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Art of the Story: Michael Thurber brings his "gigantic energy" to Little Island

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Lauren Desberg
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Michael Thurber

As we know, New York City attracts people from all over the world. It’s the people that make the city.

Spalding Gray once said that he knew he couldn’t live in America and wasn’t ready to move to Europe so he moved to an island off the coast of America – New York City.

Of course he didn’t know about Little Island when he said that - it’s a tiny urban park that opened recently, suspended over the Hudson River, just off the west side of Manhattan.

On a Sunday night in early autumn at Little Island’s amphitheater, as Michael Thurber’s show came to a close, he thanked his audience for their open mindedness.

“Thank you so much for being open to a lot of different music,” he said from the stage. “The truth is we all listen to a lot of different music. [...] Why lock yourself off, there’s so much good stuff out there.”

This statement of intent came after 90 minutes of what could be called a proof of concept. In Michael’s case, his concept is expansive and often unexpected. His original songs are confessional, conversational and contemporary.

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Leo Sidran
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Michael Thurber performing at Little Island’s amphitheater

Michael is a highly accomplished instrumentalist. His first instrument was the acoustic bass. He’s a composer and a producer in a multitude of styles - from musical theater to classical concertos, bluegrass to pop. His live shows seem less designed to shine a light on his love of that diversity.

In the space of an evening, he welcomed a parade of friends to the stage to join him - including, for example, the main mandolin man about town Chris Thile and violin virtuoso Tessa Lark who joined him on stage to play part of a Bach violin concerto, adapted for fiddle, mandolin, and upright bass.

Clarinetist Mark Dover, Broadway actor Daniel J. Watts, Clyde and Gracie Lawrence from the band Lawrence, and esteemed saxophonist Tivon Pennicott all made memorable appearances during a show that swung from Motown to Appalachian music and plenty in between.

Despite the somewhat disparate presentation it all makes sense in Thurber’s world. Rather than playing like a variety show, it came across more like a manifesto. It’s a form of radical affirmation.

Michael says, “Going on stage is a privilege and if you’re going to do it, you should go for broke.”

Thurber came of age when the internet was already a reality, and despite having attended Juilliard for both classical and jazz bass, it may be fair to say that YouTube was as much a teacher to him as any professor he ever had. That sense of music made free from category, and untethered to a linear history is crucial to him, and he gravitates towards other like minded musicians.

“I gravitate towards people whose major leaning is openness,” he says.

During Covid, Michael started releasing solo music, and began in earnest to try and tie together the loose ends of his musical life. And while his particular journey is specific and somewhat unusual, it’s clear that he’s leaning on his friends to help him find his way home.

Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist, podcast host and creative coach based in Brooklyn, New York.