Two instrumental, improvisational bands have become two of the bigger musical draws in the Twin Cities over the past couple years.
“We’re skeptical of that statement,” said Stefen Robinson of Disorganizer before breaking into a hearty laugh.
O’Donnell didn’t outright reject the premise of the question, but squirmed slightly at the acclaim being thrown at the electric jazz power trio he fronts with bassist Michael Hill and drummer John Ganser.
“I can tell you that Disorganizer is just darned good,” said O’Donnell of the Bloomington quintet that in addition to Robinson, includes drummer Michael Carlson, bassist Ryan Nolan, and saxophonists Travis Thacker and Jim Boitos. The group's stated mission is to “harness the spirit of free jazz into approachable, unique instrumental music.”
“When I saw them, I was like, ‘Well, I’m going back. I will go see that band again,'" O’Donnell said emphatically. “They’re all good players, they write great songs, and they don’t always need lyrics to get a point across.”
Robinson returned the compliment, and then some.
“Whenever I see Inktrail play, my jaw drops,” said Robinson. “All three of those dudes are virtuosic in their particular instruments.”
“Usually there is ‘slobber’ coming from the side of my mouth,” O’Donnell said as a deflection to everyone’s laughter. “So my jaw is kind of dropping anyway.”
When pushed, O’Donnell listed the history members of both bands have in Bloomington-Normal, as well as more venues, and the perseverance both bands as reasons Inktrail and Disorganizer have been embraced by central Illinois music fans and musicians.
John Ganser is one of the members O’Donnell was referencing. The two started playing in the legendary (and now reunited) The Something Brothers as 21-year olds in the mid 1980s.
“God’s own drummer,” O’Donnell praised Ganser. “He’s a musical drummer, and I know that sounds counter-intuitive because you think of the drum as a rhythm instrument. A musical drummer knows more about what you’re doing than you do. John is the first guy to say, 'You know I think you’re a half step off on that melody,’ or 'Can you do it more like this way?’ He’s not getting in the way, but he’s really thinking of everybody’s role in the band. He’s a real musical drummer, as I think Michael (Carlson) is with Disorganizer.”
O’Donnell’s praise for the drummer he’s known since attending Bloomington High School jogged Robinson’s memory of seeing Ganser play in VonFrickle, the Bloomington-based instrumental prog-rock band that made some noise in central Illinois in the early 2000s.
“They blew my mind,” said Robinson. “I was in this hybrid bluegrass band in Bloomington at the time, and I saw Von Frickle at Lizard’s Lounge. I didn’t expect to see something like that in Bloomington, Illinois. They were exceptional. It was weird, and spacey, and tight. The compositions were cool and the drumming was out of this world.”
With the in-studio love fest in full bloom, O’Donnell and Robinson were asked to direct questions to each other.
“I think I’ve asked Stefen before, but I’m wondering if they listened to the (jazz-rock fusion band) Mahavishnu Orchestra,” asked O’Donnell. “Because when I hear the mandolin mixed with the saxophone (Robinson plays mandolin in Disorganizer), I get that late 60s/early 70s anything goes vibe.”
Robinson answered that Disorganizer members listen to all kinds of different music, and that he definitely listened to the Mahavishnu Orchestra when he was in high school in Kankakee.
“And then I studied Indian classical music for a half a year or so with a sitar player in Chicago,” said Robinson. “And I was doing in on the mandolin.”
“Wow,” countered O’Donnell.
“And I played for a while with local tabla player Manpreet Bedi,” said Robinson. “I know the other dudes in Disorganizer listen to just about everything.”
When Robinson asked O’Donnell about his major non-musical influences, he gave a somewhat surprising answer.
“I grew up as an athlete,” said O’Donnell. “I played football and basketball, and was an honorable all-state safety at Bloomington High School.”
Robinson reacted with an astonished “wow” of his own.
“I always approached music with a little bit of that athletic mind,” said O’Donnell. “The longer you do it the better you get at it. All those inspirational poster quotes you see, that’s sort of how I’ve approached music. In that way I’m always like, ‘Where’s the guitar, I’ve got to play it.’ I’ve got to have it in my hands.”
Disorganizer and Inktrail play Nightshop in downtown Bloomington on Nov. 9. Both bands will play a set, then join forces to play a third set as “InkOrganizer.” The show is a fundraiser for Bloom Community School in Normal.
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