A sitar and a trombone walk into a bar…
No, this isn’t the set up for a bad joke; this was the set up for my Sunday night, when I headed to Johnny D’s Uptown in Somerville to see The Jungle Book orchestra spend some well-deserved time in the spotlight.
I’ve seen The Jungle Book (almost) three times, and while there are a number of stand-out qualities, to me, it’s all about the music. From the all-company dance numbers to the masterful solos played by members of the orchestra, Music Director Doug Peck weaves Mary Zimmerman’s unique vision with the Sherman brothers’ classic songs to create a whole new genre of music. A hybrid of classical Indian and true American jazz, this score gives you goosebumps as quickly as it has you tapping you toes and humming along. Needless to say, once I heard this orchestra would get a chance to be center stage, I was all over it.
The last time I was at Johnny D’s was for my birthday, and all I remember is it being loud. This time, I was embarrassed by the creaking door, as I walked in to find a hushed, captive audience. But it wasn’t for lack of energy -- the audience was entranced by three musicians seated on the edge of the stage playing traditional Indian instruments (a sitar, a veena, and a Carnatic violin). I felt I needed to whisper my name to the doorman because I didn’t want to be rude. I took my seat as the piece ended, and one of the musicians said with a smile, “That was improvisation. We will play a real composition now.” They certainly fooled me.
Shortly after a few more of these “real compositions”, the rest of the band hopped up onstage. All twelve musicians just barely fit on the cramped Johnny D’s stage, especially when you consider that some plays multiple instruments. The atmosphere went from quiet energy to complete exuberance as their signature style really took off. They charmed the audience with traditional jazz standards with a touch of Indian flair, and intricate solos from everyone on the trumpet to the bass to the tabla.
The talent of these musicians is evident every time they perform, but more impressive to me is the passion they share for this project. Sunday night’s event was entirely orchestra-driven; they presented a similar one during the Chicago run of The Jungle Book, and they were so enthusiastic about doing one again that the Huntington helped them to find a local venue. Not only is their music beautiful, but you can see how much they enjoy playing together from their joyful interactions onstage and off. Sadly, Sunday night was the final night for Ronnie Malley, proficient on the Oud (which, when announced, was greeted with an enthusiastic, “Oooooooouuuuuuud” from audience members), as well as several other instruments. He’s been playing with the orchestra since the show began in Chicago, and it’s clear he will be missed.
As the set came to a close, we were informed by the band that the final piece was meant to be danced to. As no one had gotten up to dance yet, it became evident one woman in particular was eager to have the permission to do so. From there they fell like dominos, with one person after another (including many members of the cast who had come to support their fellow company members) following her lead and joining in the fun. Good music is just that – fun. But great music can transport you to another place. Even though the band made it Out of The Jungle, they took me and everyone there that night, right back to it.