Humbly taking the stage at the Blue Note for the clubs Late Night Groove Series on a late December night was the trio International Orange. A start time only minutes after three giants named Medeski, Martin and Wood shared the stage could prove to be an intimidating task for many musicians, and perhaps that was the case but you couldn’t tell by the sound of it. However, let’s give credit where credit is due. The unassuming musicians that make up International Orange are no strangers to the NYC music scene as each of them individually has been up to some big things locally and abroad in one form or another.
Drummer Todd Isler for instance may be a familiar face to many as he was picked to bang the skins with The Mike Gordon Band. However, that has been a relatively recent adventure in Todd’s world, one that comes after years of paying dues in an effort to establish himself as a top notch New York City based musician with worldwide credentials. Such credentials don’t come easy and Isler’s footprints around the globe can attest to his determination to further his knowledge surrounding the power of a drum beat; his passion and curiosities about the instruments he plays and how they fit into this world bare striking similarities to the deep connection that Mickey Hart shares with all things percussive. When speaking with Todd about his current musical directions and the path that brought him to New York City, it is obvious that his knowledge equals his passion and the beat is moving in the right direction.
Feeding off of Isler’s dynamic drumming in International Orange are guitarist David Phelps and bassist Gaku Takanashi, equally skilled veterans of the New York City music scene with unique playing styles rooted in opposite corners of the world. David’s Texas origins can easily be picked up on as his styles incorporates some nasty blues with the twang of some good ol’ country, filtered through his use of the whammy bar. Spending time in Canada at one point studying Jazz under various Miles Davis alumni in addition to his playing with Peter Apfelbaum’s The New York Hieroglyphics, David has steadily established himself as a “musician’s musician.” By incorporating all the different elements of his playing and fusing them together, he allows himself to fluidly traverse the ever changing landscape of International Orange’s music, as the tunes are never very static.
When you have someone like Gaku Takanashi holding down the low end, it definitely opens the lanes for some worldly explorations and deep, groove based jams. From where he is now, literally and figuratively, you may not have guessed that at one point Gaku was playing bass for Japanese pop and jazz stars. Eventually landing in New York, Gaku found himself working on a wide array of projects that touched on places equally distant as his native Japan is from New York. His experience playing anything from pop to the blues, reggae or R&B undoubtedly played a big role in his becoming a part of International Orange.
With some basic introductions behind us, it becomes clear how International Orange winds up being the perfect fit for a post MMW show at the Blue Note. For those in attendance or watching via the first Couch Tour TV USTREAM (or later on the Couchtourtv YouTube channel) the night was full of tight improvisation, well crafted arrangements and strange looking drums played by Todd. An original tune, “Nutria Nugat,” started things off with airy slide guitar lines soaring over a New Orleans sounding snare drum shuffle. As the drum beat sinks in, David’s openness tightens up as he grabs hold of the drum beat and gets into some bluesy riffing. Suddenly the grove drops and Gaku takes his first stab at lead. As he gets into a walking bass line with quite the hop to it, Todd’s drumming picks up pace and intensity. Soft guitar phrasings ultimately transform back into the original bluesy lines played by David earlier in the tune and after veering off and revisiting the main theme the tune draws to an end. Taking literally two seconds to introduce the name of the band they immediately get into an ambitious take on the Pat Metheny tune “Sirabhorn.” The overall feel of the song kept true to the spacey nature of Metheny’s music and the guys didn’t seem to feel the need for any reinventing of the wheel on this cover. The complexity of Todd’s playing was on full display as he was all over his set yet precise enough to keep the momentum progressing forward, all the while throwing in plenty of off time out of the box playing. On the other end you had Gaku and David providing the ethereal sounds cape for Todd and the audience to get lost in. Throughout the tune David’s guitar playing was reminiscent of Hawaiian pedal/lap steel guitar as he teased out swaying phrases with the help of his slide and whammy bar. Although David was undoubtedly influenced by the great blues guitarists (especially while in Texas), his style is all his own. His use of the slide in conjunction with the whammy bar is not so much like the playing of guitarists Duane Allman or Derek Trucks but potentially more in line with something Syd Barrett would do.
