Return of the Sybarite5

Sybarite5, the rock stars of the classical world, return to the home of their founder with a week-long residency in Sarasota, Florida. For me, the highlight will be an 8 p.m. concert Thursday, Nov. 10, in the Goldstein Cabaret of Florida Studio Theatre. In honor of their return, I’m reposting a piece I wrote in April of 2013. Enjoy.

Someone left the radio tuned to a station that programs NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday mornings. As I reached for the dial to switch to a classical music station, Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, cued up Astor Piazzolla’s “La Muerte del Angel” by the string quintet Sybarite5, recorded live in Holley Hall in Sarasota, Florida.

My wife and I had just seen a series of bracing concerts there, and so I stepped into the shower . . . and back a lifetime to a concert by the Guarneri Quartet, who played Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 with an intensity that shredded their bows. And here was a quintet whose founder came from Sarasota and who could play with the same nuance and fervor. Not what you would expect from a laid-back city by the sea.

Then Child announced that Sybarite5 had recently recorded an album of Radiohead covers. Time to step out the shower and learn a bit more about the group.

Named after the ancient Greek city in southern Italy now identified with seekers of pleasure and luxury, Sybarite5 is the first string quintet ever selected as winners of Concert Artists Guild International Competition in its 60 year history. The media have compared the group to rock stars who play with missionary zeal. Its members have performed in traditional venues (Carnegie Hall) as well as nontraditional ones (the CBS Early Show).

And while their repertoire includes composers known in the classical world, such as Piazzolla and Mozart, the quartet released a recording of covers of the music of Radiohead called “Everything in its Right Place,” following in the wake of another musical pioneer, pianist Christopher O’Riley, the host of NPR’s From the Top, who has released several transcriptions of Radiohead music.

Sybarite5 in Burns Court, Sarasota, Florida

Sybarite5 in Burns Court, Sarasota, Florida

Sybarite5 was founded by double bassist and former Sarasota resident Louis Levitt. In addition to his work with Sybarite5, Levitt has been featured on chamber music appearances that have included the Aspen Music Festival as well as performances with Grammy winning composer Bob James. He has also performed with the Sarasota Orchestra. He recently became the first ever double bassist to win the Concert Artist Guild Competition.

As for the other members of the quintet, many have a foot in both classical and contemporary worlds:

  • Laura Metcalf, cello, was featured as a soloist with the One World Symphony playing an arrangement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
  • Sarah Whitney, violin, led the Cleveland Central Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra as concertmaster on tour to Carnegie Hall.
  • Angela Pickett, viola, performs with the Princeton Symphony and has played the fiddle with numerous ensembles, including the Chieftains.
  • Sami Merdinian, an Argentinian violinist, has received worldwide recognition for his performances as a soloist and chamber musician, including his work with the Perlman Chamber Music Workshop, which holds a winter residency in Sarasota.

I’m downloading another of the group’s recordings now, the EP “Disturb the Silence.” It features music by Radiohead and Piazzolla, plus two original works written for the quintet, and made its debut at number 11 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart.

It’s a good way to start your weekend.

 

Phil Woods rides again

This week, jazz musicians will honor one of the greatest alto saxophone players in memory, the late Phil Woods. This year’s Celebration of the Arts, the annual outdoor music festival in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., is dedicated to Phil, and his friends and admirers will gather tonight for a benefit concert to continue his legacy.

Forty-one years ago, I sat with Phil in his home in the Pocono Mountains for an interview published on Sept. 29, 1975 in The Pocono Record. He’d already played with the greats of jazz and two years later would conquer the world of pop music with his lyric solo for Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

This is my contribution to his memory.

Phil WoodsPhil Woods is alive and well-known (in jazz circles) and living in your back yard.

The alto saxophonist has 30 records to his credit, a grant to compose a major work for sax and orchestra and a cool manner smoothed by years of roadwork with Count Basie and myriad jazz greats.

He lives in Delaware Water Gap in a modest white clapboard house with his lady Jill and at least five cats, composing his three-movement “Sun Suite” in front of a blackened stone fireplace in his vaulting living room.

He began writing the suite under a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts; it comes to fruition in October when Woods, his quartet and an orchestra tape it for RCA Records.

Like many musicians, artists and writing living in the Poconos, Woods’ work is known nationally and internationally, yet he camouflages himself here, lays back and enjoys the scenery for a month, then flies through Japan and Holland, touring jazz festivals or debuting a new work.

He left home (Springfield, Mass.) at 15, powered by Art Tatum and later Charlie Parker, jazz jingling in his blood, hauling a horn willed to him by his uncle. He hit the road with the Birdland All-Stars tour, petrified but hungry to learn with his heroes—Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Bud Powell—riding the band bus and playing the southern Tobacco Warehouse circuit in the late ‘50s.

