Improvisational music group
For more than 20 years, tucked away in the wilds of rural Michigan, the Northwoods Improvisers have been making music that resists easy classification. Taking its early inspiration from an unlikely combination of avant-garde jazz, modern classical music and anarchic late-Sixties Michigan rock, by the 1980s the group had transformed itself into a breed of improvised jazz that utilized scales and other musical cultures to explore areas that ten years later would be tagged “world music.” As the music morphed into Eastern forms, the group began pointedly eschewing the electric instruments commonly associated with Western music like rock and jazz, choosing to perform exclusively on acoustic instruments, most notably exotic ones from Asia and the Middle East. Despite its regional base, the group survived. In 1997, some 20 years after it was born, The Wire wrote of the Northwoods Improvisers’ CD Spinning: “They blend African and Eastern musics with jazz improvisation but this is no obvious ethnic fusion. The approach is complex and certainly original, but there is an immediate appeal.”
The Northwoods Improvisers sprung from the Michigan music scene of the 1960s, where for a brief moment the hard and fast boundaries between different types of music seemed to disappear. Bassist Mike recalled seeing jazz groups such as Sun Ra’s Arkestra—which was itself straining the limits of jazz forms—on the same bill with outside rockers like the MC5. “I just thought that was normal, “Johnston said with a laugh, “and then I realized it wasn’t!” he told Contemporary Musicians. While in high school, Johnston listened to blues and rock like other students, but he also discovered avant-garde artists in jazz classical music: the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Omette Coleman, John Cage, Toru Takemitsu. All left their mark on the music of the Northwoods Improvisers.
Johnston taught himself to play guitar while still in high school in Traverse City, Michigan. Around the same time he met teenage guitarist Mike Gilmore. Gilmore and Johnston started playing together at home and on camping trips. In the late 1970s, they moved to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan to attend college. Later, in 1977, they teamed up with percussionist John Plough, another friend with whom they performed frequently and formed a band of their own called the Northwoods Improvisers. Its first incarnation had Gilmore on guitar, Johnston on bass, Plough on drums, and any other musician friends around to jam. Johnston called the early Northwoods Improvisers “a total improvising garage band … bordering on an over-the-top volume thing based on Derek Bailey and Eugene Chadbourne.” Gilmore, though, was already developing a keen interest in the music of India, exploring other little-known stringed instruments, like the sitar and cheng, and teaching himself the rudiments of different Eastern scales. Eastern music had always been important to Northwoods—Ravi Shankar and Takemitsu are just two examples—and even in their early electric phase, the group’s music displayed meditative, trance-like qualities.
Although Gilmore, Johnston and Plough formed the core of the early group, other musician friends, such as guitarist Kirk Lucas, performed with them regularly. Cultivating that homegrown network remained an important commitment for Northwoods. “As we’ve done things we’ve tried to bring our friends back into the picture; they can take roles that we’re looking for, to achieve particular sounds, “Johnston told Contemporary Musicians.” And we’re almost more interested in that than in playing with other big name musicians. It’s part of where we’re coming from, this inner circle, collective kind of thing, interacting.” Friends continue to be part of Northwoods projects to the present day. They have also coalesced with Northwoods to form other temporary musical aggregations. Blues East, for example, included Lucas on guitar and Gilmore on banjo and cheng—a Chinese relative to the koto—and played, in Johnston’s words, a mixture of “folk-eastern-rock-blues.” The album Remote Viewing Ensemble saw members of Northwoods and friends exploring the textures of electronic music.
Around 1980, the group reached a musical turning point. They put away their electric guitars once and for all and went completely acoustic. It was a philosophical commitment, first to natural sound, without electronic modification or enhancement, and second to live performance—all Northwoods’ recordings are done live, in
Members include Nick Ashton (born on July 22, 1953, in Anderson, IN), drums, percussion; Don Barber (born on April 15, 1956, in Alma, MI), percussion; Patrick Boyer, guitar; Ben Bracken (born on July 31, 1975, in Grand Rapids, MI), guitar, percussion; Cliff Davies, drums; Miles F. Davis, trumpet; Mike Gilmore (born on October 6, 1959, in Traverse City, MI), vibes, marimba, cheng, saz, guitar, percussion; Mike Johnston (born on September 21, 1955, in Traverse City, MI), bass, wood flutes, percussion; Ray Kaczynski (born on March 26, 1960, in Detroit, MI), drums, percussion; Kirk Lucas (born October 26, 1959, in Mt. Pleasant, MI), cello, percussion, guitar; Randy Marsh, drums, percussion; John Plough (born on November 23, 1955, in Traverse City, MI), drums, percussion, homemade instruments; John Shepherd, experimental instruments.
Johnston, Gilmore, and Plough formed North woods Improvisers, 1977; Kaczynski replaced Plough as drummer, mid-1980s; Ashton replaced Kaczynski, 1987; first CD released on ARC Records, 1994; signed with Entropy Stereo Recordings, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —New Moon Records, 1901 South Mission, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48858, (517) 773-1370, email:[email protected]; Entropy Stereo Recordings, P.O. Box 4412, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-4412. Website —North woods Improvisors, http://www.ews.uiuc.edu/~khoury/northwoods/bio.html.
real time, without overdubs. “We believe in the power of self-expression through an instrument, “Johnston explained to Contemporary Musicians.” We believe it’s closer to life somehow. The sound comes out of the instrument. Most instruments were once living things that have been transformed into an instrument. By putting your personal energy into it you’re bringing it back to life again.” The change to acoustic music certainly did not make their lives as musicians any easier. It was a challenge to arouse interest among audiences at a time when rock was dominant and volume was synonymous with emotional expression. However the change was important to Northwoods and they have stuck with it ever since. “But I think when you hear acoustic instruments making exotic sounds, it’s far more beautiful than electric instruments doing it, “Johnston told Contemporary Musicians, “and it probably resonates a deeper chord within us as a people.”
