Gorgeous singer Tracy Walton smiles knowingly as Joe Gilman warms up on his piano keyboard. This will be the first of many looks as Walton and Gilman make their way through vintage classics and select pop gems from The Great American Songbook. The couple are huddled against the back wall of Gilman’s 6-month-old restaurant, Twin Lotus Thai on Folsom Boulevard. They’ll play Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” and the familiar “Sentimental Journey,” but they’ll also include Jerry Garcia’s “Sugar Baby” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Walton, widely known as the lead singer of popular band Mumbo Gumbo, delves into the more creative ways of Americana. Although Gilman is primarily a jazz player, he has no trouble finding common ground with her.
There’s a bit of Superman in Joe Gilman. He doesn’t put on a cape when he sits at the keyboard, but he becomes otherworldly. His fingers wave effortlessly up and down the keys, and the notes cascade through the sound system in a musical fountain. There is an effortless fluidity to her performance. Steeped in both jazz history and his own wealth of experience, Gilman can play it all.
For this first-call jazz pianist in the area, there are more gigs lined up than Gilman has time to play. There’s his classes at American River College, where he’s a full-time professor and head of the music theory and jazz skills programs. There are private students to teach. And now, Gilman and his wife Surinipha (Kai) own and operate Twin Lotus Thai, where he regularly backs a diverse cast of local singers when he’s not seating customers or serving tables. Gilman has played music to adoring crowds around the world with some of the greatest musicians to ever play instruments, and he still will, but right now he’s going to pack your half-eaten chicken satay to take away. Gilman, who has the subtle, ironic sense of humor of a seasoned musician, will tell you, “Life is funny like that.
Gilman has played the piano professionally in gigs that include a European tour as featured sideman in legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s band and as keyboardist for Sacramento R&B hitmakers Club Nouveau on a Japanese tour. He was an ambassador for the Kennedy Center Jazz in Africa with guitarist Steve Homan. And he played in the groups of Henry Mancini, Joan Rivers, Peter Noone and Wayman Tisdale. Bands he was with opened for Wayne Shorter, Charlie Pride, Everything But The Girl and Mel Tormé. Still, you can find him here in the College Greens mall amid potty stickers and spring rolls playing a show tune for a recent Sacramento State grad he gave a seat to.
Gilman thought that after graduating from Indiana University in music, he would find a job teaching music somewhere. His school buddies (now major jazz artists like bassist Robert Leslie Hurst and trumpeter Chris Botti) mostly planned to move to New York when they were done, and many were already playing with professionals on their breaks.
“They were kids, but they were going back to their hometowns of Detroit, Philadelphia, and they were playing with famous people. I didn’t even know it was possible,” says Gilman. “I’m from Carmichael, for screaming out loud. I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to do this. But if his friends played with big pros and he played with his friends, maybe he could play with the pros too, he thought. Maybe moving to New York wasn’t out of the question after all. He would first obtain a master’s degree; then he would also go to New York.
During a summer back home in Sacramento, he met guitarist Henry Robinett, who had a band and a recording contract but needed a piano player. Robinett convinced Gilman to stay. “I thought it would be a good thing to try, so I joined Henry’s band, and pretty soon Artful Balance Records gave me my own record deal,” says Gilman.
Being able to make his own records was a prize, but the fit wasn’t perfect for Gilman. “I was a die-hard jazz musician and I got signed to this label which was more of this new-age stuff,” Gilman says. He could find work playing the occasional piano gig, but that barely sustained him, going to New York no longer seemed like a viable option, and he couldn’t get any of the steady college teaching jobs he seemed suitable for. . Then the label went bankrupt and Gilman felt like he was stuck, maybe he needed to completely change course.
“Everything was kind of like, what am I going to do next?” he says. He applied to law school and was accepted to Hastings at UC Berkeley.
Before moving, he performed a noon concert at American River College. After performing, he was approached to apply for a new position as a music theory instructor who would teach jazz-related classes. The job he hadn’t been able to get was calling to him now. “I rescinded my acceptance to law school and decided to teach at a community college,” says Gilman. “It was really, I would say, the beginning of my adulthood.”
