The band -- seven members strong -- celebrates the still-hearty tradition of street musicians and circus performers both here and in Europe. They play the music of King Oliver and Kurt Weill, and original pieces with names like "Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic" and "Grushome (the Cannonball Juggler)." They describe their music as a twisted mix of circus, cartoon jazz and pan-cultural rock.
They are the Kamikaze Ground Crew and they perform tomorrow night at d.c. space.
The Kamikaze Ground Crew?
"A kamikaze ground crew are the people who grease and oil the planes and wash off the fuselage and put the pilots in their seats and send them off, never to see them again, and go have tea downstairs," explains Paul Magid, who plays clarinet and saxophone with the band but is better known as Dmitri of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.
The Kamikaze Ground Crew has been performing with the Karamazovs since 1983, when the Brothers -- those five daring, limber, hirsute, latter-day vaudevillians from San Francisco known for juggling one-liners almost as deftly as knives and the like -- took their show to Broadway. Since then the Ground Crew has worked with the Karamazovs on national tours and in other productions, including Chicago's Goodman Theater production of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors," which was later performed at the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles.
"When the Ground Crew plays with the Karamazovs," Magid says, "it plays this overture -- they're sending the Karamazovs off on this crazy, wild trip, never to be seen again."
Hence the name.
Now it's the Crew members' turn to embark on a rather crazy and wild trip of their own, and they've enlisted the services of not only Magid but also fellow Karamazov Howard (Ivan) Patterson. While the remaining Karamazovs take a break from performing (band members intimate that the three holdouts are far better jugglers than musicians), Crew members have set out on their first tour. Along the way, they're also promoting a self-titled cassette recording of the colorfully varied and often exuberant music they've written, arranged and performed.
The band's lineup reflects its musical diversity: Steven Bernstein, a veteran of New York funk, jazz and Haitian bands, plays trumpet and glockenspiel; Bud Chase, described by the band as an "itinerant San Francisco Bay Area bass man and bus mechanic," is on tuba; Washington's Danny Frankel, formerly with the now defunct Urban Verbs, is on drums and percussion; composer, hoofer and chanteuse Gina Leishman plays piano and several other instruments; the two Karamazovs are found on horns; the composer Douglas Wieselman, who along with Leishman is responsible for writing and arranging the group's material, plays everything from strings to reeds.
"A lot of stuff you'll hear and see in Washington," says Magid, "has come from various shows the Karamazovs have done over the years. There will be pieces from 'Comedy of Errors' and 'The Three Moscowteers' [a Karamazov spoof of "The Three Musketeers" set in postrevolutionary Russia, circa 1920], plus a lot of new music, things people never heard before."
Magid says the band's concerts are primarily a musical evening, but adds, "there's a lot of shtick in it, too.
"When we Karamazovs juggle we used to have music accompany us, but now it's the other way around. You'll see musical juggling, but it's the music that's more important. The music isn't shtick. It's an evening designed to take you on a lot of different journeys, to a lot of different places. We're a very eclectic band. I wouldn't say the music is serious, but it is well thought out."
According to Magid, the Ground Crew emerged as a band capable of touring and recording on its own after practicing two hours daily during a seven-month tour the Karamazovs completed earlier this year.
"We're all pretty good at putting things together quickly," adds composer Wieselman, who first met the then-budding jugglers Magid and Patterson in college a dozen years ago. "We've all been in the position of having to perform under, well, duress, so things tend to get done and the music was no different . . . My main concern now is getting the music across in concert."
That music can be as infectious as a traditional jazz stomp, as dark as the rich sonorities of a Charles Mingus tune or as blatantly theatrical as something by Carla Bley or Lester Bowie. And then, there are the marches.
"I guess if you heard a marching band playing with a slightly out-of-kilter approach, that would describe us some of the time," says Wieselman.
Of all the musicians in the Ground Crew, drummer Danny Frankel would seem to have had to make the biggest adjustment, moving from the severe, humorless rock music of the Urban Verbs to the Ground Crew's expansive, sometimes even wacky world. But Frankel sees some parallels in the two bands pursuing their own visions, and he says he's loving every minute of his new assignment.
"With the Urban Verbs, everything was designed a certain way and each show was pretty much like a Xerox," he says. "But in this band there's a lot of room to move, and it's more flexible. It has a real circus atmosphere about it . . . the music seems to breathe more, and people don't seem nailed to the stage. It's just so free. With all the electronics and synthesizers out there, I think it's great to play music like this."