Monday, February 23, 2009

Sky lounge, Nick Strange, Kirtan, Crazy Wisdom, Mind Body Spirit Center, Nick Strange

Hello again,
  March is here already and it is very cold outside today.  It is that time of year where you can't leave your instrument in your car, even for a half hour without worrying about something cracking.  With a busy schedule, it can be difficult to plan a day around having to play a show.  I have been very lucky and have been getting a lot of help from my student Vinnie Russo.  Has been helping me out at gigs by picking up my drums and setting them up at the show.  It has given me some much needed flexibility. 
Flexibility is needed when you teach all day, come home, say hi you your baby, teach some private lessons, and a tabla class, and then have to get ready for a show.  An extra half hour or hour really helps. Especially a gig like the Sky lounge, which I played on the first Thursday in February.  It is on the third floor of the new big student center on EMU's campus.  You must pull your car up to the side of the building bring in the drums, park the car, come back and locate one of the student workers and have them get a cart for you.  You then load the drums on the cart, pull it into the service elevator, wheel it down the hall to the Sky lounge room, set up the drums and return the cart.  That whole process, without even taking the drums out of the cases takes at least a half hour.  
Vinnie, I believe, is also gaining from the experience. He has met a lot of musicians, and even impressed one group so much during a sound check that they asked him to play in the band when I couldn't make it.  I think he actually played his first show with them on Valentines day.  Yes, I remember now because he was not available to help me with a show I was playing on the same night.  It was with Nick Strange at Goodnite Gracies in Ann Arbor.  The place was packed with couples. We were playing for the first time with a new bass player named Sam.  He used to play with a group called Cloud Nine, which was a popular local band.  He was filling in for Rob Crozier who could not bring himself to put a gig above a romantic Valentines day outing with his girlfriend.  
He knew it for a while and hooked us up with Sammy early on, so after a little preparation and rehearsing, the music was still sounding nice.  Sammy was having a little difficulty doing everything in the live setting where one song comes right after another, but his sharp ear and good technical skills could pick up on things very quickly. 
I feel for a guy who has to come into a band for the first time and just go for it.  All mistakes and mishaps feel like they come right from your newbie presence. It is like playing a card game for the first time with a bunch of people that have played the game together for years.  At first everyone is trying to be helpful, giving you tips and things to look for, and then very soon after it starts, they sort of expect you to get it and play along without disturbing the pace of play too much. All in all it was a fun night, and it felt good to be the soundtrack for so many people out to celebrate love.
The following week was a monster tabla week.  I counted it up and from Friday to Sunday I had just over 13 hours behind my drums.  It was actually a very nice way to spend a weekend.  Tabla is a much gentler style of drumming, which doesn't involve nearly as much volume, heavy lifting, physical stamina, and time setting up and tearing down.  It is easy to whisk in and out of playing situations without getting physically worn down, which gives you more energy to put into the music.  (Oh my gosh, am I sounding too much like an old man with all this tired talk!)  Anyway, the weekend started with the monthly Friday Kirtan. When I got to the Friends Center, I had already been playing tabla for about 5 hours. I practiced in the morning and had a rehearsal, so my hands had felt like I already played a whole show.  It really caused me to pace myself with the chanting and focus on relaxing into the patterns.  This mindset is such a powerful place to be when you are studying music.  I love the feeling of being just fatigued enough that I must play conservatively.  I tend to have trouble getting myself to hold back when I play with full energy, so playing in such a state as I was Friday I could hear all the sound and richness that comes when my throttle is turned down.  What is a bit ironic is that in reality, things like speed, creativity, precision, and a sweet sound, which are all constant desires seem easier to achieve with a slow, steady pace.  John Bergamo used to call this the Long Speed Distance, (...."Man, all you need is a little LSD!").
The next night I was excited to play again at the Crazy Wisdom Tearoom for our monthly Indian music night.  Scott Brady could not make it to this one, but we were joined by Dan Piccolo on a tabla that was an octave lower than mine, so the rhythm was nice and fat, (or is it 'phat'?).  Prashanth and Meeta played a rag together for the first time and it was, for me, the highlight of the evening.  It was called Hamstawani, and between the two of them, there was so much melodic painting I felt like I was part of a beautiful mural of sound.  Something seemed to really click with our group and I think it has a lot to do with all the rehearsals we have been getting in.  At the end of the night I had 13 people sign up for my e-mail list, which was by far a record for a CW gig.   
The next night we were all together again for a pick-up gig with Dan Piccolo at the Mind, Body, Spirit Wellness Center in Ann Arbor.  It is a non-profit place where they do all sorts of meditation classes, massages, etc.  and now they are trying to do music on Sundays.  We were just playing for a half hour before some other groups got up but it was a very sweet half hour.  There was no P.A. system, so we were all acoustic and I think that really freed us up to really just listen to each other and play very tight.  I enjoyed it very much.  Not to mention Scott was able to join us so the sound was just that much more full.  It was a great end to a very fulfilling weekend.
The last weekend in February had just one show. It was another Gracie's show with Nick Strange.  The crowd was not as big as the Valentines show, but the music was sounding much tighter.  Sammy was back and he had definitely done some practicing.  Getting through the first gig is always the hardest.  Even thought the crowd was smaller they seemed to be listening much more on this night.  I was still in the mindset from the week before, taking it easy and pacing myself, although it was for a very different reason. Earlier in the day I was changing a light switch in our house and my hand slipped and I cut my left index finger right at the second knuckle.  It bled really bad and I was concerned with how I would be able to play.  I taped it up very well and just played only using three fingers.  My hand was tired and sore at the end of the night, but I made it through alright.
All in all it was a great month of music, and I am looking forward to another one in March.  Hopefully things will warm up a bit around here.  Thanks for reading, and I will write again soon!

