Far from being the first – or even 71st – instrument you might think of when you hear the word "jazz," the Chinese string instrument known as the cheng nonetheless represents the ethnographic innovations that Mt. Pleasant’s Northwoods Improvisers bring to the avant-garde jazz legacy of John and Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Singing the cheng’s praises, Northwoods founder Mike Johnston says, "The cheng fit in with the bass and drums really well. We thought it was versatile. You can bow it or pluck it; you can play it rhythmically or play it free."
In its versatility, the cheng is almost like a microcosmic representation of the Northwoods themselves. They can play rhythmically or free. They can turn convention on its head through experimental risk-taking just as easily as they might play with a contagious, accessible appeal. And they can make the music of other cultures sound as familiar as the jam session down the street, or at least across the state.
For more than 20 years, the Northwoods have led their own jazz expressions down paths of ethnographic exploration, incorporating instruments from the cultures whose music they’ve so vigorously studied. Vibraphonist and co-founder Mike Gilmore also applies his mallets to steel drums, as well as playing the aforementioned cheng and a homemade "bone guitar," modified to resound like the Indian tamboura. Bassist Johnston doubles on a variety of wood flutes from around the world, which can add a playful feel at times, while sounding a more introspective tone at others. And Nick Ashton, who joined the group in 1987, lays down the sometimes gentle, sometimes propulsive drum foundation. The trio’s combination of skill, personality and sensitivity makes for great musical energy, whether they’re riffing on organic modal grooves, post-bop structures or spiritually charged drones, all of which are demonstrated on their third and latest compact disc, Lightning Darkness.
The Northwoods Improvisers started out in the mid-’70s as "a high school garage band in Traverse City,’’ says Johnston – albeit this was a free-improvising garage band that tuned in to the sounds of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble rather than the rock of the day. This precocious experimental genesis points to another of the current trio’s skills: the creation of spacious, almost aleatory music that looks toward the innovations of fellow improvisers across the Atlantic. Eastern elements crept into the sound as well, especially as Gilmore began to study the musics of India and Turkey more intensively. "Then at one point in time," says Johnston, "after we’d been together for about six years, we dropped all of our electronics from the group and went all acoustic.’’
In the liner notes to the band’s second CD, Spinning, Johnston says, "We choose to play acoustically because the sound is created by each person and comes out of the instruments or object that is being played rather than coming out of a box (amplifier) at another location." The acoustic property of the music forms a philosophical and even a spiritual cornerstone. This is a music invested with a lot of intense personal feelings, both in its execution and in its background. As Johnston relates of the various interests expressed in the Northwoods music, "It’s not a pseudo thing. It’s something that we’ve listened to and grown up with for years."
Perfectly content to continue working from their central Michigan stomping ground, the Northwoods Improvisers have only played Detroit about a half-dozen times, mostly in the past couple of years. And they haven’t done any extensive touring: "We’ve always been a do-it-yourself kind of band. We can do it from here just as well as anyplace. We might not get some of the attention that we could if we were someplace else, but that’s not really what it’s about for us. It’s about the music, and doing the best we can with the music."E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org