carolina Shout,” will be coming through your speakers (or headphones). Recorded at Artsgarden in 2011, this James P. Johnson song from 1921 has no vocals or accompaniment, just Craig showing incredible timing on what has to be one of the most difficult songs to play correctly. This ragtime song has some jazz influence with a tremendous dynamic range and rhythms that are as tricky as they come. Craig totally nails it, and it is the perfect way to close out the set.
Live at the Old Mint is a good effort from Craig Brenner and a fine showcase of his piano and songwriting skills. If you are not a fan of boogie-woogie, do not let this one scare you off. There is still plenty of blues, ragtime and even jazz to be found on this disc, and you will certainly find something that you like!!"
-- Rex Bartholomew, Los Angeles-based writer, Blues Blast Magazine, July 24, 2014
"Craig Brenner’s mastery of good-time solo piano styles has always played well live. It’s impossible to not groove on the rhythms and stylistic differences when he moves from boogie woogie to stride, barrelhouse blues and then, just when the time is right, something of a more elegant jazz vibe. Live At The Old Mint is Brenner’s first live album and that versatility is well-demonstrated here. Maybe most surprising is that a lively room can cover up all sorts of mistakes, but Brenner plays so well and so accurately here it’s a revelation. He may be the Boogie Woogie King of Bloomington, Indiana, but it’s doubtful anyone would challenge that royal status at the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans, where the ghost of Professor Longhair still roams the streets, and where most of this album was recorded."
-- Mike Leonard, Bloom Magazine, February 11, 2014
"Piano master Craig Brenner is one of the finest ambassadors of the music of New Orleans and central Indiana is lucky to have him. Following up his strongest studio album to date (Live to Love from 2009) is a series of live recordings ranging from 2006-2013. The majority of the recordings were done at The Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans (thus the title) with recordings from Indianapolis and Bloomington. Despite the differences in time and locations, this is still a seamless series of songs. Helping Brenner out is Lori Brenner on rubboard on some tracks and Alfred "Uganda" Roberts on congas on others. It's fun to hear new versions of Brenner's "To Boogie or Not to Boogie," "The Crawdad Shuffle" and "Backstage Boogie" blend in with staples "Mess Around," "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" and "Night Train." A must-have for any music collection."
-- Matthew Socey, Host of The Blues House Party, WFYI, February 2014
"This album’s subtitle promises “Blues & Boogie Woogie Piano” and it’s accurate in at least that respect: Pianist Craig Brenner is equally fluent in New Orleans piano, straight blues, even ragtime and several different decades’ worth of jazz, and he displays all those facets on this bare-bones live set. This makes it easy to forgive that a few of these tracks are actually from dates in and near his native Bloomington, Indiana.
"Brenner, a professor in both the literal and hepcat meanings of the word (okay, he teaches piano), knows enough to trot out an original (“To Boogie or Not to Boogie”) that’s highly reminiscent of Davenport’s “Cow Cow Blues,” let loose with a version of Pinetop Smith’s “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” and then tie all the historical threads together with Ray Charles’ “Mess Around.” Meade Lux Lewis’ “Honky Tonk Train Blues” and Jimmy Forrest’s deathless “Night Train” both manage to hang onto their pure blues pedigrees. And he leaves just a touch of jazz improv in Jimmy Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.”
"Brenner’s vocals are the only element of this set that prove a little stiff; he unfortunately sings like a professor, too, and not the Longhair kind. (Though pulling off Fess’ “Hey Now Baby” in front of a hometown crowd is impressive enough for any outsider.) But like any great jazzer, it’s his sidemen that inspire him most: with his significant other Lori on scrubboard and former Allen Toussaint session-man Uganda Roberts on congas, his version of boogie-woogie is necessarily slower, more rhythmic, and funkier than you usually hear, even in NOLA. In their hands, “Mess Around” belongs as much to the Meters as to its antecedents. Which makes old history new history—and Brenner more than academic."
-- Robert Fontenot, OffBeat, June 2014
Live to Love by Craig Brenner & The Crawdads
"Wow....Your CD is really quite great... and swinging, too! Lori has a very fine voice, sounds s'wonderful! The band swings, and you are the master of the keys and styles. And the styling and art work on the jacket is first class. Whoever did that, give them a gold star on their forehead and send them to the front of the class!"
-- Bob Seeley, August 2009
"Though widely known as Bloomington's King of Boogie Woogie Piano, Brenner demonstrates a musical maturity on the new album that he first showcased on his 2002 release, Window on the Soul. Live to Love shows the pianist's full range of talents as a songwriter, arranger and band leader, as well as his broad tastes in styles and genres. Brenner's wife, Lori, literally is the voice, or vocalist, who stands out on many of the album's songs. Brenner wrote the song "Just One Glance" to be his wedding march. On Live to Love, the song is transformed from a piece written for strings to what a 50s dance band might call a stroll. "Homage to New Orleans" is a longer, six-minute piece, originally composed in the 1980s but re-crafted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "Loading the Boats to America" is also a reworked longer piece inspired, Brenner said, by the election of Barack Obama. But then no Brenner album would be complete without his world-class boogie-woogie and blues talents, which are demonstrated on songs including "Hey Anna," "The Bloomington Breakdown" and "The Crawdad Shuffle."
