Unrehearsed MKE brings musicians together for inspired improv

Brandon Miller, Contributing writer

Band members generally spend a great deal of time preparing for performances — warming up, reviewing play sets, polishing difficult stretches, honing introductions.

But the performers who sign up for Unrehearsed MKE have no such opportunity.

“The concept for Unrehearsed MKE is to be randomly put into groups that have never played before together and create improvised music,” says founder Devin Drobka. “The focus is really on improvisation, and whatever that really means to everyone.”

What transpires onstage during Unrehearsed MKE performances is as suspenseful for the audience as it is for the performers. The music presented lives and dies in the moment, although some performers decide they want to work together again, Drobka says.

The series is currently held the first Sunday of each month at Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave., Milwaukee.

For each event, Drobka and the event’s two other “curators” bring musicians together and ask them to improvise about a 45-minute set of music. There are no themes or instructions. Musicians simply are asked to play something, relying wholly on their intuition.

Says Drobka: “Some people ask me, ‘Well, what do I play?’ and I reply, ‘I don’t know, what are you going play? How are you feeling today?’”

The curators strive to create unconventional ensembles. Drobka recalls that he once paired a trumpet player with a string player. The result was beautiful and actually sounded rehearsed, Drobka says.

“When musicians are really listening to each other and are consciously centered, it yields for some spectacular moments,” he adds.

Drobka credits Baltimore musicians Adam Hopkins and Matt Frazao with the concept. Unrehearsed MKE is modeled after their event Out of Your Head, which Drobka participated in during a visit to Baltimore.

Drobka says participating in Unrehearsed MKE has proven valuable to his personal growth as a musician.

“I met some really close friends through it,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself, things that only improvisation and the nature of the process could produce.”

Other musicians have had similar reactions.

A musician who recently participated for the first time told Drobka, “This is a totally different experience than any other I’ve played, because it requires such a different part of myself. It’s so much more (about) being present.”

Unrehearsed MKE’s 17th performance is on June 1, and the events have grown continually since the beginning. As awareness has grown, so has the number of participants and audience members. So far, about 70 musicians have signed up for the series, and Drobka plans to have more people help curate future groups. At the outset, he had to seek out participants, but now musicians are asking to play.

“Not only do I want people to experience something they are never going to hear again, I want Unrehearsed MKE to encourage collaborations,” Drobka says. “This exposes people in Milwaukee to a wide range of talents from a lot of genres. The larger hope is that people just know that it’s OK to take risks.”

On stage: Unrehearsed MKE happens every first Sunday of the month at the Jazz Estate starting at 7:30. The next program will be held on June 1. $2 cover.