Friday, April 03, 2009

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

Hello,
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.

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