Virtuoso: Look, Ma, both hands!
Monday, October 11
In music, ambidexterity can be found everywhere– or at least I have noticed a valiant quest for acquiring the skill in the art of making music.
Drummers, pianists, guitarists, and percussionists not only strive to use the left and right sides of their bodies with equal strength, but they also practice for hours getting the sides to move independently of each other.
There are few instruments that reallyreallyreally challenge musicians to divide their mind in such a way. Of them I put the piano, harp, eight-string guitar (see Charlie Hunter), drum kit, and Chapman stick at the top of the list and in no particular order with respect to degrees of difficulty.
The Chapman stick? Yes, sir– the instrument affectionately referred to as "the stick." Remember being a kid trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time? Well, this instrument is more along the lines of painting a replica of a Rembrandt masterpiece on your stomach while collecting fungus cultures one-handed from petrie dishes balanced on your head.
The instrument looks like an oversized guitar fret board and operates in a very similar fashion in the sense that sounds are created by tapping the strings on the board. The difference here is that half of the 12 strings on the stick represent a whole lower octave, allowing the musician to play melodies, basslines, and counter melodies simultaneously.
We have here in Charlottesville one of the most respected stick musicians in the country in Greg Howard. Monday, October 11, he played a solo gig at Miller's for a nearly empty house. That was fine by me, because by the end of the night the vibe was so loose and comfortable that not only did he take requests, but he took all sorts of liberties with those requests to the enjoyment of the few who stayed late.
At one point someone jokingly called out for him to play a show tune. He responded, "Here's an anti-show tune," and proceeded to bang out rhythmic patterns on his stick, eventually unfolding an ambient layering of effects and chords that somehow became a distorted version of the theme for Jesus Christ Superstar after about six minutes of avant garde exploration.
Howard has the knack of throwing out surprises like that. Over the course of the evening, I heard Pachelbel's "Canon," The Beatles, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and something that I swore was a lick from John Scofield's A Go Go album.
The point is he kept things interesting while displaying so many different ways sound and song can be generated from a fascinating instrument. The stick works like a cross between guitar and piano and can produce– through synth and modulation– a variety of sounds. One minute Howard had the stick sounding like a Wurlitzer keyboard, the next a distorted guitar.
Howard is another one of our local phenoms who Charlottevillians largely take for granted. Lucky for us, he will likely be performing at a nearby venue sometime soon. While you wait, don't miss the chance to catch some talented stick players from around the world performing at Gravity Lounge Saturday, October 16, in honor of the Mid-Atlantic Stick Seminar being held in Charlottesville.
Howard will be there performing with Matt Wyatt and guitarist Jamal Milner. This event is a must see. I'll be there peddling bumper stickers that say "Look Ma, Both Hands!"
Greg Howard and the Chapman Stick
PHOTO BY DAMANI HARRISON