In Music

Jack Spann will bring his debut full-length album to Linneman's Thursday night. (Photo: Andie Vaaler)

In Music

Gary Tanin (right, with Planet Green Productions partner/engineer Ric Probst) produced Spann's new album. (Photo: DeWook Photography)

It's about "Time" for singer-songwriter Jack Spann and MKE producer Gary Tanin

Milwaukee music producer Gary Tanin has a special friendship with the late David Bowie's longtime producer Tony Visconti, a friendship started back in 1993 in the long gone and forgotten Atlantis of the Internet: CompuServe chat rooms.

"He was in this producer's forum," Tanin recalled. "I had been posting things on there, and that's how we first got connected. One thing led to another; there had been some projects that I'd worked on that I was able to send his way and vice versa. So that's how we communicated!"

Time hasn't changed much for Tanin and Visconti, however. Though their methods of communication may have drastically altered over the past two decades, the two producer pals still keep very much in touch, helping each other with mastering work and passing along recommended artists – one of which ended up being NYC-based piano singer-songwriter Jack Spann, who is taking his Tanin-produced debut full-length record "Time, Time, Time, Time, Time" on the road to Linneman's Riverwest Inn on Thursday, April 21 at 8 p.m.

"I had met with Tony in New York, and we talked about how there are beginning artists and how difficult it is to make any inroads nowadays," Tanin said. "Jack contacted me and said Tony had suggested that we work together, that he had some mastering work to work on. So I did a few tracks – this is probably almost two years ago – and one thing led to another, and he presented me with some new material that I said, 'Hey, this could become a whole album project if we did this right.'"

So that's exactly what the two did, sending tracks back and forth across the country via Dropbox until they were ready for "Time, Time, Time, Time, Time," just released to the public on Tuesday, April 19.

And it certainly is about time for Spann to nab some spotlight. While the album may be Spann's first full-length, he is by no means a rookie in the music world. Over the course of his career, he's utilized his piano skills as a sideman and studio player, hit stages across the country as an accompanist – as well as a theater performer in "War Horse" at the Lincoln Center – and even worked with Bowie on what would tragically become the pop icon's final album, "Blackstar."

According to Tanin, those years of experience, in addition to his piano-playing skills and acumen, are part of what made Spann's sound and storytelling intriguing in the early going, reminiscent of the likes of fellow piano impresarios Elton John and Billy Joel.

"The attraction was in the songwriting, the maturity already that he expressed that we ended up choosing for this was at a level that I normally don't deal with right away," he explained. "It's normally going to be a record or two before someone gets to that level. So I tend to look for those kind of artists in the first place, but Jack immediately hit me that way. Then his harmonic ideas, his arrangement ideas – it was a mature sensibility that made this really, really a pleasure to work on."

For Tanin, all of those elements came together for Spann on his title track, the thoughtful "Time," one the producer purposely placed near the middle of the debut record.

"It's really grounded and simple, but it's a deep, resonating kind of song on the record that I think the rest of the songs kind of revolve around planetarily, like a solar system," Tanin explained.

That title track might have some special relevance for Tanin and Visconti. While the two have remained friends over the years, the two producers both have had to endure significant changes and shifts over time in their industry for better and for worse – ones significantly more important than simply moving out of the CompuServe chat rooms.

On the positive side, Tanin notes the Internet has made it easier for him, as a Milwaukee-based producer, to work with artists and musicians spread across the nation. Dropbox, for instance, helped him pass in-progress tracks back and forth with Jack Spann on the new album. At the same time, however, the democratization of music has led to a tricky dichotomy for artists: It's never been easier to get music out there, but it's never been harder to really poke through the crowd.

"You can look online and see Tony Visconti's South By Southwest keynote where he says somewhere walking out there is the next David Bowie or the next Beatles, but unfortunately, because there's so much stuff out there, we're probably going to have a hard time finding them," Tanin noted.

Add that in with Tanin's concerns about the decreasing number of venues committed to daily live music performances and the struggle getting consumers to value music when it's often available practically for free, and it's a "many-headed Medusa" the industry is coping with. And that's not even including trying to keep up with the constantly and instantly changing world of pop culture.

"So many engineers, artists and producers are chasing the next thing – whatever the hell that is; I have no idea," Tanin admits. "I used to think I knew, but man, that goalpost changes so much, and in today's Internet age, it doesn't even exist in my opinion. If you chase whatever the next thing is, it's already gone by the time you get there. So if you don't have something other than that, I think it's hard to focus on something."

Still, even with a new world of musical challenges, Tanin keeps charging forward, motivated by musicians like Spann and friends and fellow producers like Visconti, whose attitudes he takes with him.

"His main reason (for working), to me, is this passionate desire to find a diamond in the rough and allow it to blossom and find a way to be a part of that process. It's art for art's sake and sales be damned. You don't come to him to make a hit record; you come to him to make a great record, and there's a gigantic difference.

"If it was as simple as selling a million records or making money, none of us would be doing this anymore."


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