Epiphany Project brings its world music revelation to Ojai
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Armenian and Celtic melodies, Middle Eastern rhythms, Tuvan throat singing, Sufi devotional music, American folk and a touch of jazz — Epiphany Project cuts a wide swath through some very disparate musical genres. “It really does draw on inspirations from all over the world,” says John Hodian of the band he founded with longtime collaborator and partner Bet Williams. Epiphany Project can roughly be described as a New World music ensemble with a penchant for experimentation and improvisation. Recently transported to Ojai from Berlin, the band will be showcasing a very different flavor of music than other acts out there.
For one thing, vocalist Williams doesn’t always sing in English. Aramaic, Sanskrit and Hebrew are some of the languages that pop up in an Epiphany Project composition, adding texture and interest to the tunes, and giving Williams a chance to play with her four-octave vocal range. “We went through a phase where we were working with ancient texts . . . and we set them to music,” Hodian explains. The result is a poetic lyricism mixed with haunting melodies and Hodian’s piano improvisations, often driven by intricate doumbek and tabla percussions.
The band founders met in Philadelphia in 1992, where they had both been performing (separately) in similar circles. Hodian was a classically trained pianist and composer who had carved out a successful niche scoring films. Williams, a singer, songwriter and guitarist with a classical background in opera and musical theatre, attended a Sunday salon performance at pianist Andrea Clearfield’s Center City house where Hodian was playing. She contacted him shortly thereafter, saying, “Wow! If I played piano, that’s how I’d want to play.” Hodian listened to some of her tapes, and recalls being struck by Williams’ experimental side. “She pulled out this cassette . . . it had these intense background vocals and weird layers. I thought, ‘This is something I’d love to work with.’ ”
With that, Epiphany Project came to life. Initially the ensemble played around the East Coast, but their music had a hard time catching fire in the U.S. One problem: record companies and booking agents didn’t know how to describe this radical mix of influences. “Unless you can be pigeon-holed [you won’t get picked up by a label],” says Hodian. “And we’re a little hard to pin down.” European audiences, however, loved it. Epiphany Project quickly gained a cult following overseas, and the duo found themselves touring Europe frequently, with stints back in the States.
After 10 years of playing and collaborating together, Hodian and Williams became romantic partners as well and eventually married. Their son, Jack, was born in 2003 and he hit the road with his parents. When Jack was ready for kindergarten, the couple realized, “We really have to pick a continent.” They settled in Berlin, which proved to be a good jumping-off point for tours and other projects. Hodian, who hails from a tight-knit Armenian American family, introduced many Armenian elements into Epiphany Project’s playlists, and he and Williams have spent considerable time in that country, working extensively with Armenian musicians and even building a recording studio there. “The art, language and culture is so important to [Armenians,]” Hodian says. “That kind of cultural life, you don’t see it just anywhere. We really have a second life there.”
For all the excitement, sophistication and cultural richness Europe has to offer, Hodian and Williams longed for their homeland. “We felt rootless at some point,” Hodian recalls. With encouragement from Williams’s sister, local stage actress Tracey Williams-Sutton, they repatriated to Ojai this past fall.
Epiphany Project has only been stateside four or five months, but they’ve already cut a new recording, “The Poet and the Revolution,” and will embark on yet another European tour in March. Rehearsals and preparation are happening here at home, though, and local audiences will have a rare opportunity to see Epiphany Project in action: The tour kicks off in Ojai. “We’re bringing our drummer, Mal Stein, from New York to Ojai for rehearsals before our tour,” Hodian says. Jack and Williams-Sutton also will be featured as special guests.
The musician says that he and Williams have been tremendously happy since coming to California, and they hope this will mark a new beginning for Epiphany Project in the United States — and solidify their reputation in the local area. “We decided it would be great to take advantage of the wonderful Ojai Art Center and present a concert in our new hometown,” says Hodian. “Ojai is just one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever been to. I feel really lucky to be living here.”
Epiphany Project performs at the Ojai Art Center on Saturday, February 20. For tickets and more information call 646-0117 or go to www.ojaiartcenter.org.