Last night I had the pleasure of attending another in the great occasional series of house concerts produced by vegan chef extraordinaire, Philip Gelb. Phil wears many hats. He is a fine shakuhachi player and, by his own students’ testimony, a great teacher as well. He is without doubt a wonderfully creative chef catering vegan cuisine to the bay area and beyond. And over the last six years he has hosted an occasional series of concerts at his loft in West Oakland modeled in part on the Creative Music Studio that flourished in Woodstock, New York in the seventies and early eighties. In fact some of the musicians Phil has hosted are alumni of that fine collective. His business is called, ‘In the Mood for Food’.
The dinner which is frequently tailored to the artist’s preference was a Thai/Japanese fusion of some five delicious courses. And customarily the performance occurs followed by the dessert course.
The musician was a shakuhachi player and instrument maker named John Kaizan Neptune, an American expatriate living in Japan since the seventies. Neptune is a surfer and surf board maker who has turned his carpentry skills and musical talent on the creation and/or modification of musical instruments after his interest in eastern philosophy drew him to Japan where he continues to live and perform.
Having heard traditional shakuhachi I was somewhat unprepared for the kaleidoscope of sounds and styles of music which followed our entree. Neptune, dressed in a head scarf and and Japanese style short vest jacket and blue jeans, looked the role of the American surfer/musician he describes himself to be. He had three shakuhachi of different lengths and he described some basic facts about the instruments in a most pleasant manner demonstrating his love and depth of knowledge of his medium.
He varied his program with a mix of traditional pieces and a sampling of some jazz/improvisational work which opened our ears to some amazing possibilities for this ancient instrument. He spoke casually of scales and playing techniques demonstrating by playing. At one point he displayed his skill by playing the opening of the Mozart G minor symphony quite in tune on an instrument designed to play a five tone scale. And if any of this sounds at all pedantic it is the fault of my writing, not the artist’s presentation. He was engaging in the manner of a skillful teacher able to meet his students’ needs at their level, neither condescending, nor opaque.
Neptune’s knowledge and respect for traditional Japanese music was evident but his own creative, dare I say American sensibility, has not been lost or subsumed. He performed music that paid homage to the traditions of its origin and kicked out some soulful jazz and blues jams that would do any ensemble proud. The effect was mind expanding and joyful evidenced by a very appreciative audience.
In addition to shakuhachi we were treated to an instrument of Neptune’s own creation, a two headed drum made entirely of bamboo. As in his shakuhachi playing there was a synthesis reflecting and integrating various cultural/musical influences into a new and worthy product embodying the influences of its ancestors as a child embodies the genetic heritage of its parents.
This drum produces four distinct sounds and was played strapped to the performer’s waist. And it could conceivably have great utility in a variety of musical settings. Mr. Neptune again demonstrated his swinging musical sensibilities in playing his new creation. It’s sounds evoked a variety of ethnomusical sounds ranging from South Asian and African to Latin and American. and he will soon be selling this instrument along with traditional and custom shakuhachi.
Following this good humored and spirited performance followed a great dessert and the almost obligatory selling of CDs which the audience, this writer included, consumed nearly as voraciously as the dessert. Many in the audience were Phil’s shakuhachi students and were freely invited to try Mr. Neptune’s instruments which they did with little hesitation.
House concerts generally convey a far greater sense of intimacy and connection than larger more traditional concert settings. And this was even more evident here due the persona of the performer and the receptivity of the audience many of whom were regular attendees at these events.
I happened to have brought a couple of guests to this event and the energy seemed to grab them as much as it did those more familiar with this series. It was a great evening in a great ongoing series at “In the Mood for Food’, a very special place on the east bay.