–Jonathan Keeney of Ga-Na-Si-Ta by Bill Foster
Once local jazz/rock/world-beat sextet Ganasita takes the stage and launches into a set, the music doesn’t proceed according to any conventional musical orthodoxy. It unfolds; expands; takes off in unexpected directions rather than following a prescribed path or groove.
“Our songs are fairly structured, but not overly complicated,” says guitarist Jonathan Keeney. “There’s plenty of room for improvisation. “We like to get up on stage and create on the fly. I’d say about half our sets are improvised.”
And truth be told, Ganasita itself has been something of an ongoing improvisation, an outfit that has seen a great deal of member turnover—with still more to come—and that has weathered the changes by adapting to the aptitudes and attitudes of new personnel.
The band came together in 2006; a Knoxville native, Keeney had been living in California, where he happened to meet co-founder and keyboardist Joey Jacard at a music festival in San Francisco.
“We all met mostly through seeing music, going around seeing jam bands, music festivals,” Keeney says. “We were all just vagabonds, modern-day hippies.”
Keeney moved back to Tennessee in 2006; he also decided to get serious about music around that time. His father had been a touring folk musician in the 1960s, so Keeney played a little guitar; he also owned a mandolin, which he acquired when it was abandoned in a hotel room he had rented in California.
He played mostly mandolin, and a smattering of electric guitar, in that early incarnation of Ganasita, which he describes as “more of a folk/world band at that point. We were all from East Tennessee, rooted in folk and Appalachian traditions.
“And I think the world music undertone was, and still is the foundation, due to the spirituality. We spent a lot of time camping in the woods away from civilization, around campfires. It was like we were all kind of drawn to that spirituality.”
Eventually, though, attrition caught up with that original lineup, leaving founders Keeney, Jacard, and bassist Daniel Dunlap as the only remaining members. In the meantime, Keeney had entered the University of Tennessee’s program (he graduated in December 2012).
And as departed members were replaced with associates of Keeney from the music program—drummer Thad Brown, saxophonist Chuck Mullican, trumpeter Joe Jordan—so, too, did the band’s DNA begin to change.
And suddenly a band rooted in acoustic instruments, folk traditions, beats cribbed from the world over—a band that featured no less than two didgeridoos—had plugged in with a vengeance, started playing jazz changes, improvising, even (at times) flirting just a little with rock.
“We still have a little of our roots come into play,” Keeney says of the band’s sound, as it has evolved to this point. “But you have me going to jazz school, and that’s what I’m putting into my ears, and the other new guys and that’s what they’re putting into their ears. So that’s what’s going to come out.”
But Ganasita faces a new challenge, that of losing its entire rhythm section. Dunlap and Brown are both moving; the band’s upcoming performance at the Preservation Pub will be Dunlap’s last show.
“I feel like we’re in a rebirthing period, trying to figure out what our new vision is going to be,” Keeney says. “Our sound has changed when our personnel has changed. Now our personnel is going to change again, and we have to work around that and see what’s possible.
“At one point, Joey and I thought about maybe scrapping the whole thing. But then we decided that, hey, we know enough players around town to pick up some guys and keep Ganasita going.”