Krishna and Radha dancing the Rasalila, Jaipur, 19th century.
My housemate enters our living room to the sound of a furious drum solo.
[“Amnesia” by Robby Marshall, from his album, Living Electric. Robby Marshall – saxophone, fx, samples; Andrew McKay – guitars; Danny McKay – bass; Zach Harmon – drums; Romain Collin – Rhodes.
“What are you listening to?”
I consider telling the truth.
It’s a Miles Davis record.”
Maybe next time.
“Fuuuuuck yeah,” he moans, collapsing into our papasan for a listen. After a minute or two, he asks which Miles Davis record it is.
I consider lying.
“It’s not a Miles Davis record.”
Another person might be annoyed, but we’re a couple of jazz musicians, and this is our favorite game. “The drumming sounds like early Jack DeJohnette, but tighter. Terri Lynn Carrington?” Strike one. “Jim Black?” Strike two.
“Are these New York cats?”
The realization comes too late to save him from striking out, and so it is with resignation that he concludes, “oh, this is Robby’s record.”
Robby likes to make coffee with filtered water. I once asked him if he could tell the difference, and he shot me the same look of mild annoyance as when he sees his name spelled “Robbie”. But today, he fills the coffee maker with tap water. The coffee pot recently met its end on the kitchen floor, so he places his mug beneath the drip instead.
He hasn’t been sleeping well. Somewhere between organizing a big band to perform with Dave Douglas at the Hollywood Bowl, hustling gigs for his own groups, and grinding out a living in the LA music scene, the summer has slipped away. And with a recording session for his band Root System fast approaching, he can ill afford to rest.
Left to right: Robby Marshall, Damon Zick, and Dave Douglas. (Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times)
It’s been two years since Robby released his debut record, Living Electric, but the trials involved are still fresh in his mind. “Holding the finished product in my hands was great,” he says. “But designing the packaging and pressing the CDs was expensive and time-consuming, not to mention recording, mixing, and mastering the music.”
Those difficulties, however, haven’t dissuaded him from doing it all over again—writing and rewriting music, scheduling and rescheduling rehearsals, relentlessly writing emails and making phone calls to corral the musicians he wants into the studio on the dates he’s reserved—on the contrary, he’s more determined than ever.
But what if everything falls apart? Or what if it comes together, and no one listens? And what about the hundreds of copies of Living Electric still packed in boxes next to his desk? If these thoughts ever trouble Robby, he isn’t letting on. He finishes his coffee and disappears into his room.
The Blue Whale is an oddity among Los Angeles jazz clubs, a reasonably priced venue that regularly features young local jazz musicians. On this cool July night, about a hundred people have packed themselves into the small space, drinking and loudly conversing as the Los Angeles Jazz Collective’s Summer Jazz Festival unfolds.
By midnight, when Robby Marshall and Root System take the stage, the crowd has thinned out considerably. Those who remain, however, are quiet and attentive. Over the next hour, they will experience a whirlwind tour of Robby’s influences; which is to say, the music of people around the world having a good time.
Eastern European folk song, Peruvian lando, and New Orleans 2nd line all have a place in Robby’s conception of the rasa lila, a Hindi phrase which means “dance of aesthetics”. The concept inspired an original composition by Robby, and is reflected more generally in Root System’s diverse book of music.
Before the night is over, Robby will shake every hand in the audience, exchange numbers with every musician, and chat at length with the management. It isn’t an act; he really loves this part of the evening. And who can blame him? As high as he took this audience tonight, he’ll be back to the grind tomorrow, broken coffee maker and all.
Perhaps that’s why, upon returning home late, he doesn’t collapse into bed. He must be tired, but he kicks off his shoes and turns on the television. By morning, the dust will have settled on his ambitions again, and he’ll spend the whole day polishing them. Tonight, they shimmer before his bleary eyes, so close he can almost touch them.
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