A David Phelps original, “Spinner,” was up next and not surprisingly featured a good amount of slide guitar which gave the tune a laid back surf-like feel. However, opening the tune with a short yet very technical display of hand drumming on the South Indian Kanjira drum was Todd. The drum is no bigger than a tambourine yet appears a bit thicker and is played using a fingering technique called mridanham, similar to the way a tabla is played. When speaking with Todd he explained that the drum is actually made from the skin of a Monitor Lizard which just might be what allows the drum to project such a wide range of tones. As “Spinner” got moving along it became evident that the various textures David is able to conjure from his guitar is crucial to the overall sound of the group. Where as some musicians are easily identified by their distinct sound, David possesses a chameleon like ability to be all over the map, which is crucial when there are only three instrumentalists sharing the stage. An Isler original, “Kyerematen,” was the next tune to be played. As explained by Todd, the tune is named after a master musician from Ghana that he played with at one point. A steady drumbeat, accented with cymbal work of all tones set the groundwork for the tune. For a few opening measures, Gaku was experimenting with drawn out slides on the bass that weaved throughout the beat of Todd’s drums. With very smooth guitar lines and phrasings from David, the song initially had a slightly west coast jazzy feel to it. However, as the song moved along the groove really developed and would ultimately be injected with some spice as each musician took some liberty with the main theme.
Spacey, free jazz off time bop madness started off the next tune. As things developed a bit, it became pretty recognizable as Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap.” Gaku’s fingers raced up and down the fret board popping and slapping along the way throwing out some funky punches. Using an effects pedal to the fullest, David filled the air with swirling sauciness that seemed to gel everything else together. All three guys fed off each other while randomly throwing riffs out for call and response sections. After several minutes the effects subsided and truer bop sound emerged which resonated more closely to the Hancock original as the song came to a close. While David switched back to his “slidey” guitar (as Todd called it), Todd introduced the next tune by saying he wished it was an original. The song was “The Wind Up,” written by Miles Davis and Art Blakely alumni Keith Jarrett. With a rather high tempo maintained throughout the beginning of the song, the guys on stage were surely put to the test, yet absolutely up for the challenge. Tightness amongst the band was on display all night, but during “The Wind Up,” which has many different feels to it with time changes abound, there were no loose strings at all. A rarity of the night came next in the form of a tune with music and lyrics penned by David. “I’m Sorry Your Dog Died” has the makings of a classic that could easily pop up on a number of country leaning rock stations. The twang buried deep inside of the native Texan came through in every facet of the song. His guitar playing, vocals and lyrical content were featured as Gaku and Todd steadily provided a solid backing for the somber tune with a rather comical message.
For the next tune, “Treasure”, Todd essentially laid out over his lap what appeared to be a regular old wooden log. When drummed on, the Uduboo drum was able to produce such a depth of tones that it was like an ancient drum machine. If you haven’t really heard of or seen an Uduboo you are not alone as Todd explained that the drum is extremely rare. A friend of Todd’s, John Kaizan Neptune, makes the instrument and there are only a handful of them in existence in part because they are made from the widest chunks of Bamboo on earth which can be hard to come by. During “Treasure” Gaku’s bass playing was very prominent and casted a heavy, thick vibe throughout the venue which gave David so many textures to explore and feed off of. All the while, Todd could be seen with fingers ablaze shredding the Uduboo and really putting on a clinic in regards to how versatile that log of an instrument is.
With the majority of the night behind them, International Orange had already made a bold statement with the delivery of their infectious originals and respectful yet adventurous takes on some classic covers. To close the night out they chose to go with another cover tune that provided the crowd with an opportunity to sing along. A reworked version of “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash finished the evening properly and as a cool jam developed those still around were absolutely digging the fresh take on the song.
Unfortunately, the guys in International Orange are extremely busy musicians. Living in New York City, an artist often needs to remain in motion, scrambling from project to project to get by. As a result, bands like International Orange may fly under the radar of many that would truly get off on their sound however things look promising for these guys. Their resumes scream professionalism and creativity, while they surround themselves with people that are making serious noise worldwide. With the right amount of attention to this project, don’t be surprised to learn that International Orange has broken out of the Big Apple in a big way. Until then, you can check out this entire show by visiting CouchtourTV on YouTube, and I encourage you all to do so.