Monday, August 17, 2009

August part 1: Kozora in Manchester, Kirtan at Sun Moon, Live on WCBN, Deep Blue, Ann Arbor Kirtan, Crazy Wisdom, Unity Church

So I started off the month with a blast from the not-so-distant past. I played a set with Kozora at the Riverfolk Music and Arts Festival in Manchester Michigan. If you don't remember, Kozora is a group I played with for a couple of years and we did some very experimental and cutting edge music, including some shows with Pandit Samar Saha. We had not played in a little over a year, but the leader of the group, Ken Kozora, thought we would be a good fit for the festival, which he helps organize. We were one member short, Scott Brady could not make it, so it was just Ken, Dave Gilbert and myself. It was like a breath of fresh air for me to be on the drum set with them again. A lot of the compositions Ken writes has very heavy drumming and I had forgotten how much I liked playing them, especially in a festival setting.
We were on the pavilion stage, which was nicely tucked away in a back corner of the festival grounds. As soon as we started people gathered and it ended up being a very nice show to play. I also did a little talk and demo with the tabla which was something Ken asked me to do. I appreciated the time he gave me, considering he has more than enough music to fill the hour. He is a true music lover and is always willing to showcase interesting music beyond his own. Thanks Ken!
A couple of days later I was at the Sun Moon Yoga Studio in downtown Ann Arbor. I was asked by a guitar player named Trevor to sit in on a small Kirtan. We were joined by another guitar player named Chip, and Atmaram Plummer on the harmonium. It was nice to play in Sun Moon again. The acoustics are great and it is small enough that 20 or so people really feels like a good crowd. I had done a kirtan there before with Trevor, must have been about 4 or 5 years ago, (I wonder if I might have blogged about it?....). It was when I first started doing kirtan. This time I felt like a seasoned veteran.
The event was an all day benefit for Sun Moon. I heard they had suffered a flood and needed some repair. I was more than happy to help out and do some kirtan with a different crowd. It was very low key, no P.A. system, no microphones, just singing and playing. I had a great time and it seemed to go by very fast. It was a great way to spend a summer afternoon.
The following Wednesday I was at the WCBN studio at U of M playing live on the radio with Rob Crozier on electric bass, Michael G. Nastos on percussion and electronics, and Mark Kirschenmann on electrified trumpet. All I brought was my tabla and a little shaker. This was my first time without a drum set and I felt a little stripped down. Especially when the other performers all had signal processors, mics, and amps to give their sound many faces. It turned out to be a challenge to keep up with all the different soundscapes that were created within our hour long non-stop improvisation. Playing freely and improvising may sound easy and liberating, but it can actually be surprisingly difficult and complex. It is not something that is easily explained, but when it is good you know it, and when it is bad, well...you know that too. I think an important part of the creative process is being honest with yourself about what it is you are creating. Do you like it? Is it your best work? Are you fully present? ...these are the questions that you have to ask yourself, if you really want to take it seriously and do it well. I suppose that applies to just about any creative endeavor. Anyway, it was a great experience and I look forward to doing it again soon.
The following Friday I was up in Flint, MI. at the Genesee Valley Mall to play with Deep Blue.
This time I made double sure to bring my snare drum! (I had forgotten it last month). I can't
tell you how much better it went with that nice snare sound ringing out! I was happy. I guess it
can be the little things, like forgetting a drum, that really make you appreciate what you have
and what you do.
Exactly one week later was the monthly Ann Arbor Kirtan at the Friends Center. We had just
come off a really great rehearsal and I was looking forward to how the group responded. In the
rehearsal everything seemed to click for one of the chants. It was a moment where we started a
chant, then Atmaram, who was the leader for this particular chant, had to suddenly leave the
room. The group did not stop playing and we just vamped until he got back. Everyone just
settled in on the nice groove and when he finally did come back, it was sounding so nice that his
entrance into the verse just lifted the song to a level that I have never felt with the group. It
was like the group stepped into a new realm of music making. Sure, it was just a rehearsal, but
it never matters when you are making music. The more you can make it good, the more good
you can make it. (Does that make sense?) I was curious to see if that feeling translated into the
performance. I suppose it did, however it was sort of a unique night. Dennis Chernin, who is
one of the chant leaders, had just gotten back from a kirtan camp week and he was VERY tired.
I even had to nudge him awake on a few of the chants so he would keep his mouth in front of
the mic. The night went well, though it did not have the magic of the prior rehearsal. I guess
you can't expect your team to triumph when your quarterback is using the ball as a pillow ;)
The following night was the monthly Indian music night at Crazy Wisdom Tearoom in downtown
Ann Arbor. It was a unique night due to the fact that the usual musicians could not make it. Of
the original crew, only Scott Brady, Atmaram Plummer and myself could make the show, so I
called on the ICMD, (Indian Classical Music and Dance) group for some help, and boy did they
pull through. It turned out to be a great night in a few ways. First of all, Scott got to do some
solo playing, which he hardly ever gets to do, and I got to play a nice little piece with a great
singer/harmonium player named Vish. The real treat of the night though was a rag sung by a
girl named Kamia, (sp?) I have never seen the tearoom so riveted by a performance. Even the
baristas stopped what they were doing to listen to her sing. When she was done everyone
clapped and a few people even stood up. It was a great moment that I will not soon forget.
After the show we all went to Mongolian BBQ and talked about doing it again sometime. I
hope it is sooner than later.
The next morning I was still reeling from the night before as I pulled up to the Interfaith center
for a little musical offering at a church service with Craig Brann. We were supposed to play for
two services, one at 9 and one at 11. I showed up at 8:30 and no one was there! I waited until
8:55 and then made a phone call. As it turned out I went to the wrong place! So after a 10 minute
drive to the Unity Church, (which I made in 5 :), I rushed in and got set up just in time for the
ceremony to start. It went well in spite of my mix-up.

