Passers-by on Turner Street in Lansing’s Old Town Friday night will hear some exotic and compelling sounds coming out of the Urban Beat concert venue and wonder whether they’d stumbled upon a jazz jam session, a classical chamber concert or a raucous Macedonian wedding. The Worlds Quartet, led by veteran Ann Arbor bassist, guitarist and teacher Dave Sharp, evokes of these things and more.
Folk elements dominate the group’s sound, from the lush timbres of Karapetyan’s keening violin and Igor Houwat’s glowering oud — a dark, rich cousin to the guitar and lute — to hip-swaying rhythms, modal harmonies and sinuous tunes.
Sharp is comfortable calling it jazz, though.
“People get pretty particular about what jazz is,” he said, savoring the understatement. He is not one of those people. “Is the group improvising collectively as well as individually?” He asked. “Yes? That’s it. You’re playing jazz.”
Born in Detroit, Sharp spent years studying and living in San Francisco, where non-Western forms of music, from Indian to Balinese to Middle Eastern, are an integral part of the landscape.
He avidly soaked up concerts by Indian and Pakistani icons like Ali Akbar Khan, Habib Khan and Zakir Hussain, and studied with Pakistani singer Salamat Ali Khan, uncle of the greatest of all qawwali (devotional) singers, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Sharp also studied with jazz bassist supreme Herbie Lewis, who worked with nearly every jazz great in the 1960s and beyond.
But playing in the same idiom for decades isn’t Sharp’s idea of stimulation.
“Playing in the 1950s and 1960s style in the present day would be like if every guitar player played like Chuck Berry playing ‘Johnny B. Goode,’” he said.
Last summer, Sharp spent three days with Kenyan and American musicians and a Japanese percussionist in a studio in Nairobi, Kenya “I brought a few bass lines and chord progressions and we wrote an entire album on the spot,” he said. The album is set to come out this fall.
The nucleus of the Worlds Quartet formed when Sharp substituted for the regular bassist in Houwat’s Lansing-based band, Wisaal, a few times. The dark textures and pulsating energy of the music put a hook into Sharp. He struck a musical rapport with Houwat and percussionist Mike List.
Sharp, Houwat and List played a few gigs as a trio, mixing repertoire from Wisaal and Sharp’s own ideas.
“It was a bit more stripped down, playing as a trio, very interactive,” Sharp said.
“The improv went in a lot of different places.”
The final element fell into the mix one fateful night when Sharp invited Karapetyan, an Armenian-American violinist, to sit in with the trio. The two already worked together as co-leaders of a klezmer band. Their chemistry was almost shocking.
“I knew the violin and the oud would sound nice together, but once he came in, we all had this moment,” he said. “Whoa — let’s do this again!” All the band members contribute tunes as the music evolves. Karapetyan is working on adding two Armenian tunes for the next string of performances.
The muscular treble of Karapetyan’s fiddle often dominates the music, but he can toggle to inventive rhythm figures on a dime, the better to embellish Houwat’s moody filigree on the oud. “The oud is very close to another instrument I love, the vina, a bass version of the sitar,” Sharp said. “I love the sound of the oud and I can follow him pretty well from my experience in jazz.”
Sharp called Karapetyan “one of the rare players who can play folk tradition just as well as classical.” Karapetyan has been playing since he was 5, back in Armenia, and has a doctorate in violin.
The group’s new album, “Delta,” was cut in three sessions at Troubador Studios in Lansing and a 100-year-old church converted into a recording studio in rural Willis, near Ann Arbor.
The “Delta” repertoire that will be featured Friday include Indian and Turkish tunes, an Egyptian belly-dance tune called “Aziza,” a Bulgarian melody dubbed “B7” by the band because it’s in 4/7 time, and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue,” made famous by John Coltrane.
Coltrane’s experimentation with drones, modal harmonies and other non-Western musical elements were a big influence on Sharp.
Sharp is so steeped in the dark tea blend of cultures it’s not easy to pick out the original tune on the disc, “Desert Sky.” Sharp also counts bassist Charles Mingus as a major influence, not just because of his Latin fusions, but also because Mingus composed and arranged with as much energy as he played. (Sharp’s word for Mingus was “epic.”) The most entertaining example of interplay of world music traditions and American pop is “Miserlou,” known to many from its Dick Dale scudding surfrock ride immortalized in the movie “Pulp Fiction.”
Turns out, it’s a very old tune. Sharp and the group take its impertinent, minor key party vibe back to its century-old Greek (or Turkish or Macedonian — the argument is still on) roots.
The tunes leave lots of room for improvisation, and not only during the open “windows” built into the music.
“There are times when the improv just happens on the spot,” he said. Besides improvising melodic lines, they might break down the quartet to a duo, add handclaps or punch up the music in any number of ways.
That’s where the spirit of jazz, disguised in a less familiar format, infuses the music.
“It isn’t about trumpets and pianos and saxophones and playing ‘All the Things You Are,’” Sharp said. “Jazz is so varied.”
Dave Sharp Worlds Quartet 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 1
Urban Beat Events Center 1213 Turner St., Lansing $10-30 pre-show @ 6:30 feat. Elden Kelly and Carolyn Koebel (517) 331-8440