Top Chefs: Sumkali's new album is a delicious fusion of East and West

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Sumkali

Whether it's with food, art, or music, fusion depends on a natural blending to be successful. Adding cayenne peppers to cherry ice cream just ain't gonna work.

But the music of Sumkali works perfectly, an expert blend of East and West, the ancient and the futuristic.

The Ann Arbor band's fourth album, Dha Re Dha, is a particularly good fusion of sounds and working methods. Recorded over a three-year period, the band says the LP falls into three categories:

1). arrangements of traditional Indian folk melodies, 2) Improvised studio sessions with minimal editing, and 3) Fully composed 'hyper-realistic' original studio creations that were built from the ground up in the studio track by track.

In addition to Sumkali's core members -- John Churchville (tabla), Bidisha Ghosh (vocals), Dan Ripke (guitar), Rich Rickman (bass), Anoop Gopal (violin), and Will Ciccola (sax/flute) -- Dha Re Dha features 15 guest musicians, including tabla giant Pandit Samar Saha and local legend Peter "Madcat" Ruth on harmonica.

Sumkali has honed it sound through monthly gigs at Indian Music Night in Crazy Wisdom's tea room, but those shows focus more on traditional materials. Dha Re Dha extends the band's sound by adding studio manipulation to the mix, allowing Sumkali to turn traditional Indian music into a modern mash-up without ever killing the original roots of inspiration.

It's a legit tasty fusion.

I emailed with Churchville to discuss Dha Re Dha.

Dig This: Los Gatos swing from pure salsa to Latin jazz on their new album

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Los Gatos

Los Gatos have kept the Latin music flame burning in Ann Arbor for some 20 years, with essentially the same lineup most of the time. But there have certainly been some changes along the way.

For one, the band has outlasted two of its important homes for regular gigs, the now-defunct Bird of Paradise and the Firefly Club. It’s also undergone a shift in musical styles: Originally conceived as a purely Latin jazz ensemble, in later years the band has found itself getting deeper into salsa.
In fact, the Los Gatos recently released a new album, Guarachéate! -- its third ever, and first since 2007 -- that focuses primarily on the band’s salsa side. It’s a great snapshot of the band’s current sound and it displays their reverence for the music, their instrumental skills, and their joy in sharing what they love.

“I don’t think we could have predicted the band would last this long,” says pianist Brian DiBlassio, recently reflecting on their history.

Performance as Art: The Black Opera at Top of the Park

MUSIC REVIEW

The Black Opera

You know you're onto something unique when you can count both Deepak Chopra and Snoop Dogg as fans.

The Black Opera, an alternative hip-hop group formed in 2011 in the Ann Arbor area, performed at Top of the Park on Tuesday, and from the moment the duo took the stage they had the crowd on their feet dancing, laughing, and enjoying the hard-hitting beats from the gritty group. The Black Opera was happy to be home and MCs Magestik Legend and Jamall Bufford showed it in each enthusiastic rhyme.

Dubbing itself “rap’s first performance art group,” The Black Opera began its set wearing striking white masks and proceeded to change portions of their outfits after each song to add new vibes and visuals. Videos played behind them with imagery ranging from the decorated streets of Detroit during the song “Beautiful City" to the Flint water crisis, and messages like “We Are One” and “Forever We Rebel” were splashed across the screen multiple times as a recurring theme of activism.

Harmoniously Happy: Brandi Carlile at the Michigan Theater

MUSIC REVIEW

Brandi Carlile

Nobody sings like Brandi Carlile.

Her voice has so much power and force it’s like something shot out of a cannon -- except that there’s subtlety there, too, and nuance, and many different shades of feeling.

At her June 9 show at the Michigan Theater show, co-hosted by The Ark, Carlile played to an ecstatic, sold-out audience, showcasing the power of her voice and the force of her backing band.

From her first album (Brandi Carlile) to her most recent (By the Way, I Forgive You), Carlile’s songs have reckoned with late nights, stiff drinks, and love affairs gone wrong -- or, occasionally, right. But in Ann Arbor, Carlile explored a different side of herself, a more grown-up side. If there was a theme to the show, it was parenthood.

Less Talk, Rock Action: Fuzz Fest 5 at The Blind Pig

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Fuzz Fest 5 logo

Fuzz Fest lets the music do the talking.

I don't just mean the harmonious racket that'll be created by 33 bands performing nearly 18 hours of jams on June 21-23 at The Blind Pig for the fifth edition of this annual event. Well, I do mean that, but because Fuzz Fest has two performance areas in the club -- one on the main stage and one on the floor -- there are no breaks between the bands' 30-minute sets, which means no time for extraneous jibber-jabber.

It's just CONSTANT ROCK ACTION.

