Wednesday, April 29, 2009

3 @ the Tap Room, Last Skylounge, Recording with Dave Sharp, Nick Strange at Gracies and Firefly, 2 SumKali Shows, Kirtan

Hello again,

  It has been a great month in my musical world, and like the weather, things seem to be heating up.  April started off busy with 4 gigs in the first 4 days. An open mic, a Skylounge gig, a recording session and a Nick Strange show.
On Wednesday the 1st,  I went to the new Tap Room Annex in Ypsilanti to help get a new Wednesday night jazz open mic off to a good start.  It is a collaboration with the Community Records Foundation, headed up by Skylounge keyboardist Jesse Morgan, and A3 Radio.  All the donations collected are going to fund school music programs for schools that can not afford a music program. I agreed to play 3 of the 4 Wednesdays in April, each with its own theme. The first one was a straight up jazz open mic. The Skylounge band played host for the evening.  A jazz combo from EMU started the night off with a set of standards.  The Skylounge band went on second to play host to a number of musicians, and feature some of our own tunes.  It was fun.  People came with charts, acoustic guitars and just vocals, so the band had to be on their toes to adapt to the different settings.  
The next night was the last Skylounge band gig at EMU for the season.  It has been a very interesting series of shows to play. 
 The crowds have been very consistent and predictable, (in a good way), and the band has begun to evolve into a nice sounding ensemble.  We went through some lineup and musical changes over the months to tailor ourselves to exactly what they were looking for; a band they could dance to.
  I hope to be able to do it again next season, and I am pretty sure we are going to pursue other gigs in the meantime.  At the minimum we will be doing one Wednesday a month at the Annex.  Here's a group photo to mark the end of the experience: 
  The next day I took my tabla and went a few blocks down from my home to Big Sky Recording studio and recorded a track for Dave Sharp's new album.  I played with Dave like 3 years ago at a small kirtan gathering at Sun Moon Yoga Studio.  I haven't really seen or spoken to him since. Out of the blue I got a text message from him asking if I wanted to record tabla. I said yes of coarse and he sent me the track over e-mail so I could practice with it.  We finally met face to face about 10 minutes before I laid down my tabla track and then went our separate ways again.  It made me think of all the musical relationships I have had like this, where we have done more music making than speaking.  The personal connections seem just as solid and deep. It goes beyond a superficial 'business' transaction.  You have to feel comfortable enough with someone to share a meaningful musical experience.  I think this comfort can only come through the music making process.  I feel fortunate to have these kinds of relationships with many musicians, and I am always ready for the next one to come along.
  On Saturday the 4th I kicked of the first of 4 gigs with the Nick Strange Group at Goodnite Gracies.  Honestly, as I sit here I am having a bit of trouble remembering this show.  I guess that can happen when you play the same venue with the same group many times.  I do remember that it was with Rob Crozier on bass and he was just about to finish up his first semester at the U of M music school and he was very excited.  This excitement has definitely shown in his playing and it has been a joy to play with him.
  The following Wednesday I got an e-mail from Jesse Morgan asking if I would come back down to the Tap Room Annex in Ypsi to play drums for the Hip-Hop open mic jam.  It sounded too interesting to pass up.  It actually turned out to be a very memorable night.  It is part of the Wednesday night jazz series that Jesse has set up with and his foundation Community Records.  I was surprised at the amount of talented word-slingers that were on hand.  Jesse and I were the only 2 musicians and we just played deep grooves all night while the mic was passed from person to person.  I had so much fun just listening and playing along. I turned out to be a very memorable experience, and I hope to be asked back again.
  In the last 2 weeks of April I had 6 shows in just 4 days.  Once again, I could not have pulled it off without the help of my student Vinnie Russo, who has become very good at setting up my drumset just right so I can just walk in, sit down and start playing, which is just what I had to do on the 17th.  I had a show with my group Sumkali at Crazy Wisdom tearoom, which is a show that normally goes from 8:30-10:30. Since I had to start at Goodnite Gracies at 10, I was forced to cut out of the CW show early.  That was harder to do than I had expected.  First of all, I had to make sure the rhythm was covered for the Sumkali performance, which it was very ably by Dan Piccolo.  He has been playing a lot with us lately and so I had no worries that he could hold it down for the half of the show I could not be at.  I had also asked Shani Thirumali to come join us for a couple of numbers. She plays the Veena, which is the older ancestor of the Sitar.  It was a great start to the night and set the mood perfectly.  She hasn't performed in front of people too much, so she had some nerves, but as it often happens with able musicians, after the first few notes were out of the way she did great.  The hardest part of the night came when it was time for me to step out.  The crowd was full, the sound was great, and the atmosphere was really nice.  It was difficult to walk out of that and walk into a dark barroom not yet populated and quiet.  I took a few breaths and it turned out alright, and we actually had a few people from Crazy Wisdom come down to the club and check out the second show.  I was talking to them on the set break and they said that they had no idea that I also played the drumset.  I love these sort of surprises!
