Friday, February 21, 2014

Venus, Earth and Moon are Alright Tonight

You might not know it by this blog, but I can be entertaining.

As in, I can invite guests to my apartment, serve food, play music and spark conversation to ensure everyone has a fine time.

Like many hostesses, I will put out too much food and drink, but my greatest satisfaction will come from their delight in the new bands I introduce them to with the music I put on.

When one of my guests cocks her head, smiles beatifically and says, "Is this my new anthem? I think it may be," I know my get-together is a success.

I don't do it often, but I can do it.

But as soon as the last guest is out the door, I will follow suit and head over to Ghostprint Gallery to see Tatsuya Nakatani, a Japanese percussionist who blew my mind when I saw him last May at the Nile.

Arriving at the gallery, I was not in the least surprised to find an overwhelmingly male audience and not a soul I knew.

I like that part sometimes. It's like going to a show out of town and feeling completely anonymous.

The invitation had said that doors would open at 8:30 with music at 9 sharp and, sure enough, at 8:54, Nakatani announced, "We will start in six minutes."

If you go to many shows in Richmond, you know how rare this kind of precision is.

Promptly at 9, the crowd dropped to the floor to sit and I was lucky enough to be sitting right up front.

Nakatani welcomed us, saying, "Thank you for coming tonight. Usually in a university town, we are waiting for people to show up. This is nice that you show up on time."

All of a sudden, the sound of dogs running across a wooden floor emanated from the apartment over top of the gallery and everyone looked at the ceiling.

"Did you bring dogs?" someone yelled and the musician shook his head no, smiling tolerantly. It was a sign from above that the show was on.

He said tonight was the first stop on their tour and that on the first stop, he's always a little nervous. Joined by local saxophonist Jimmy Ghaphery, they began their set with Ghaphery playing some sort of wooden flute which soon was put down for the sax (which was later put down for the clarinet).

And yet, a guy sitting over against the side wall leaned back, took off his shoes and started working the crossword puzzle in his hand. Perhaps he just wasn't as in to the music as the rest of us.

Their improvised piece had them alternately working together, as when Nakatani placed a small cymbal on his drum and blew into it to achieve a similar pitch as what Ghaphery was blowing on his sax, and working off each other, parrying and thrusting with sound.

Using broken cymbals and metal bowls, Nakatani scraped the surface of tom and snare drums, sometimes rocking a cymbal with his fingers, sometimes using homemade bows on the edge of the drum, sometimes holding up a cymbal and blowing in it toward us.

Even when he was tossing away the things he'd placed on his drum - bowls, cymbals - he'd toss them rhythmically onto the floor, still using them as percussion.

Meanwhile, Ghaphery was creating the most exquisite tension with his sax, alternately blowing long, shrill tones and other times almost making it stutter for a moody counterpoint to the pony-tailed Nakatani.

At one point, he blew into the end of the sax instead of the mouthpiece.

When their improvisation ended, both were hot and sweaty and awfully satisfied looking, much like the audience.

During intermission, a guy walked up to me, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. Asking if I was an artist (nope), he wanted to know how I'd heard about tonight. I said I'd seen Nakatani's show last year, which must have been impressive because then he wanted me to introduce myself.

"Hopefully I'll see you around again soon," he said suavely. Anything's possible, friend.

I finally found one person I knew and we chatted about what an impressive set we'd just seen, eager for Nakatani's solo second set.

He began by saying that that had been a beautiful collaboration but, "That usually works the first time, but not the second."

Then he raved about the clean floors ("You can lay down on them"), the beautiful paintings on the wall (a group show called "Wintry Mix") and how much he loved performing in the space because it was bigger than he was used to in Richmond, allowing room for four gongs, three large and one small.

That's how the second set began, with him using a bow on one of the gongs, then on two of them, eliciting different sounds from each one.

Sometimes he bowed two different sides of the same gong, creating sonic washes that filled the room.

And just so you know, the bows were all labeled with names - Venus, earth, moon.

We watched as he scraped one small cymbal across the drum, then as he "shredded" using a bow on the side of one of his drums.

There was so much sound coming out of one man as all four limbs were busy doing something to make music and I noticed a handful of people who gave up watching to close their eyes and let it all wash over them.

Most people, though, sat there enraptured, clearly trying to digest all that he was doing.

The shoe-less puzzle fan, however, tried to stick his camera on the drum, causing Nakatani to shake his head violently so he'd remove it.

Later the guy held his camera up inches from where Nakatani was drumming and this time, he held up his hand as if to say get away. One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, but jeez, what an idiot.

And Nakatani played on.

Whether he was using drumsticks inside metal bowls on top of drums, leaning a loose cymbal against a drum and hitting it to cause reverberations on both, or alternately bowing and hitting one or more gongs, it always sounded like there were multiple people making music instead of just one.

When his improvisation ended, the crowd sat stunned for a few seconds, long enough for laughter from the upstairs apartment to filter down. Everyone looked up again. The show was over.

The performance had taken a toll on the percussionist's hand, though, and he called out, "Anyone have Neosporin?" holding up a bloody knuckle.

No doubt all in a day's work for someone so wildly entertaining.

I can't hold a candle to that.

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