Dec. 9, 2004
by BOB DORAN
LEGEND HAS IT THAT MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST/BODY PERCUSSIONIST Joe Craven [photo at right] was offered a job in the David Grisman Quintet because Grisman heard him beating out a rhythm backstage on his violin case.
"That may have been the clincher," said Craven, when I asked him about it in a call to his home in Dixon, near Davis, "and there is truth in it, but I think what David saw in me was that I was a utility man. I'm versatile, and could fill two posts he had previously had in his band: that of percussionist and the role of fiddle player. He was also familiar with my work as a string player, knew I could play mandolin -- but I think he was sold when he heard me do found object percussion, always one of my main approaches to making music."
That was in the late '80s, not long after Craven had left his home back east to come west. He notes that he came here with a degree in museology. Not to be confused with musicology, museology is the science of running a museum, and that's what Craven did before his music career, including a stint in Italy studying conservation and restoration of paintings.
Along with art, music had always been part of his life, at least since the time at the age of 13 when he was pulled in by a Jimi Hendrix recording. "That was the beginning of the journey. I started on guitar and branched out from there."
He explains the expansion of his musical palette by saying he has always been a good listener, "in terms of listening to a wide variety of music, but also just listening to sounds. In fact I consider myself more `sound artist' than musician. I love extracting pitch and playing harmonically on things that are redefined in the moment. One of my favorite musical instruments is the angel-food cake pan. It serves as a timekeeper, played percussively, but each one also has its own pitch. I have over 15 of them. When you become a percussionist, you tend to develop terminal collecting disease. I have a garage full of things I can use to make music."
Craven joined Grisman's band at the end of the '80s, and continued his exploration of musical possibilities. He says he had already developed the urge listening to people like Hendrix and cites Frank Zappa as another influence. "He opened my eyes and ears to the idea that music could go anywhere. I was intrigued by the mandolin, but not out of it being tethered to music people normally think of in connection with the instrument, bluegrass by Bill Monroe. David, and the way he used the mandolin in a jazz context, became another inspiration along the same lines."
While he has become an integral part of Grisman's band, that's not all he does. He has recorded three CDs on his own, the latest being Django Latino, "A reinterpretation of the writing of Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli, but in a Latin setting with dance rhythms from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Haiti all the way down to Argentina."
He has also been working with the acclaimed dobro player Rob Ikes. Craven sees the pairing as a natural. "We both love a lot of the same kinds of music. We're both big fans of funk, big fans of jazz, swing and straight-ahead. We love a lot of world music, that something I've been turning him on to, different rhythms. We also play some bluegrass things and I do some singing, pop tunes, things like that, an eclectic mix."
While he's in town this weekend playing with Ikes, Craven will also offer something quite different: a rhythm workshop he calls, "Thinking Outside the Box...and Beating On It!" Describing the ideas and methods he touches on in his workshops, Craven slipped into metaphysical lecture mode, expounding on his core beliefs.
"The basic focus is rhythm -- I'm making my pitch for my belief that rhythm is the most important component of music. The workshop is for anyone who wants to deepen their sense of rhythm, and grasping the bigger picture of what the word really embodies: sound, sight, a way of addressing the organization of things.
"When rhythm operates in the audible domain, it's a way of measuring time, but there's more to it than that: There are also visual rhythms. Thinking about rhythm and gaining an awareness where you look at things rhythmically, whether audibly or visually, you learn to look at the world through a different lens, and that helps you become more artful in your daily pathway. It's about living a more artful life.
"I believe if you are going to live an artful life, you have to find ways to bust through the box of normality and category -- and mediocrity. I try to explain the idea that one must integrate the discipline of being an adult with the wonder of a child, staying open to things, focusing, listening deeper and longer, and then letting it all go.
"You have to learn to spend time thinking about it, but also taking time to quit thinking: close your eyes and do it and feel it, be in the moment. You learn improvisation by giving yourself the permission to be spontaneous with things, and realize that the twists and turns and unpredictability of that are part of the magic of self-expression."
Joe Craven and Rob Ikes perform at Six Rivers Brewery at 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11. Craven's rhythm workshop takes place earlier that day, at 2 p.m. at the Arcata Vets Hall. The two-hour workshop is suitable for all ages; admission is $20, $15 for Humboldt Folklife Society members. Sign up in advance by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 599-6567 or just show up. You can bring an instrument if you like, but it's not required. Craven promises to teach you to make music with anything. The only requirement is to come with an open mind.
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