That is all for this installment, I will write again about the exciting end of the month very soon!
thanks for reading.

John

Monday, August 10, 2009

Playin in the U.P., Kirtan, Crazy Wisdom, Deep Blue and Nick Strange

Hello again,

I love the summertime.  Going outside without a coat, night time bike rides, playing music in the park, swimming, growing food in the backyard, fiddling in the garage, and one of my favorites...going to the U.P. (that's the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my hometown of Marquette is located, right on Lake Superior). Jody and I decided to take Charley for his first trip to the U.P.  
About a week before we left I got a call from my good friend Jared Smith.  He had just completed a solo album and he wanted to get together and play the songs at Harley's lounge in the Ramada Inn right downtown Marquette.  Of coarse I said yes and the day we got there I was up in my Dad's garage with Jared, Mike Waite, and Nora Waite, rehearsing for the show the next night.  It was so great to be in the place where 
I grew up playing music that was just created by an old friend.  It is a grounding feeling to have the past and present come together with such ease.  I know there are a lot of people out there who have a problem looking, let alone going to the places in their past.  
I know I am a fortunate soul to be in the place where I grew up and doing something new.  It is right in line with my undying desire to live in, and serve my community.  These days it is so easy to be in a far away land, but still stay connected to your home.  Communities of people are brought together through communication lines that I did not dream of even when in High School.  It is very easy for Jared, who is in L.A., to contact me in Ann Arbor, and Mike in the U.P. and set up a time to meet, change our minds at the last minute, change the time, let each other know if we are going to be late, all before we even talk to each other.  
The real sense of community is created, however, not through texts or e-mails, but when the actual meeting of the real people takes place
e.  I still believe this.  I had a computer teacher at CalArts, his name was Dave, and he told us that all this computer connectivity will not lead to the de-personalization of society, but rather to a re-personalization.  I see now what he means.  I have had some great relationships and interactions with people that I have never met face to face.  I do feel lucky, grounded, and thankful for the fact that most of what I do for a living involves actual interaction with not only the people, but also the space we are in.