Chris "Box" Taylor, the primary person behind this sonic endurance event, is also content to let the music do the talking. When I asked him to name the most memorable things from Fuzz Fests past, Taylor got straight to the point:

To the Moon & Back: Nashville's Moon Taxi kicks off Sonic Lunch

MUSIC REVIEW

Moon Taxi at Sonic Lunch

Liberty Plaza was put into lunar orbit by Moon Unit in the kickoff concert of the Sonic Lunch series. Photo via Sonic Lunch.

The weather, the vibe, and the music all felt like summer on Thursday for the first concert in this year’s Sonic Lunch series, as rising pop-rock band Moon Taxi brought its infectious sound to Liberty Plaza.

Although past Sonic Lunch shows have occasionally had an opening band, this year for the first time every show will feature two acts. Thursday’s opener, Nadim Azzam, is a talented Ann Arbor singer-musician-songwriter who combines indie folk and hip-hop -- and some other genres -- into a seamless mix. “Out of Air” highlighted the enjoyable five-song set, in which saxophonist Jacob LaChance backed Azzam.

Moon Taxi leader Trevor Terndrup greeted a crowd that easily numbered several hundred, and under a cloudless sky, the band launched into “Let the Record Play,” the title track from its major-label debut album, released earlier this year by RCA. The reggae flavorings of the song came to the forefront a bit more in concert than on the studio version.

Still Righteous: Ani DiFranco kicked off the Ann Arbor Summer Festival at The Power Center

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Ani DiFranco

Folk-punk icon Ani DiFranco opened the Ann Arbor Summer Festival on Tuesday with a show full of feeling and fire.

The concert at The Power Center opened with talented young singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx. Her original songs featured inventive imagery, warm vocals, and expressive guitar. She also showed an offbeat sense of humor, introducing one song as being about “how we’re all going to die, and that’s OK.”

DiFranco hit the stage in a burst of energy that barely let up throughout her set. When she momentarily got lost in the lyrics of her opening song, she and her band -- bassist/keyboardist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Terrence Higgins -- literally didn’t miss a beat, quickly recovering and leading DiFranco to joke, “Thanks for coming to rehearsal.”

No Standard Standards: The Pherotones turn cover songs upside down and inside out

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The Pherotones

Phe-nominal group: (L to R) Ross Huff, special guest Randall Moore, Brennan Andes, Giancarlo Aversa, Michael Shimmin.

Versatility is key to a covers band's success, but The Pherotones' repertoire really takes that idea to the next level. In its Thursday night standing gig at The Last Word, the group puts a jazzy spin on a wild variety of musical eras and genres. A recent show found the group covering material ranging from a jazz standard ("These Foolish Things") to a century-old spiritual/protest song ("Down By the Riverside") to an '80s pop hit ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World") to a classic TV theme (The Muppet Show). 

The Pherotones' catalog rewards a deep and diverse appreciation of popular music in its numerous incarnations, and the band's musical approach to the material is similarly enjoyable. The jaunty arrangements add a dignified but fun twist to familiar tunes, with the whole band shouting out unamplified vocals on some selections. The players themselves form a distinguished local supergroup of sorts. Trumpeter Ross Huff and bassist Brennan Andes are well-known for their roles in The Macpodz (and countless other groups), and drummer Wesley Fritzemeier is known for his more folk-influenced work with the Ben Daniels Band and Thunderwude. Locals may know pianist Giancarlo Aversa for his proficiency in quite a different art: The Last Word's principal bartender. 

Although it's now been over five years since The Pherotones originally got together as Giancarlo and the Wedding Rehearsal Singers, the band's story remains something of a mystery. There's very little publicity on the band and little online record of its work. We tracked down Huff to ask about The Pherotones' origin story, how they've developed their repertoire, and how they respond to audience requests.

Musical Religion: Corey Strong reflects on the spiritual power of songs

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Corey Strong

Corey Strong is a classically trained adult contemporary/pop singer and songwriter with a rich baritone voice. He has released two albums so far -- Believer and It’s Christmas -- but Strong recently underwent a musical transition, from singing inspirational music to transferring over to the pop market.

Strong, who's a longtime friend, performs at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library on May 30 at 7 pm. I sat down for an interview with the multiple times nominated Detroit Music Award artist and we talked about many things, including his new single, Moments, which features the songs "Bring Him Home" and "Baby Mine." 

The Lucky Nows celebrate their debut album at The Ark

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The Luck Nows

Jen Cass has been developing a following as a singer-songwriter dating back to appearances at The Ark’s open mic night while she was a student at the University of Michigan. Since then she’s released three albums and done a considerable number of live shows.

But in 2013, she started dating fellow musician Eric Janetsky, and naturally, they started performing music together. That was the start of The Lucky Nows, which started as a duo but evolved into a full band. Now they are releasing Rise, their debut album as a group, complete with a release party at The Ark on May 31 -- which also happens to be the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary.