Magraw and Wise still make music together after 30 years

Marcus Wise's hands on his tabla.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Two Minnesota musicians will celebrate 30 years of collaboration and a new album at the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday night.

Guitarist Dean Magraw and tabla player Marcus Wise are both known for their flexibility, having done everything from jazz and Celtic to traditional Indian music over the years. Their new CD is called "How the Light Gets in."

Dean Magraw and Marcus Wise display the quiet comfort of old friends who first met in Minneapolis three decades ago. The combination of acoustic guitar and tabla might not spring to everyone's mind, but Magraw says a friend suggested they should jam together.

"I don't know if I called you, or you called me," Magraw said to Wise. "But somehow we got together and it worked great."

"We threw the tape recorder on, and literally just started playing as if we knew each other," responded Wise.

And that's what they've been doing ever since.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Dean Magraw
Dean Magraw has played with many different styles of musicians over the years, and has more than a dozen albums to his name.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Magraw and Wise make their playing look effortless, but say it's taken years of practice and study to play this way.

Magraw, the guitarist, learned about the tradition and mechanics of Indian music and the tabla from Wise.

They talk about the percussive ways Magraw plays his guitar, and the overtones which Wise captures and recreates through the rhythms of his carefully tuned drums.

There is a special element added to their music.

A couple years ago, Dean Magraw learned he needed to have a bone marrow transplant to treat a serous medical condition known as MDS. It was going to be a long and difficult recovery, but he said the treatments were spaced out a little.

"So I had some time to reflect -- what did I really want to do?" Magraw said. "The first thing that came to my mind was, I want to finish a record that I'd started with Marcus. So we went into the studio with that intention."

Marcus Wise
Marcus Wise has studied tabla in India, and is recognized as one of the leading players of the instrument in the U.S.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

When they got there, probably because of where they both were emotionally, they found themselves going in new directions.

"So we just abandoned the idea of fixing up the old CD and went for the new music," said Magraw.

The album came together very easily, with the two of them improvising and then working on the themes they liked. While there is a distinctive feel to what they produced, it's possible to hear all kinds of influences in the music.

"When it comes down to it, the so-called different styles of music have much more in common with each other than they have differences from each other," said Magraw. "We allow whatever muse comes into the room to become part of the process."

"We build for the day, and the mood of the sky and how the light is around us," Wise added.

Magraw and Wise finished the album, and then they waited a year for Magraw to complete his treatment and recover. Magraw admitted it was a tough time.

Dean Magraw (left) and Marcus Wise play in the MPR studios. They have been collaborating for 30 years and just released a new album, "How the Light Gets In."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"There were times when I could play music, and there were times when I could not," Magraw said. "And the more difficult times were when I couldn't play, and the easiest times, the best times were when I could. I tried to focus on the healing qualities of music, which are very powerful, and I think played a huge role in those ways."

"How the Light Gets In" was released late last year, but it's only now Magraw and Wise are playing the music live again.

Their concert Saturday night at the Cedar Cultural Center is a release party of sorts, and will also feature a rare live appearance by Minnesota's Poet Laureate Robert Bly -- another of the artists with whom they've both collaborated over the years.

What's interesting about the concert is that they probably won't play the music on the CD. It'll be close, based on the themes they used to develop the tracks for the recording.

Marcus Wise and Dean Magraw took the title "Where the Light Gets In" from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem." As they point out in the album liner notes, it refers to the imperfection of things, and that it is through the cracks that we are able to see light and beauty. It's clearly an idea that appeals to them a huge amount.

They pick up their instruments again, and see what cracks they can find this time.