Thom Jayne and the Nomads have moved leisurely across the mid-Michigan music scene for over a decade, playing a dozen gigs or so every year, while dropping and adding personnel like an amoeba changes pseudopodia.
So far, the protean blob of world music has oozed around every obstacle, but it’s about to feel a big pinch: Its founder, chief composer, guitarist and didjeridoo poobah is moving to Lusaka, Zambia, for two years, beginning in January.
Jayne hopes the Nomads will go on without him, but Friday’s gig at the Creole Gallery will at least close a chapter in the group’s 11-year story.
Jayne, a professor of agricultural economics at Michigan State University, helps small farmers in Africa hook up with local and global markets. He goes to Africa several times a year, but hasn’t had an extended stay there since a Peace Corps stint 18 years ago.
Jayne’s two-year visit will be funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development.
“You can’t do this work as well going back and forth,” he said. “It’s important for me to be there and make long-term relationships.”
While in Zambia, Jayne will make music with a kindred spirit, fellow agro-economist and musician Ballard Zulu.
The communal spirit, earthy joy and sunny spirituality of African village music inspired Jayne to start the Nomads in the late 1990s, as an alternative to commercial, formulaic Western pop.
But even as Jayne returns to the well, will the Nomads be left high and dry?
“I’m hoping the Nomads will continue,” Jayne said. “This won’t be the last concert.”
The group seems to groove on change. About half the Nomad members have turned over in the last few years, but the music rolled on, stronger than ever, through milestones like last year’s gig at the Common Ground festival, opening for Sheryl Crow, and a Detroit River Days gig in June, opposite MC Hammer.
Far from slowing the group’s momentum, the changes seem to push it forward. For one thing, the tie-dyed hippie colors in the music (the group’s original name was Thom Jayne and the Free Radicals) have faded considerably.
Gone are the dreamy Native American flute idylls favored by David Meeder, who is no longer a member. Sambas and other Latin forms have percolated to the top.
“It’s taken a more jazzy bent,” Jayne said. “Five years ago, it was more earthy.”
But when it comes to categorizing his music, Jayne takes the aloof stance of a Zen master.
“I’m happy for people to call it whatever makes sense for them,” he said.
Drummer Greg Sauceda, being new to the group, was willing to try.
To Sauceda, the Nomads mix the exotic timbres and diverse rhythmic forms of world music with the energy of jazz fusion, which is itself an acoustic-electric brew of jazz and rock.
In his home town of Jackson, Sauceda teaches and plays in blues bands, cover bands, and the Detroit Pistons drumline, which he called “high-energy, balls-to-the-wall.”
As a Nomad, he gets to swap the foursquare beat of pop-rock for more adventurous meters of five, six, or seven.
“For me, it’s a lot of fun,” Sauceda said. “It’s a change of pace from what I usually get to do.”
Sauceda brings a crisp new kick to the Nomads’ drifting, dreamy vibe. At the end of “Cuban Cigars,” Sauceda and percussionist Jon Weber spiral off in a fusion of African and Latin rhythms that dares you not to move.
“Jon has a masters (degree) in percussion, and he’s awful good at adding the Latin flavor, or just hinting around it,” Sauceda said.
Another newer member, bassist Heather Kulaga, plays both fretless and six-string bass. Jayne described Kulaga as “more jazz-oriented” than former bassist Ryan Bliton.
“She’s rock-steady, always has it locked down,” Sauceda said. In recent months, Kulaga brought her own tunes to the group’s book.
Besides Sauceda and Kulaga, the newest Nomads are hard-driving guitarist Greg Howe and violinist Kelly Pond, whom Jayne described as a “hard to categorize” bluegrass specialist.
“Bluegrass in a world music jazz band doesn’t sound like a good fit, but it is,” Jayne said.
Standing his ground amid the flux is original Nomad Rich Illman, principal trumpeter of the Lansing Symphony.
Illman gets the high-exposure job of soaring over the groove with clarion lines, a role he’s used to in the symphony. But he also gets a chance to swing like mad, smear his notes and roughhouse with his bandmates in ways Brahms or Beethoven don’t allow.
As a Nomad, Illman even gets to play the solo melody on Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” — something Strauss never envisioned — but he has to crocrassle with Jayne’s didjeridoo the whole way.
“We’re lucky to have him,” Sauceda said of Illman. “He’s the epitome of the professional musician. He can play anything, change the meter, no problem. There’s no downside to Rich.”
The current Nomad lineup is a strong mix of backgrounds and personalities. Jayne is confident they can keep going without him, but Sauceda was cautious.
“I hope it works out and we can keep that original soul intact,” Sauceda said.
“A few years is a long time for Thom to be away. If we alter it too much, he’ll come back to a completely different group. It’s a roll of the dice.”
Jayne doesn’t sound worried about the musical organism he brought into the world.
“It’ll morph in whatever direction it’s meant to go in,” he said.