John

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Paledave, 2 Nick Strange, A2 Kirtan, MMC, Saraswati Puja, Crazy Wisdom

January has started off busy as can be.  On the 4th I had a small pick-up gig with Paledave.  We played mostly acoustic stuff at the Old Town Tavern in Ann Arbor.  It was a nice easy gig, and despite the frigid cold weather, the place was packed.  Thanks Dave for askin' me to play.
The following Saturday I was at Goodnite Gracies in Ann Arbor playing with the Nick Strange Group.  It had been a little while since we last played and it actually felt pretty good to play.  Rob Crozier, the bass player had just started at the prestigious University of Michigan Music school and he was on cloud nine.  It was great to play with that kind of energy.  It seems to me that when you get so involved in something that you love to do, such as making music, that you begin shaping your life around it, you begin to bring your absolute best to every little piece of the puzzle, knowing that it all fits together.  I felt this in Rob's playing that night.  It reminded me that I also do what I love, and I owe it to myself to bring my best every time I pick up the sticks.  Thanks and good luck at U of M Rob!
The next Friday I was with the Kirtan group again at the Friends Meeting house in Ann Arbor.  It was a special night for me because I got to bring my Dad, who was in town to see his grand kids for the first time.  He sat through all the setting up, the sound check, and the short rehearsal that has become our customary 2 hour pre-kirtan routine.  I wasn't sure how he would like the chanting, or the music for that matter.  He said he was pleasantly surprised.  He wasn't expecting it to 'groove so much'.  I saw him in the back singing and having a good time, so I was happy.  For some reason I get a nervous feeling before someone I love watches me do something I love to do.  I worry that they will not like it as much as I do and it will somehow be diminished in my own reality.  It never happens though.  I think I am very lucky to be surrounded by a loving and supportive family.  Perhaps this nervous feeling is really just adrenaline released by the excitement of sharing what I love.
The next night I was playing with Nick Strange again, only this time we were in St. Clair Shores, MI. at a place called Fishbones.  This is a much different place than Gracies.  It is much bigger, and there are T.V.'s everywhere, including a huge large screen just to the right of the band, and the KENO screen right above the guitarists head.  This sort of atmosphere doesn't usually lend itself to great music making.  On this night however, the music was really clicking.  It was one of those nights where everything was right on and everyone in the group knew it.  It felt great to go out for a night's work and have something like that happen.  The one downside of the night was that there was no dancers, no applause, and seemingly no interest from the crowd.  Interestingly enough though, once the sets were over, people would walk up to us and tell us that we were sounding great.  It was like the culture within that venue did not usually acknowledge the bands, so even if people were digging it, it wouldn't be 'cool' to show it by dancing, or applauding.  I don't know, perhaps we were all just so into what we were doing that 'capturing' the audience did not seem like such a high priority. 
 Music is a funny business.  There is definitely a difference between being a musician and being an entertainer, although as a performing musician, you must be a little of both.  It seems self-indulgent to forget about your audience and just turn into the music.  If you played a couple of extra pop tunes instead of a couple of extra rounds of improv, then you might get a few people to dance, or a hoot from the back of the room.....so is that worth it?  Would they rather hear professional musicians doing what they love, or it is more worth their time to hear these musicians play some thrown together different version of a favorite song from the past?  This question has plagued the independent musician since the creation of the cover band. 