  The next day Sumkali, minus Dan, Atmaram, and Shanti had a gig at the Cromaine Public Library in Heartland, MI. It was set up by Scott Brady and it was during the day, which is always nice.  It was also nice to play in a very quiet setting.  Indian instruments are so quiet to begin with, that any outside noise can be a big distraction.  We were the first musical group that they have had at the library, so they were still working on their advertising and promotions, which is the nice way of saying there was hardly anyone there.  We all still had a great time though and we got some good recordings out of it.  The manager of the library loved it and said she would like to have us back once the music series is more established.
  The last Wednesday of the month I was back at the Tap Room Annex. This time it was the improvisation theme, so everything was improvised the whole night.  There were a lot of musicians on stage this time and all I can remember is what I would describe as a wall of sound all night.  Have you ever had a conversation with a loud talker?  How about a non-stop talker? How about both at the same time?  This is what seemed to happen on this night.  Improvisation amongst musicians is a lot like a conversation amongst strangers, you really have to be aware of not only what you are saying, but what others are saying.  And, as a musician playing in a group, you don't really stop the flow of sound, you have to know how to lay your sound out so others can be heard.  It is a subtle art that, when it is good, is one of my favorite musical experiences.  When it doesn't click though, you get a wall of sound that just pushes everything louder and crazier, and all parties seem to just man their own post as the ship sails through the high seas.  O.K., so are you getting the idea of how this night went?  When it was over I was tired, my ears were mad, and I just wanted to cut out as quick as I could.  Luckily, some of the other members felt the same thing happen so next time we can set sail with calmer waters in mind.
  The final two shows of the month fell on the same evening.  They were a familiar pair, Ann Arbor Kirtan and the Nick Strange group.  This time, however, the Nick strange group was at the Firefly jazz club on South Main St. in Ann Arbor.  They were celebrating the 6th C.D. release.  What made this night tricky is that the Nick Strange group started an hour earlier than usual, so the Kirtan overlapped it by a half hour.  I had to negotiate with the kirtan group to end 10 minutes early, which they agreed to with no problem, and then I had to convince Dan to start his set acoustic, which he did as well.  I did not like having to be the thorn in both groups for the evening, but when scheduling live music is as tough as it is in this town, you have to take what you can get.  Vinnie helped me out on the Firefly side, and a tabla student of mine, Simon Ha helped me on the kirtan side by taking my tabla home for me. I could not have pulled it off without them.
  So having a night like this always causes me to pause beforehand and take a few breaths.  I know that I have a big night of music in front of me, so pacing is very important.  It is lucky that doing kirtan lends itself to slowing down and calming the mind.  I wanted to be sure to be present in the moment all night and not think about what had to be done next and I think that mindset helped keep me calm. I arrived early and was happy to have my son Charley with me. He hung around for the set up and soundcheck and then wen home early with mom. We wanted him to come to a kirtan in the shirt they bought for him before he was too big to wear it. It made me happy to have him there, and it helped to keep me calm.  So usually the Kirtan ends with a 10 minute silent meditation, so what I did was sneak out as soon as I hit the last note. everyone had their eyes closed, so I heard that many people did not even see me leave.  I got in my car and took the 2 minute drive down to the Firefly.  I walked into the club and Dan motioned me to come on stage the moment he saw me.  I was a minute into the first song before I even got a chance to look around at this place I had never been.  It was a true test of my nerves.  No warm-up, no time for a breath, no time to even think, I was playing.  After the first song was over I was thinking to myself that the kirtan group had probably not even opened their eyes yet and already I am playing the second song of the night, which just happen to include a drum solo, AAAAAGH!  It was a roller coaster ride.  It made for an exciting night that I will not soon forget. I really enjoyed the club. It was a nice space and the best part was that it was a non-smoking room, which has been a rarity when playing with this group, (made up of all non-smokers).  A few kirtaners came down after the kirtan was over and watched a few sets, which was nice to see.  I had a really good time, although I hope I never have to pull off something like that again!
  So that is it for April.  Thanks for reading I will write again soon.