-- Mike Leonard, The Herald-Times, October 10, 2009
Read a full review of Live to Love by Craig Brenner & The Crawdads, written by George Fish in Illinois Blues - www.illinoisblues.com/bluesartists/craigbrenner.htm
Man At The Piano by Craig Brenner
"Brenner's music, full of soul and virtuosity, shines on this album. Rife with spontaneous energy, Man At the Piano's 12 tunes are engaging and entertaining...Brenner's versatile playing distinguishes him throughout; his mastery of a variety of blues and jazz styles is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his playing."
-- Eric Robinson, BC Magazine, May 1997
"There are so many criteria for saying whether you like a certain musical act or piece of music. At this point in my life, I have heard so many artists try to dazzle me with one thing or another -- technical prowess, angst in their souls, an ironic worldview, sheer volume and obnoxiousness -- that it's a delight to find the likes of Craig Brenner. If you've heard him, you know what I mean -- a guy who's completely at peace with what he's chosen to do with his gifts. Brenner can clearly address, in conversation or in song, the great American piano traditions with authority. He's taken the New Orleans barrelhouse approach as his main ingredient, added dashes of boogie-woogie and New York-type stride piano, and seasoned the results with suggestions of Tin Pan Alley and raw Texas blues. When he serves this up on his platters, he does it in his characteristically unassuming manner.
"His new album, Man At the Piano, is the kind of follow-up to 1995's Play Again, Professor! you'd expect, but exudes just a tad more edge. Echo Park engineer Mark Hood seems to have realized we want Brenner, his Crawdads, and the impressive lineup of guest artists sound like they're in our living room, not his studio. Also, there's just a bit looser attitude to all the playing, both on introspective numbers and the dance tunes.
"Jumpin'" showcases the smartest guitar I've ever heard Gordon Bonham lay down on a record. He faithfully executes the figure Brenner also plays on vibes and tosses in some perfectly appropriate flourishes on subsequent choruses. The same goes for Mojo Hand's Lauren Robert's vocal on "You're A Hog For Me." Bessie Smith and Willie Mae Thornton would be proud. "When Sunny Gets Blue" is the loveliest of spare solo-piano pieces on the album... Kenny Aronoff shows he understands Professor Longhair-style drumming on "Hey Little Girl" and "Mardi Gras in New Orleans." But then, is there much about drumming that eludes this master?"
-- Barney Quick, Out & About, May 22, 1997
"All (the selections) are performed with a light, swinging touch that recalls the easygoing sophistication of a bygone era."
-- Living Blues Magazine, Sept./Oct. 1997
"Easygoing set of blues, jazz, and Professor Longhair standards, with a few originals, too. Mix of solo and accompanied piano makes for good listening all around."
-- Blues Access, Fall '97
"We're treated to a mix of solo pieces and songs with backing by a band including Gordon Bonham on guitar, Jeff Chapin on drums and Steve Johnson on bass...Some time ago Craig Brenner played at the Piano Stage of the Queen City Blues Festival in Cincinnati, along with two European players - Philippe Lejeune and Jean-Pierre Bertrand. I wonder if some of our promotors will have the common sense to have a 'piano stage' at his festival, so that we can see and hear people like Craig Brenner here on stage. That's called wishful thinking, or even better, utopia."
-- Marc Nolis, Hogtown Rhythm & Roots News Magazine, Belgium, Sept./Oct. 1997
"Ideal late night listening...a wonderful set of music that has that sense of blues and jazz cool one only finds in 50/60's records. A real gem."
-- Al Handa, Delta Snake Blues News
Play It Again, Professor! by Craig Brenner
"Craig Brenner is a 'fine and funky' pianist..."
-- Living Blues Magazine, July/Aug. 1996
"His touch is light, his control impeccable..."
-- Bob Kissel, Blues Indy
"Brenner slides and glides and shuffles through the songs in a style that is simultaneously easygoing and lively."
-- Marc D. Allen, Indianapolis Star
"Craig Brenner knows how to boogie!"
-- Margie Ketchem, Bloomington Voice
"An absolutely killer CD...sounds more like the Prof. than any I've ever heard."
-- "Stormin" Norman Moody, KVOL Radio, Hawai
"Your piano playing is great."
-- Rich Gordon, WXRX FM, Rockford, IL
Backstage Boogie by Craig Brenner with Dan Hostetler
"Backstage Boogie displays Brenner's piano mastery through a 12-cut display of the classic stride piano style, a display made far more than just a museum exhibit through Brenner's combining of impeccable technique with soulful feeling that turns Backstage Boogie into an exercise in rockin' throughout, makes the music not only idiomatically correct, but toe-tappin' and hip-shakin' as well. Backstage Boogie is just one of Craig Brenner's masterful piano CDs available through his Web site, and is a clear demonstration that boogie piano lives on strong, vital, and thriving in Indiana."
-- George Fish, Indiana Blues Monthly
Window on the Soul by Craig Brenner
"Window On the Soul marks a stunning achievement for Brenner, long-recognized as one of the best piano and keyboard players on the local music scene. Brenner doesn't just stretch his boundaries with Window on the Soul. He breaks out as an artist with a diverse selection of original compositions that embrace bop, cool, Latin, small ensemble and trio jazz stylings. These are complemented with three pieces more close to home: the self-explanatory "Brenner's Boogie," the blues-based "South Fess Shuffle" and the only cover tune on the album, "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie." Window on the Soul is an album you can put on again and again. Unlike Brenner's previous paeans to solo and boogie woogie piano, there is a diversity of sounds, styles and arrangements that come together deliciously on Window on the Soul."
-- Mike Leonard, The Herald-Times, February 1, 2002