On to the music....
So the show with Jared Mike and Nora went well.  I was so proud of Jared for all that he had accomplished.  Not only did we play and entire set of music where every part, every arrangement, every melody, harmony, and rhythm were all created from Jared's mind, but we were also treated to a full hour of compositions Jared had written. It was just a guitar and him on a mic.  The songs were all his. Some of them were songs that were performed by his former band Hello Stranger, some were old ones I used to hear him play sitting around the fire when we lived together in Val Verde, CA. and some were new to my ears.  All of them were songs he created and obviously loved.  The audience was full of good friends and family, with a few hotel guests mixed in.  It was a nice evening and I was very happy to be a part of it.  Not to mention it was a great way to begin our time in the U.P. 
7 days later we were on our way back from what had been a very relaxing, nourishing trip.  I was feeling excited for the rest of the summer. As a teacher, one of the great perks is to have the summer off.  The beginning of the summer was full 
of home projects, visiting friends and family, and unwinding from the school year. Now it was time to play music.  I couldn't think of a better way to start it off than with two straight hours of playing tabla for Ann Arbor Kirtan.  I haven't gone to a kirtan so relaxed in a long time.  It was a very nice experience, almost like I was on the sideline watching, not actually playing.  I really appreciate those times in life where there is not tension or stress.  If I can be playing music without those two things, I will be a very happy man.
The following week my new Indian group Sumkali played at Crazy Wisdom tearoom in Ann Arbor.  We were still reeling a bit from the Top of the Park experience the month before, and without the pressure of that performance on us, I feel like everyone in the group loosened up and just played.  We played for our usual 2 hours straight and, as usual, it seemed to go by fast. For me, loosing yourself in time is a good sign that you are creating something good, especially if you can do it with 5 other people and countless others watching. 
One interesting thing that happened at this show didn't have anything to do with the music. Meeta leaned over to me before we started and said, "That guy over there looks like the guy from Alias".  She mentioned it a couple of times, but never went over to ask him.  After the gig, she did some research on Twitter and as it turns out, it was Kevin Weisman who plays Marshall Flinkman on the show.  He was in town filming a new Rob Reiner film.  Cool!  Hope you enjoyed it Kevin!
The last day of the month was a Friday, and after a full month of very relaxing nice shows, I found myself double booked once again.  This time I was playing from 6-8p.m. with the Deep Blue Jazz group.  It was out in the courtyard of Genesee Valley Mall an hour north in Flint. From there I would have to high-tail it back to Ann Arbor to play from 9:30p.m.-1:30a.m. With the Nick Strange Group.  Most of my double booking this yea
r has involved one tabla gig and one drum set gig, but this was two drum set gigs, so the logistics were a bit more complex.  
I do have 2 complete drum sets, but not enough cases, so transportation was a bit of an issue.  Needless to say I also needed to enlist the help of my student Vinnie Russo to help set up my set at Gracies.  I used my smaller student set at the mall so I could get packed up and out of there quick.  As long as I did not run into traffic, or have any car troubles, I would just be able to pull this off.  
It had  been a long time since my last gig with Deep Blue. It was great to see Paul Allen again.  Scott Brady, had been working together a lot with the Indian Music, but I only see Paul for the Deep Blue Gigs.  I got to the mall and loaded everything into the courtyard. We were catching up on each others lives while we set up when I noticed...
.I did not pack a snare drum!  Yikes!  
So after a few failed attempts at calling some drummer friends I know in Flint I went to plan B, which was trying to fashion a snare drum out of my floor tom.  The only thing that makes a snare drum a snare drum is the wires, (or snares), that are strung across the bottom of the drum that snap against the bottom head when you hit the top.  So after digging through my gear for wire, I pulled out my wire brushes and taped them to the bottom head of my snare drum.  Scott and Paul huddled around the drum as I taped it up. When I tapped the top of the drum and a snare-type sound came out, everyone sort of sighed and felt a bit more relaxed.  I, on the other hand, was bummed that, after all the careful planning, I had left my snare drum in my studio and now I was playing with a really deep snare-ish drum and no floor tom. 
 
The group played a lot of bossa and latin songs so I did not have to rely on the weak snare sound. (Bossa and latin music uses the stick on the rim of the drum to get a click sound instead of hitting the drum itself).  The show went fine and I even took some drum solos.  I wondered if there were any drummers watching us play and wondering what the heck kind of set-up I was using.  One good thing about it...I did not have to pack up a snare and stand, so I saved about a minute of transition time.  So I bid adieu to Deep Blue and headed for Ann Arbor. It was smooth sailing the whole way. I parked my van, took a deep breath and gave thanks for everything working out, even with the hiccup.
I love the feeling of walking to a venue with nothing more than a stick bag. It feels great to know that the drums are all set up and all I have to do is sit down and play.  It is a small thing, but it totally changes the feel of the night.  I am able to focus better, relax, and even put energy into coming together with the other members of the group.  So I showed up with about 10 minutes to spare before showtime, but as I walked to the door I noticed Vinnie and Dan sitting outside, which was pretty unusual.  I asked what was up and they told me Rob, the bass player, had not shown up yet.  This was a bit more serious than a forgotten snare drum.  We could not get a hold of Rob, so Dan started calling other bass players, all of them turned out to be busy.  Just as it was time to come up with a plan b, Rob pulled up.  We had just a minute or two before we were supposed to start, so there was no time for explanation. Vinnie and I helped Rob get his stuff in and we were set up and ready to go right on time.  Dan was a bit frazzled, but it all melted away once the music started.  I was just happy to be playing on a full drum set!  The night went great and by the end I was ready to keep playing.  I had a lot of drums to take out of my car after the show, but I was thankful that it went well.

That is all for July, thanks for reading and I will write again soon!

John

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