Friday, April 03, 2009

Sky lounge, Emerson School, Nick Strange, Kirtan, Sumkali, Mike Waite

March has come and gone and at the moment it feels like a blur.  12 gigs in all. So let's dive right in!
It started on Thursday the 5th with another Skylounge gig at the EMU student center in Ypsilanti, MI.  We have 6 of these scheduled in all and it seems, after doing this, the 5th one, that the band is just starting to gel.  Even with great musicians involved, there is still a period of getting to know each other that has to happen with any group.  I believe we got a little help from the organizers of the event. They called and asked if we could do more 'jazzy' tunes and less popular and rockin tunes.  I think this focused the group and gave us a sort of unified feeling in coming to the show.  In the past we had played a very wide range of songs, with only the idea of having tunes you could dance to.  The organizers, however, wanted more of a Martini Bar feel to the evening and they thought that sticking with the jazz stuff would help.  Of coarse, replacing the white punch with actual martinis would no doubt do more towards reaching this goal, but we do the best we can when we are on the grounds of a institute of higher education.  All in all it turned out to be a great night, and the music was really smokin'.
The next morning I went to the Emerson school for the gifted in Ann Arbor to do a lecture/demonstration of the tabla.  It was for 4th and 5th graders and lasted just over 45 minutes. It went very fast. This was one of the first times I brought extra drums and let the students try their hand at playing.  It went very well, although putting the students on a set of tabla for the first time definitely tested there gifted notions :)  It actually went so well that the teacher, Judy Barthwell, asked me to come back and help them organize a piece for their upcoming spring concert.  We are going to perform a segment from a great piece called Piru Bole, which was written by my former mentor from CalArts John Bergamo.  I have worked with them a couple of times since and it is going to be a great little piece.  I think we perform it in the first week of March.  I will let you know how it goes!
The following Thursday was the GLTW winter music concert.  I let the students organize and produce the concert, which they titled "Go Like The Wind's Infinite Playlist".  I thought this title was a real sign of the times.  I was wondering what a similar name might have been when I was in middle school, perhaps: "Graveraet Middle School's Musical Mix Tape", anyway the concert went great and the students performed wonderfully.  I was a proud music director that night.
The following Saturday I was with the Nick Strange group at Fishbones Rhythm Kitchen Cafe in Roseville, MI.  

