Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Groove, Groove and More Groove"

Even if you have a tin ear, can't carry a note in a bucket and have all the rhythm that God gave squirrels, back in elementary school you probably had a chance to play the tambourine. It was that round thing nestled on the music teacher's cart between the wooden sticks, the maracas and the cowbell. A double threat, you could bang on it and get a drum sound, or shake it and have it jingle-jangle. In terms of making noise, it made a lot. That's not the same as making music, but it sure could be heard.

And that's probably where you left it. That is, unless you're Julia Joseph. Julia is a wonderful singer-songwriter, named Best Female Jazz Solo Artist in the 2004 New York International Independent Music festival, while her debut CD "Hush" won the 2008 Independent Music Award's popular vote for Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter. She describes her voice as "an alto that has a little crystal or a little grit on the top end." Others go further: Ty Greenstein of the group Girlyman says, "It contains traces of her heroes – Nina Simone, Phoebe Snow, Janis Joplin – but it's more than that," while M. Neala Byrne writes it's "a voice that could awaken the dead and lull the living to sleep."

While her singing and songwriting certainly deserve top billing, Julia also puts her talents to use for others. She works as a session vocalist and back-up singer, and you can hear her on several musical pieces from NBC's hit comedy, "30 Rock." More recently, she has become a permanent support player for fellow singer-songwriter Milton. In each of those roles she brings her voice and her musicality, but also something else: in her own words, she's a "kick-ass tambourine player."

If you see her play, you'd have to agree. Her leads and harmonies certainly add to any performance, but you can't help but notice her tambourine playing. Steady to be sure, it adds to the sound without overpowering it, while also accenting the whole. It's hard to imagine that that little noisemaker can make such a difference. But like many things, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, the ordinary can become extraordinary.

It wasn't always that way. "I took drum lessons a long time ago," she says, "and am happiest when grooving to some kind of rhythm. But for some reason I felt obligated to stick to the ‘singer-songwriter' thing." And so guitar became her instrument. But then Milton asked her to join his backup group, and she noticed how integral tambourine and shaker were to many of the tracks. "So I lied and told him I could handle all that stuff in the live shows and that I was a ‘real' player." But then she had to pony up: "At our first rehearsal, I was a little late because I had to run and buy a tambourine. I threw the packaging away outside the rehearsal room, walked in and winged it. No one was the wiser." She eventually came clean, but a "player" was born.

Now the owner of 6 different varieties, she approaches her playing as would any other musician. "You need to be very good at dividing beats evenly and with good dynamic emphasis. That's how you make it groove! When a rhythm section is locked in and tight, the music lives." Put another way, "It's an instrument. It makes sound. A LOT of sound. If you're going to play one, play it for real, or every drummer you work with is just really going to hate you."

I asked her if there are tambourine players she admires. "Jack Ashford... is the guy responsible for the back-beat in the ‘Motown Sound.' He played tambourine on everything, and if you really listen you can hear how much that tambourine is making the sound. Rosalie "Lady Tambourine" Washington is also truly something to behold. She is legendary for sitting in with the big acts who perform at the New Orleans Jazz Festival." Julia gets the possibilities: "Do not be fooled by how simple it looks or seems! There's all kinds of craziness a master can do. I mean, imagine a truly gripping tambourine solo? They do exist! I can't do one yet, no way... but it sure is a satisfying idea."

Just how important is her playing as opposed to her singing? "To me it's just a different part of the music. It's part of what's driving the rhythm. I guess if anything I was doing wasn't important, it would be nixed." Decide for yourself. Catch her live, and hear her singing and writing ability. Catch her with Milton, and watch her mastery of the tambourine. Or in her words, watch her add, "Dynamic, dimension, groove, groove and more groove."


Marc Wollin of Bedford caught Julia Joseph and Milton at the Common Grounds Community Coffee House. You can both performers locally or on iTunes. You can find this column regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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