Northwoods underwent a series of personnel changes in the 1980s. Plough left and was replaced by Ray Kaczynski, a percussionist who had studied at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant. Around 1987, Kaczynski moved to Germany where he remains active in the new music scene. His place was taken by Nick Ashton, a drummer who had lived in New York City where he played with a number of musicians from the city’s loft scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He moved back to Indiana in 1986 after his New York apartment was burgled and everything he owned was stolen. Johnston was a long time friend of Ashton’s and invited him up to Michigan to relax and think out what he wanted to do next. Not long afterward, he joined the Northwoods Improvisers and has never left.
Until the end of the 1980s, the Northwoods Improvisers remained an essentially regional group, playing concerts around Michigan, supporting Coda magazine’s editor, saxophonist Bill Smith, on his Michigan tours, and occasionally venturing to Toronto themselves under Coda’s auspices. They have played some folk festivals, but as far as most audiences were concerned their music—ranging from tunes by Omette Coleman and Sun Ra to Indian ragas—wasn’t just exotic it was downright weird. During the 1980s, they self-produced and released a number of cassettes, but were unable or unwilling to interest a record company in their work.
During the 1990s, the group was beginning to feel somewhat frustrated with its lack of measurable progress in the music business. Deciding it would be a good idea to release a CD, Johnston contacted Trevor Watts of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Johnston had known Watts since he was a teen-aged fan of SME, the only one in North America who wrote fan letters to the group. Watts offered to put out an Northwoods CD on his ARC label. The result was 1994’s Fog and Fire, an album that thanks to Watts’ stamp of approval, had a much broader distribution than anything the group had done previously. Reviewing the CD in the French-language magazine impro-jazz, Phillippe Renaud wrote, “The Northwoods Improvisers’ first release has a clearly evident originality and the group has made the most of several streams of musical influences to find their own sound coming out of those influences.” Two years later, ARC released a second Northwoods CD, Spinning, which The Wire called simply, “a beautiful album.” Northwoods sees its ARC releases as an introduction to a broader public, and consequently on them the group included a variety of the different kinds of music they perform, a sort of Northwoods Improvisers potpourri.
In 1998, the group moved to Entropy Records, a small label based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their Entropy CDs, they feel, are much more focused and conceptually holistic. Of the first, Lightning Darkness, Coda wrote, it is “gorgeously recorded. Exotic instruments conjure deep colours and currents, a sense of being in nature pervades, hidden creatures, elemental brewings.” A half year later they followed it up with Star Garden, a limited edition CD that is possibly their most beautiful, most moving work to date. Both Star Garden and Lightning Darkness saw the Northwoods core unit of Gilmore, Johnston and Ashton, reinforced by collaborators from earlier incarnations of the band: Plough and Lucas on the former, and Lucas and guitarist Ben Bracken, of the Northwoods sister band Remote Viewing Ensemble, on the latter.
Proof that the Northwoods Improvisers continue to elude musical labels—and to a degree easy musical understanding—can be seen in the way critics from different genres have responded to their work. They have looked at the group’s use of long North Indian improvisational forms and see music that is too rambling and unfocused. Critics with a background in new improvised music find Northwoods Improvisers too relaxed and rooted in forms that “mainstream” improvised music has shaken free of. World music fans are put off by the strange jazz elements and complex harmonies in Northwoods’ music.
The group continues to push in new directions. They released a marimba-based CD on the Entropy label in 2000. Around the same time, Entropy released a Mike Gilmore solo CD in a limited edition on its Zenta sub-label, on which Gilmore plays the saz. Also in 2000, the group performed with Euro-free jazz stalwarts bassist Peter Kowald, drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer—both from Germany—and reeds player Floros Floridis from Greece. As the year wound down, they were pursuing a musical project with Faruq Z. Bey, the tenor saxophonist who co-founded the Detroit group Griot Galaxy. “I’d love to play with a lot of people but I’m almost more honored to play with a guy like Faruq, “Johnston told Contemporary Musicians.” He’s a Michigan guy; it’s a little closer to home. I believe in the tribal thing a little bit, I guess. It’s a fallacy that good music only happens in Chicago, New York or New Orleans. There are a lot of talented people all over the place.” Johnston, for one, also hopes the Northwoods Improvisers will some day be able to contribute to a film soundtrack. Whatever the future brings, one can be sure that the Northwoods Improvisers will continue to confound expectations.
Arrowheads (for Leonard Peltier) 85/86, self-released, 1985-86.
Still Lake, self-released, 1986.
Blues East Collection, self-released, 1986-87.
Live at the Powerhouse, self-released, 1988.
Fog and Fire, ARC Records, CD07, 1994.
Spinning, ARC Records, CD09, 1996.
Lightning Darkness, Entropy Stereo Recordings, CD 005, 1998.
Star Garden, Entropy Stereo Recordings, CD 008, 1998-99.
Branches, Entropy, 2000.
Soaring Hawk, Entropy Stereo Recordings, 2000.
With Remote Viewing Ensemble
Remote Viewing Ensemble, Entropy Stereo Recordings, CD 003, 1997.
Coda, August 1999.
Importjazz, January 1995.
Improviser, March 1996.
Wire, March 1997.
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Mike Johnston on September 7, 2000.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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