Friday, January 7, 2011

California Chronicle | Couple Make Beautiful Music

In a small recording space on Valley Road in Clifton, a unique sound fills the air: The nimble rat-tat-tat of a drummer against a Persian daf is joined by a smoky voice singing Nat "King" Cole's "Nature Boy." Soon, the melody turns into a rapid, hypnotic rhythm, with syllables that seem to imitate a drum.

This fusion of rhythm, jazz and voice is the work of Glen Velez and Lori Cotler, the husband-and-wife duo behind the Ta Ka Di Mi Project. Velez is a four-time Grammy Award-winning percussionist who has mastered a range of international frame drums, from the bodhran to the tambourine. Cotler is a veteran singer who is well-versed in numerous styles of singing, from scat to solkattu, South India's drumming language. Solkattu is typically used as a tool to instruct percussion students in South India, but Cotler has made it her own, taking a melodic approach to the intricate technique.

Together, Velez and Cotler perform internationally, touring as far as Japan and as close as their adopted hometown, Montclair. Between engagements, both find time to teach master classes at universities and take part in their non-musical pastimes: running and watching movies at their hometown cinema.

Q. Your music is so distinctive -- what reaction do you get from audience members?

Cotler: It's always been extremely positive. There's a lot of, 'I didn't know it was possible to get sound out of a tambourine like that,' or 'I didn't know you could move your voice that fast.' A lot of people say that they feel exhilarated because ... it combines so many different parts of the world and includes American jazz -- they just haven't heard that combination before.

Q. How did you meet?

Velez: Lori was teaching at The New School [in Manhattan] and I was brought in to do a workshop for the teachers and students. The head of the department where Lori was teaching knew Lori's music and thought we'd be an interesting collaboration.

Cotler: We don't tend to have the issues that other [musical couples] do, I think because we play different instruments. Our styles are different, yet it comes together so nicely. We really do have a lot of fun being together and working together as musicians, but also as a couple.

Q. You both write a lot of your music. What's the composing process like?

Velez: Each composition comes about differently, so it's hard to generalize. It might be some rhythmic idea that we start with and then we hook into those. We might start with an architecture that's interesting to us in terms of the sound compositions we put together. We'll also, in the process, do a lot of recording and listen back and do an editing process like that.

Cotler: We start from the rhythm and the pulse and work our way out, whereas in other forms, it's the other way around.

Q. Have you noticed more interest in frame drumming in the last few years?

Velez: There's much more interest now. It's a gradual thing because you don't hear this type of thing on Top 40 radio. Even if it was played on pop radio, you probably ... wouldn't be able to visualize what it was. When people see it live and understand the possibilities, they're really interested in it.

Q. Lori, how did you create what you call "rhythm singing"?

Cotler: I've studied many styles, but the culmination of everything is a rhythmic approach to the voice. A teacher in high school turned me on to scat singing and that was it. I kept going, learning jazz and bebop. I was always really attracted to the idea of rhythm and improvisation. When I met Glen, he introduced me to the drum language of South India and I just felt like I was coming home.

Q. Friday's performance will involve duets and solos. You'll also get to perform with longtime collaborators Shane Shanahan and Yousif Sheronick. What else can audiences expect?

Velez: There are five or six types of frame drums I'll be using. One from Persia, one from Ireland, one from the Middle East, one from South Italy, North Africa. I had studied the different styles and I use them in the context of these compositions.

Cotler: We'll do a world premiere for the new arrangement of Glen's piece, called 'Doctrine of Signatures.' It's the first composition to use ensemble playing with frame drums and will involve vocalizations and some stepping, which is very exciting.

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California Chronicle | Couple Make Beautiful Music

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