Good C.A.R.Ma.: Peter Madcat Ruth's latest band and album mix Indian music, blues, jazz, and more
Ann Arbor’s beloved harmonica virtuoso Peter Madcat Ruth recorded a new album, Cosmic Convergence, with his genre-jumping C.A.R.Ma. Quartet, which is playing a concert at The Ark on Sunday, November 6. The Quartet gets its name from the initials of the band members’ names: John Churchville (drums); Brennan Andes (bass); Dan Ripke (electric guitar); and the Ma taken from the first two letters of Ruth’s longtime Madcat alias.
Ruth's a musical explorer whose career goes back five decades and includes recordings with everyone from jazz pianist Dave Brubeck to funk king George Clinton to classical composer William Bolcom to word-jazz artist Ken Nordine. Cosmic Convergence continues Madcat's exploratory ways, moving in all sorts of satisfying directions by deftly incorporating elements of Indian music, folk, blues, jazz, Americana, and more. (The album isn't streaming yet, but CDs will be available at the show and vinyl at a later date.)
In a recent phone conversation, Ruth talked about the origins of the C.A.R.Ma. Quartet, his nonexistent retirement plans, and the inspiration he got from playing music with Brubeck.
Q: How did your C.A.R.Ma. Quartet come together?
A: We were all members of a group called Sumkali, an Indian music jam band that John Churchville had put together. It was definitely part-time, a once-a-month Indian jam night at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore. All four of us were part-time members of that band, and we played Top of the Park a few times and Concert of Colors in Detroit one time. Then just as COVID hit in 2020, one of the members of Sumkali quit, and another moved to Georgia, but there was a show booked already in Cadillac, Michigan. The promoter there asked John to put together a virtual show, and John said that while Sumkali had dissolved, he could put together these other musicians, the four of us. We had so much fun that I said, "Dang, we have a band when I wasn’t even looking for a band!"
Q: I introduced the quartet at Top of the Park this summer and was knocked out by your sound, especially the rhythm section of John Churchville, who incorporates Indian tabla drums into his conventional drum kit, and Brennan Andes, whose bass playing with The Macpodz I’ve admired for many years.
A: Churchville adds a completely different flavor with his playing. He knows a lot of tabla players but he doesn’t know anyone who ever tried this anywhere. Before he played tablas he played in blues bands; he was with Shirley King, B.B. King’s daughter, on the road with her for a little while. He has a drum-set background and played in rock ‘n’ roll bands and even polka bands. With Brennan, I like to think we really let him off the leash; I love his soloing. A lot of bands he plays with just want him to hold down the bottom.
Q: What drew you to the harmonica originally?
A: I’d already been playing ukulele first, then guitar, but when I heard Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry on the radio in 1964 I fell in love with harmonica. In 1966 I started listening to Paul Butterfield, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Big Walter Horton, and I left Chicago in 1970 to join a rock 'n' roll band in Ann Arbor called New Heavenly Blue with [bassist and trombonist] Chris Brubeck. Later I started playing with his brother [Darius Brubeck] and his father [Dave Brubeck] in Two Generations of Brubeck.
Q: What are some of your happiest memories of playing music with Dave Brubeck?
A: He had such a big heart; he was such a good person….very little ego involved. He just loved to play music. He was kind of required to do "Take Five" every night, and every time he played it differently. There would be a piano solo in the middle and it was as fresh as it could be. It was astounding; it was an inspiration! Because of playing with all those Brubecks for so many years, the odd time signature thing got into my head; I love it. The song "Lucky 13" on Cosmic Convergence is in 13/8 time, but it flows right along. It’s a groove, you know?
Q: Anything else going on musically speaking we should know about?A: I’m 73 and I could retire, but I love playing music so I’m not going anywhere! I’m not in it for the money; I’m in it for the love of playing music.
Martin Bandyke is the morning drive host on ann arbor’s 107one, WQKL-FM
Peter Madcat Ruth's C.A.R.Ma. Quartet plays The Ark, 316 S. Main, Ann Arbor, at 7:30 pm on Sunday, November 6. Tickets are $20. "Cosmic Convergence" CDs will be available at the show; a vinyl version will come out sometime down the road.