This is a gig that tests the fortitude of good musicians. It is a weird dichotomy of playing at full volume to a packed house of both a late dinner crowd, and frisky bar hoppers, neither of whom seem to be there for the music, although they will come up to you quietly in between sets and tell you how much they are enjoying it.  It is almost like there is an agreement among the patrons that no one will clap or pay attention to the band while they are performing, and you must save your appreciation for when no music is playing.  Don't get me wrong, I am not complaining.  I can play to the tables and chairs and have a great time, especially if the music is sounding good. No, it is just that I get the feeling that somehow the people in this venue have been trained to hold back and behave when it comes to live musicians in the room.  Add to the awkward silence of hundreds of people an endless stimulation of big screen High Definition T.V.'s in every nook and cranny of the joint, and you are talking about a tough sell for any musician.  So we play and be happy to be making a little bit of money doing what we love.  It is all part of the journey and I believe everyone in the band feels the same way. That is how we can pull it together and play great, even in a tornado of over-stimulated silence.
.....Whew.....was that a rant? I'm not sure. Anyway, moving on to the very next night.  This time I found myself in Old Town Tavern in downtown Ann Arbor with an overturned soup pot, a hand drum and some brushes sitting next to my good friend Mike Waite.  He came to town with his family to visit friends and relatives, and they never let him leave without booking him a gig at the Old Town.  Mike called me up and asked me to join him, so I did.  He stopped over the house for a minute before the show to see my new baby and then we were off.  The plan was that Mike would play the first set alone, and then I would come up to join him for the final hour.  So I sat with some friends and enjoyed some songs. After an hour and 20 minutes, I walked up and sat down.  I wasn't sure how long he would play, and there was only 40 minutes left in the night, so I wanted to get some songs in before the night was up.  
I sat down and Mike just said 'Cool' and we played.  It was all going great and was a lot of fun, and then about 10 minutes before closing time, Mike leaned over and said, "I think I want to take a break now".  He had not realized that he had played for 2 hours straight and the night was just about over.  When I told him I got the feeling he didn't believe me.  So I asked the bartender when they want us to be done and he confirmed it.  
I thought it was such a beautiful thing. To be with a musician and a friend that does not concern himself with time. That doesn't seem like such a big statement, but when you think about it, we are all very concerned with our use of time.  Getting lost in time doing something you love doesn't just happen everyday for a lot of people, and it was refreshing to have a front row seat to it on this night.  Mike and I could have played 2 more hours without a problem and for a second it almost felt like we should have been able to, but the confines of the clock knocked us back into the reality of the situation and we packed up, gave each other a hug, and once again, went on our separate ways.
Two days later started one of the busier weeks I have ever had in music.  Wednesday and Thursday night we had a couple of pickup gigs with the Nick Strange group at Goodnite Gracie's in Ann Arbor.  It was actually really nice to play the venue during the week for a change. There was far less smoke, and the crowds were really into the music.  Dan and Jess did an opening set, so the bass player and I got to sit on the comfortable couches for an hour and just relax.  It was so nice to go onto stage in that relaxed state of mind.  It seemed like all the usual, normal chaos was gone and we got to play music in that room like never before.  It was almost like you could listen to the music deeper than in the past, and that made it very enjoyable. Never mind the fact that it was during the week and I had to get up at 6 a.m. the following morning. Nothing seems to matter if the music is right.
Friday was the monthly Kirtan.  By this time I was actually pretty tired.  I had spent most of the day practicing and rehearsing with my Indian group Sumkali. By the time I got to the Kirtan, I had been playing tabla for 6 hours.  So what's another 3 hours added on!  I have said it before, but when you push the physical limits like that you really discover new ways of playing that could not be possible otherwise.  It doesn't feel like a benefit at the time, but in the days and weeks to follow, your technique changes and adapts to the possibility of playing so much and for so long and you get into a very relaxed position when you play.  I am having a little trouble putting it into words, but I can say it is very satisfying and nice.
The following night Sumkali was at Crazy Wisdom again, only this time it was different.  Last month, as we were playing, I had an idea to set up the room differently than we have ever done before.  The tearoom is a long, narrow chamber that runs east and west, and the standard set up put the bands right up against the back western wall of the chamber, so all the sound just traveled right out of the performance space, past the audience and into the books in the back.  This made for inconsistent sound and not to mention, a very tight fit for the audience.  
So my idea was to turn everything sideways and set the band up on the south side wall, which made the stage wider, and the audience could now see the group, no matter where you were sitting.  I was a little worried that this idea would cause a bit of a ruckus with the staff, but they were all very into it.  It made for a great night of music.  It felt more intimate, the sound was better, and as a performer, there was not the distraction of looking up and seeing the entire store buzzing with people.  I believe that as a direct result of this new set-up, we had one of our best nights of playing ever.  I can't wait to go back in April and do it again!
So now it was Sunday and as a bonus at the end of the week I got to see Zakir Hussein in concert right here in Ann Arbor.  He was on tour with Pdt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, (santoor). As expected, the concert was inspiring, incredible, and over the top good.  To top it all off, earlier in the day I got to bring a tampura, which is a drone instrument, to the hall and meet Zakir's student and road manager Ty Burhoe.  Ty has been all over the world playing the tabla and is best known for his work with Kirtan giant Krishna Das.  One of my students had just come back from a retreat hosted by Ty in his home base of Boulder, CO. and so we talked a lot about teaching, playing, and what life was like on the road with Zakir.  It was a great end to an incredibly hectic week.
March ended with a Friday gig at Goodnite Gracie's again with the Nick Strange Group.  It was a good night, and the music just seems to be getting tighter and tighter.  I  have really been focusing on playing my best as often as possible, and it really lends itself to discovery and new ideas no matter what the music is that you are playing. Even if it is the same song you have played hundreds of times before, there is always something to discover.  My first tabla teacher Pdt. Swapan Chaudhuri often told us that music constantly changes, you may sit down one day and play something and be totally moved by the beauty.  The next day you may sit down and that same thing will be completely different.  No matter what, you always have to surrender yourself to the music, and let go of yourself. By doing this the music will reward you, and it will not stop giving.  I think about this a lot when I am at a gig that would be easy to write off as 'just another gig'.  When I avoid that sort of thinking, the opportunity to discover something new is uncovered.  I also think the other musicians feel it, as well as the audience, and this makes any night of music making a great night.