On an early August evening, a sinuous
    sitar melody drifted over the tandoori and
    samosas at Mumbai Indian Restaurant.

    You could almost smell the incense. And
    they call this Jazz Thursday?

    Ah, but this was only an interlude. Guitarist Elden Kelly knows his jazz inside
    and out, but for now he was building a
    serene Indian raga in honor of
    Mumbai owner Paddy Rawal,
    who finally stopped bustling
    about and stood still to listen.

    But earthly pleasures are
    fleeting. Suddenly, a table of
    oblivious revelers broke into
    “Happy Birthday.”

    This called for meta-improvisation.
    Without looking
    up, Kelly expertly smeared
    “Happy Birthday” into the
    South Indian idiom. The microtones hinted
    at half-birthdays and non-Western philosophies
    of aging.

    “I’ve been in that situation before,” Kelly
    said later. “Luckily, they sang right in key.”

    Kelly, a recent Michigan State University
    jazz grad originally from Richmond, Vt., is
    a leading light in a recent wave of MSU student
    and alumni jazz performances all over
    town, spearheaded by a string of popular
    Thursday jazz nights at Mumbai.

    This Thursday, MSU alum Jeff Shoup
    will set up his drum kit and welcome organissimo
    keyboardist Jim Alfredson.

    A month ago, Kelly’s jazz trio jammed
    Mumbai until there was no room left to
    stand. The next week, he returned for a solo
    set, and the next he came back again, this
    time with MSU vocalist Tamara Mayers.

    Rawal, who is also
    Mumbai’s master chef, grew
    up as a jazz fan in Mumbai,
    India. Among his favorites
    were guitarists Larry Coryell
    and John McLaughlin. No
    wonder he brought Kelly
    back so many times.

    When Rawal opened
    Mumbai in September 2009,
    he wanted music from the
    start, but he knew it would be
    hard to find sitar and tabla players to play
    live Indian music.

    Serendipity solved the problem on
    the night of June 17, when his restaurant
    was invaded by a gang of stars from East
    Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival,
    including bigger-than-life MSU saxman
    Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, primed
    and ready for an afterglow.

    Rawal loved the impromptu jam so
    much he built a stage next to his front window.
    Local booking agent Candice Wilmore
    helped him launch a jazz series.

    For Rawal, the venture sounds a bit like
    blending “Happy Birthday” into a South
    Indian raga.

    “That’s how most things begin, right?”
    Rawal said. “They fall into your lap unexpectedly.
    All you have to do is keep an
    open mind and let it breathe.”

    As July and August unfolded,
    Mumbai added to its word-of-mouth
    fame as a top-notch restaurant with
    another reputation as a jazz haven.

    Despite his transparent, tender performing
    style, Kelly took the occasional
    cell phone chime and loud talker in
    stride. “People were clapping — that’s
    way more than you can expect at a restaurant,”
    Kelly said. “I’m honored to
    play for any audience that’s listening.”

    Kelly sings in a sweet, high tenor
    and plays a chameleon-like Glissentar
    (rhymes with “centaur”), a fretless guitar
    that can sound like an Indian sitar,
    sarod or Middle Eastern oud.

    He meandered from the Ganges to Delta
    blues, bluegrass, flamenco and a folk idiom
    so heartfelt it bordered on the devotional.

    “I’m into improvisation from around the
    world,” he said.
    As Kelly floated into his second set, retiree
    Dave Cheyne of Haslett dove into a dish
    of salmon tikka.

    Cheyne is part of a growing
    band of groupies who follow the MSU
    students and profs wherever they play.

    “People don’t realize how great their music is,” he said. “They stick their nose up at a student event, but I know the kids.”

    Tuesday before Kelly’s set, Cheyne heard trumpeter and MSU grad David
    McWilliams run through a generous set of standards at Gone Wired Caf,
    where jazz rules on Tuesdays.

    “I have a lot of talented friends who need a place to play,” Kelly said.

    Lansing’s jazz groupies newly organized this summer, the local jazz
    scene may be set to jell in earnest. Cheyne said the 5-month-old Jazz
    Alliance of Mid- Michigan already has an e-mail list of 2,000.

    “We’re getting the word out, and I expect the crowd to increase in the fall,” he said.

    Holzman, an MSU epidemiology professor, is a longtime regular at
    Mumbai, but this was her first jazz night. She went up to Kelly and got
    his card after the second set.

    thought he had a terrific voice and a lot of musicality,” Holzman said.
    “I’d like to bring other people to hear him, wherever he is.”

    Jazz Thursdays at Mumbai, 340 Albert Avenue, East Lansing. 7 p.m.-10 p.m.

    Thursday, Aug. 26: Jeff Shoup, drums, with special guest Jim Alfredson (313) 355-CHAI www.mumbaicuisine.com