The local music scene experienced several noteworthy events in 2011.
Some were memorable, like the two-day Middle of the Map Festival in Westport in April and “Midcoast Cares: A Benefit for Joplin,” a fundraiser at Crosstown Station in June that raised more than $10, 000 for people who lost property in the devastating May tornado.
Others were lamentable, like the closing of Crosstown Station in October.
A few trends emerged, too, and none was as rewarding as the continued collaboration among local musicians and other members of the arts community on special projects.
Among those projects: the theatrical production of “Pink Floyd: The Wall,” a collaboration between the theater and music communities; the lavish tribute to the classic Rolling Stones album “Exile on Main Street”; the Top of the Bottoms Masquerade Ball, the annual Mardi Gras extravaganza; and the annual Murder Ballad Ball.
This trend, some musicians say, isn’t necessarily new, but it seems to be happening more often and with bigger results.
“I agree that they are happening more,” said Enrique Chi of the band Making Movies, “and I think it is definitely a positive thing. As an artist, you learn so much from playing with other people. At its best, it is both humbling and inspiring.”
Making Movies mixes rock with heavy Latin and Afro-Cuban music accents. A recent show at RecordBar featured Making Movies with several guests from the jazz and hip-hop worlds.
“I wanted to showcase to our fans some of the other great talent in this city,” Chi said. “Most of our fans had never seen (jazz pianist) Mark Lowrey perform, someone who to me is a local institution.”
Jazz trumpeter Hermon Mehari was also a guest musician that evening. He welcomes the cross-pollination of music and mixing of audiences.
“I am fortunate that the band I play with, Diverse, has been very willing to work with many great artists,” he said. “Having started as a purely jazz group, collaborating with these people has allowed us to perform other types of music we love. We’ve been absorbing the music of local (hip-hop) emcees Reach and Les Izmore and will begin learning the music of some of our other collaborators.”
Mehari helped organize the “Diverse Plays Michael Jackson” tribute show, which included a blend of jazz, rock and soul musicians. Those tribute shows were among the more successful collaborative events this year, especially the “Wall,” which drew full rooms to several performances at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St., and “Exile on Main Street,” which drew an overflow crowd to Crosstown Station.
Despite its success and popularity, the tribute theme has generated some static within the music scene. Some say such shows can condition an audience to come to hear only music it already knows well.
“I’d say the biggest drawback of the collaboration formula as it’s typically imagined today is the tribute band execution,” said Bob Asher of the Hearts of Darkness. “On one hand, it’s easy to assemble a sure-to-please repertoire of music with assurance of good audience turnout. But on the other hand, I worry how much longer the tribute band phenomenon can last.”
Asher and some of his Hearts of Darkness colleagues were part of the “Exile” tribute, which involved a small army of singers and musicians from across the local music spectrum. Cody Wyoming was an organizer of “The Wall” and “Exile” projects.
“The idea has been to play music that I love and then find the exact right people to play it with,” he said. “The bonus has been getting to learn so much about the players I’ve worked with. Playing with so many different people has forced me to be adaptable to lots of different styles of music and styles of playing. It has improved my musicianship in general.”
It has also taught him other skills, he said.
“I have learned how to talk to other musicians,” he said, “and also, more importantly, when to shut up and let someone who really knows the score have the floor.”
Guitarist Christopher Meck joined Wyoming in the “Exile” and “Wall” projects. He was also part of an ensemble of singers and musicians who formed a backup band to play behind singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo for a show in November. Meck sees in these collaborative projects a spirit that elevates them above the usual band gig.
“In a big-picture kind of way, I think that people are realizing that the best way to ensure a full house is to have an event, which is different than just a gig,” he said. “There are lots of gigs, you know, but only so many events. I enjoy them immensely. I get to play with musicians that I don’t ordinarily get to play with.”
And that reaps long-term benefits.
“I knew that it would stretch our band,” Chi said of the recent Making Movies gig. “As an artist, being pushed outside your comfort zone and taking risks is essential.”
The Hearts of Darkness, Asher said, plays it both ways. It joins other projects, but it also invites fellow musicians to come onstage during its shows.
“We welcome many, many players to our live shows,” he said. “In 2011 alone, we’ve shared the stage with Jeff Harshbarger, Rich Wheeler, Hermon Mehari, Mike Stover and Ryan Heinlein, just to name a few.
“We love the energy our friends bring to the show, and we’re honored they want to come and play music with us. I’m able to play far more advanced music with vastly superior musicians than my actual musical abilities would normally permit.”
Asher said he would welcome more “band scrambles or donkey shows, where bands trade players or two groups play each other’s music, that sort of thing.”
Either way, it’s all rewarding and worth everyone’s while, Mehari said
“Music making is always a collaboration,” he said. “Some collaborations are long-term and some are short-term, but in either case, having like-minded people come together for a common purpose has yielded great results for musicians and listeners alike in Kansas City.”