“Get your arthritis out,” R. Carlos Nakai said, shaking out his arms, before his Quartet took the stage of the Piper Repertory Theater at the Mesa Arts Center last Sunday. “Some of this you can move to.” The R. Carlos Nakai Quartet played songs off their latest album, What Lies Beyond, released on Canyon Records in Arizona.
Nakai is perhaps the greatest Native American flautist to ever walk the earth. Born in Flagstaff, Arizona to Navajo/Ute heritage, the musician has had a long career finding the rhythms of the wind. He has a number of solo releases and collaborations, but recently has been involved with the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet made up of Nakai, bassist Johnny Walker, drummer Will Clipman and instrumentalist AmoChip Dabney.
For the opening number Clipman sat center stage holding a wide vase-shaped drum in his lap. He tapped on it with his fingers making a light hollowed-out beat while the band slid into the rhythm. “Eel Valley,” the next song, Nakai explained, was about the large birds of Hawaii where they spend their time when off tour. “On Sunlit Wings,” written by Walker during a trip to Egypt, was like the sun dawning over the Pyramids. Each note held an appreciation for life.
Dabney, with long tumbling dreadlocks, took his place behind a two-keyboard setup. Throughout the performance he’d also pick up a saxophone or an acoustic guitar. Johnny Walker stood strong and steady on bass. In addition to a stacked drumset, Clipman also used a number of different drums, noisemakers and shakers.
Nakai dressed in a green, red and purple patterned dress shirt stood to the right next to a table of flutes, all different lengths and widths. Around his neck hung a bird whistle. When Nakai plays his cheeks puff out and in like a little warbler bird. When he’s not playing the flute, Nakai lets loose in a hoppy swivel moving like a wet noodle hanging from the spaghetti bowl.
To introduce “Kathmandu This” Clipman told a story of touring in Morocco and meeting indigenous drummers who played the traditional tar or bendir drum. The head of the drum Clipman had was about two feet in diameter and had an almost electric sound to it, a ringing reverberation and buzzing tones. The drum tumbled loudly with the bass like they were rolling in the mud. Together they created a drone that filled the auditorium. Then, Dabney dropped in on the saxophone and time bent in half. Each musician circled around each other like alternating wind currents trapped in a valley.
“Fiddy Fo,’” Dabney explained, was written in honor of the great American jazz composer Dave Brubek and his 5/4 time signature. It featured great interplay between the sax and the flute. Each musician played in a different overlapping time signature with Clipman as the constant barometer. “Café du Monde” was a piece of French Quarter funk that hit like a strong cup of coffee.
On stage Nakai exhibits the spiritual calm that his music creates. During the final song he did the “wallaby dance,” a move he created during an improvisation session in Colorado. He bounced around with a goofy grin, his butt stuck out and the bird whistle swinging around his neck.
The encore brought the party funk. Dabney got it going with the catchy refrain, “The party ain’t stopping ‘til the speaker’s blown,” and then tried his best to comply. After the band picked up speed he grabbed his sax and let loose on each wing of the stage. He ran over stage right to match the rhythm of a grey-haired lady who was dancing with her shoulders swinging left to right at the tip of the stage. Then, without showing fatigue, Dabney leapt back to his post to play the saxophone and the bassoon at the same time. His lungs created tones no average human could make and everyone was on their feet letting their applause show their joy.