Teaching at the ARC allowed Gilman the economic freedom to artistically pursue whatever he wanted.
He has made outstanding albums of his original music, “Americanvas” and “Relativity”, he has made records of music written by Stevie Wonder and Dave Brubeck, and he has been the sideman on dozens of other recordings. He co-founded the Capital Jazz Project, a regional group of like-minded musicians who performed themed concerts based on the music of jazz masters. He also began teaching at the University of the Pacific’s Brubeck Institute, becoming its de facto music director for over a decade while sending dozens of young, well-trained professional musicians out into the world. The Institute’s namesake, Dave Brubeck, became an admirer and friend of Gilman, sending planners from Gilman Moleskine for Christmas presents. When jazz legend Bobby Hutcherson came along, Gilman was able to play regularly with one of the all-time greats until his death.
Gilman got married in the 90s, but by the time of the 2000s he was divorced and single. Yet he wanted to get married. He just didn’t know how to get there. “I tried to find a partner through the normal channels and it didn’t particularly work — I don’t even know if a normal channel exists anymore,” Gilman says.
He began searching online dating sites, eventually finding women he was interested in on an international site based in Thailand. Women also lived there. A correspondence was initiated. Her adviser, Brian, who ran the site and was also consulted on legal immigration, told Gilman the next step was to come to Thailand and meet the women.
Although Gilman found Kai online, only one of them was actively looking to meet someone. Kai’s sister Tutka, who worked for the site, uploaded Kai’s photo there without his knowledge, then responded to Gilman’s emails when they started arriving. It wasn’t until Gilman came to Thailand to meet her on her spring break that Tutka told Kai what was happening.
It’s not that Kai didn’t want to meet someone – she did. But she also thought that her time might be over. She had lost her cosmetics business and shoe store in the devastating Phuket tsunami in 2004. Struggling to rebuild her life afterwards, Kai even asked a monk what she should do. “The monk told me to be patient and someone would come into my life,” Kai says.
She and Gilman first met on his 30th birthday in 2005 at the website’s office for a 30-minute interview. It was standard procedure. Tutka acted as an interpreter since neither Gilman nor Kai spoke each other’s language. They kinda do it now, even though his English is better than his Thai.
They had a few dates over the next few days, but Gilman’s time was short. “I was about to return to the States, and knowing that I had met this woman that I loved very much, I asked Brian: ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ Brian said, “Well, you should get engaged.”
“I was like, ‘That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. What do you mean? I just met her four days ago! He’s like, ‘Yeah, but you’re gonna have to get a fiancee visa to bring her to the United States. This process takes a long time.” Brian told him to start the process then and get to know her later. Something Joe Gilman is particularly gifted is improvisation: playing changes, adapting and creating in response to shifting melodic chords. They applied for the fiancée visa before Gilman left. “We met on a Monday; we got engaged on a Friday,” says Gilman. Then he returned to Thailand several times over the next few months when flights were cheap.
He thought he would start a courtship to get to know Kai. She had another idea. When Gilman arrived a few months later for the third time, Kai told him, “If you’re serious with me, then we’re getting married. If you’re not interested in marrying me, then don’t come back.
“I said, ‘OK, well, let’s get married then.’ We ended up getting married in Thailand in July. We had been together for about three months, I guess,” Gilman says.
The plan was for the restaurant to be a family business, with his son Andrew running the front of house based on his previous restaurant experience, Kai running the kitchen and his daughter Laila filling in as needed. Gilman would handle most of the business. Andrew had the front of the house fitted and installed, but after a few months he wanted to move on.
With few local venues offering live music, Gilman is now considering setting up outside on the patio with slightly larger combos. It’s basically a musical institution in Sacramento at this point. He had to add an extra matinee to his sold-out birthday jam at the end of June. He still plays heavily, having completed a three-night sprint through Bay Area venues in a band formed by saxophonist Jacam Manricks. “It just so happens that in my case, what I do for a living is music and my hobby is also music,” says Gilman.