Hitting the Road, but I can’t bring my Instrument with me

[Holland Sentinel Title: Sweet Sounds of Music Give me Wonderful Opportunities]

My April was filled with two adventures: both chances to see and play notable instruments, collaborate with fellow musicians, and check out interesting parts of the country. First, I headed to Detroit to play in a gorgeous historic church, built in 1926 – Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church. Housed in this building is a famous organ, built the same year, by one of the most highly regarded American organ builders of the time, E.M. Skinner. Ernest Skinner built an organ in a very similar style in 1928 in Dimnent chapel at Hope College. The Dimnent organ console sits up front on the stage, and the pipes are housed in chambers in the chancel, without visible pipes. In Detroit, the Skinner console is almost identical to the one at Dimnent, with most of the pipes in chambers up front, but with some visible pipes. Both organs have a division (set of pipes) in the back, an “Echo”, for special effects.

I was joined in Detroit by Hammond B3 expert Tony Monaco, for a “Battle of the organs” as we affectionately like to call it, though it was all very good natured. Tony drove up from his hometown of Columbus, OH with his Hammond in his van, and we unloaded it into the front of the church. In the heyday of the jazz program at Hope College, Tony was an Artist-in-Residence there, teaching at the college and performing around town, while also headlining events like a unique Jazz Organ Summit, which inspired this collaboration.

Tony and I alternated pieces, he playing jazz standards and originals on his Hammond, and me playing classical music written in various jazz styles (tango, ragtime, spirituals) on the Skinner, to which his pieces would relate. I loved poking around this beautiful old church building, taking in all the details of that period, like a parlor with huge windows, libraries full of beautiful bound books and wing-back chairs, stained glass in the sanctuary and chapel, and entrance ways with vaulted ceilings. Between practice sessions, it was also fun to explore a bit of downtown Detroit, peering into office buildings with intricately restored Art Deco lobbies, snapping pictures of famous statues around the city, and taking some time to wander the Detroit Institute of Art. All perks of the job, if one has enough energy between marathon practice sessions!

Two days later, I was off for a very different locale – Iowa. This time I was performing with my percussion duo (we call ourselves Thunder & Wind), for a program of Japanese music for organ, Taiko drums, and violin, collaborating with faculty at the University of Northern Iowa. The pipe organ in the organ hall of their music building is very different – built in 2000 by a Canadian builder, Hellmuth Wolff. While the Skinner organ is an electrical action instrument, which means that the connections between the keyboards and the pipes are all electrical, the Wolff is a mechanical action, which means the console (that’s what we call the large piece of furniture that contains all the keyboards, pedalboard, and stop knobs) needs to sit very close to the pipes, so that the trackers can run straight from the console to pipes in the case. When one pushes down a key, that very action is what starts the motion to open the palate and let air into the pipe.

These were two very different organs sonically, visually, and kinetically. Since Carolyn Koebel, my percussion partner, needs to travel with all her drums, and Taiko drums are huge, we road-tripped together in her van through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, over the mighty Mississippi, to Cedar Falls. There wasn’t quite as much time for sightseeing, though we did take in a local establishment called Barn Happy, full of cheerful ladies, freshly baked pies, and Iowan-themed gnomes and dishtowels in the gift shop.

Carolyn and I performed our touchstone piece, Fujin Raijin, written in 1997 for organ and Taiko drums, a very evocative work, since both instrument can fill the room with a rumble you can feel in the pit of your stomach. We also performed a more modern piece by a Japanese woman Hina Sakamoto, Two Heartbeats, with snare drum, cymbal and kick bass, which is a bit more rock-and-roll and has a great beat.

If you’re interested in seeing pictures or hearing some of these pieces, check my Instagram or Facebook page. I try to post pictures and recordings (when I’m not too busy practicing!)