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