I was happy to be having this conversation with the group when we were done with the show.  It made me feel like I was part of a group of musicians that has moved to the next level together.  We weren't lamenting the lame crowd, or mistakes that may have occurred, instead we were contemplative, like-minded, and satiated.  It is easy to play music all night with most any musician, but moving into the next level, where things click and you all know it, and the music becomes something that nourishes you....that is fairly rare.  I am not sure it felt like that to the audience, if that even matters.  They seemed happy, entertained, and in good spirits.  I am just grateful that we were too.
The following weekend I was in Grand Rapids Michigan for the Michigan Music Educators Conference.  I was there to give a presentation on Indian Classical music.  It was a great opportunity to introduce Indian Classical music  to music teachers from all over Michigan.  I asked Meeta Banerjee to join me and she graciously agreed to drive all the way across the state to do this 45 minute presentation and then turn around and drive back.  Thanks Meeta.  the presentation went great.  The time flew by and there were all kinds of great questions from the audience.  We were lucky to be the last presenters in the room that we were in, so we could hang out after and talk with the teachers and professors.
  I spent the remainder of the conference going to many many presentations, workshops, clinics etc. about all different stuff like music and movement, notation programs for the computer, music technology for educators, choir visualization techniques, cello teaching techniques, and so on.  Not to mention it is a great way to network with other music teachers. I hope to go again next year.
On the Monday after the conference I drove down to the Depot Town Community Center in Ypsilanti, MI. to do an improvised recording with Jesse Plummer, (of the Skylounge band) on Keyboard, Rob Crozier on Bass, and Jessie's soon-to-be brother-in-law Paul Bower also on Keys.  It was an inspired night of playing.  Something about recording brings out the best in musicians, perhaps it is the impending permanence of what you are about to do.  Whatever it is it worked, and I can not wait to hear the record when it comes out.  Look for it in a month or two at http://www.communityrecordsmusic.com/ 
On the last Saturday in January I had a double header.  Meeta and I were asked to play at the Saraswati Puja for the Mitiali community group, which is made up of mostly Bengali's living in the U.S.  We played the same one last year.  This year I got to also play a tabla duet with my student Preetom.  His dad Pulak, is the organizer of the event.  I have been his teacher for over a year now and putting together a short duet came pretty easy.  Meeta played the lehera and we just did a few compositions both together and one at a time.  It went well, except that the sound guy could not get Preetom's mic to work, so he was silent to the crowd. Bummer.  I guess we will have to try it a gain next year.  
As we were all standing backstage waiting to go on, a sweet 85 year old woman saw my tabla and grabbed my arm and asked if I knew Bhajani Theka, which is a simple groove on the tabla that many songs (bhajans) are sung to.  I sat down and played for her and she lit up.  She said "That is perfect!  You will join me on stage".  So I sat with her on stage and played about 3 songs. It was very nice and she had a beautiful voice.  Pulak told me later that she was a professional singer in India and she sang on Mumbai T.V. and all India Radio.  It was an unexpected treat.
So as soon as we were done, Meeta and I had to split to hurry to get to Crazy Wisdom tearoom for a show with Scott Brady, Prashanth Gururaja, and Atmaram Plummer.  It was the debut of what I hope will be a great group called SumKali.  We played some Indian classical, folk, and just straight up improvised stuff.  It was so much fun, and the crowd was great.  There was standing room only.  I am hoping we are able to play much more in the near future.
That does it for January.  It was a very productive month for music, and things don't look to be slowing down anytime soon, so keep reading and stay in touch!

Thanks,

John

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