Living on the road out of a bus taught him about life, he feels. “There are still some big bands out there. But there’s no place for young people to get that experience, although the colleges have tried to replace that in a sense with the stage band situation. But that doesn’t teach you too much about life. That teaches you about the music, but not the invaluable things about living.

“You just keep your mouth shut and watch what the veterans do. I think that’s ideal, don’t you? Any man who’s been doing it five times as long as you have must have something to say.”

images-coverWoods has studied at both schools, trekking from Bach to bebop, from four years at Julliard through two decades of big bands and his own quartet. With a common twine called jazz running through his career, he has turned out eclectic potions like “Charity” on his 1973 album for Testament (“This is my boogaloo period.”) and “Images,” his latest LP for RCA with Michel Legrand and his orchestra.

His phrases are lithe, never overblown or dirty. He ranges from the cool (“The Windmills of Your Mind”) to the big and brassy to the sporadic. (The experimental sounds on the Testament album Woods said didn’t go over in a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley.)

Woods’ rather eclectic life seems to give his music its dynamics.

“I used to interview American jazz artists for a French magazine, a jazz magazine,” Woods said as he lit a cigarette and settle back in a chair in his living room.

That was during his 1968-72 stay in Paris, a trip Woods feels everyone should take. “It’s one of the most magnificent cities in the world. If you’re an artist, you owe it to yourself to go see it—why it’s different—so you can relate to what you have here. You need that contrast,” he said in a gravely baritone voice.

A musician before he found an instrument, Woods stumbled into the field. “I could whistle and make up a melody. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t sit down at the piano and just make up stuff. I was totally frustrated, and it would just sound terrible.

© Garth Woods“But I remember the attraction. That’s the reason I got the saxophone, because my uncle died. And when I was evidently nine, ten or younger, I would go look at his sax. It just intrigued me, all that white—the pearl and the gold, you know. I just loved to touch it.”

He was hooked after one lesson, took a four-year crack at classical clarinet and composition (“I had dreams of perhaps playing Mozart but I found out that was not my road.”) and gravitated toward jazz.

With a photographic memory for a melody, Woods set out to imitate his heroes of the big band era. “I guess you have to imitate before you can stretch out. That’s how you learn how to play. Essentially you can’t teach jazz, but a great way to help a student learn how to play is to have him learn how to play different solos.”

That background and the awe Woods says he feels for the jazz greats who have survived the decades (“It’s easy to be a swinger when you’re 26; let me check you out when you’re 46.”) led him into his present brainchild, “Sun Suite.”

“It will be a piece that everybody will be able to play, hopefully. It is meant to be used—not just recorded once and discarded. Hopefully published and used in schools. I’m trying to construct it in such a way it can be played with almost any instrumentation.”

Lighting another cigarette, Woods described his round-the-world tour of jazz festivals, culminating with the recording of “Images” before the Concord Jazz Festival this year in California.

But can he describe in words what his music’s about?

“No. Only when I have a horn in my mouth.”

The rhythm of life at the beach

Every Sunday at dusk, drummers gather on Sarasota’s Siesta Beach to bid farewell to the sun. They put it to bed with a hypnotic rhythm that vibrates through the heads and feet of the hundreds of visitors and residents who rim the sand, who’ve been lucky enough to find a parking spot.

On Halloween they wear masks. Most of the time they wear their dreads and tattoos and thrum their congas and djembe, their snares and bodhrans.

Siesta Key sword dancer (2)In the circle, a woman balances a sword on her head, her skirts flying through the night air. Children spin in glowing hoops, an elderly man offers free hugs, a man dressed as Santa with a jester’s hat poses for pictures. People talk to each other.

A middle-age couple from Illinois sits with a beer in their hands and their toes in the sand. They’re staying on Siesta Key for a few weeks and this is their first time at the circle. In his short beard he looks woolly. She has blond hair with sculpted curls and perfect legs. The woman takes in the drummers and the jugglers and leans in to whisper, “I suppose anything goes.”

No, I say, not here, and if she’s disappointed, it doesn’t show. She nods and as the sun drops into the Gulf, she gives in to the rhythm, rising in her flowing shift and twirling for her husband, who snaps a picture with his smartphone.

She settles back in the low beach chair and smiles and says to no one, or to everyone, “We’ll send that to the girls.”

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15 seconds of fame . . . in march time

John Philip Sousa III unfolded himself from the director’s chair on a grassy hill in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, and looked back to his childhood. “I paid no attention to it at all,” he said of the grand marches written by his famous grandfather. He went to work as a publisher and forgot about the legacy until he assumed the leadership of the Sousa Foundation.

A few decades ago I met Sousa’s grandson at a concert in his honor and wrote about the patriotic music. And then I forgot about it, too. Until I became a member of WRTI-FM, the classical and jazz station in Philadelphia, and started listening to Gregg Whiteside and the Sousalarm. Every weekday precisely at 7:15 a.m. Gregg plays a march by Sousa and others. If you send him an email he’ll induct you into the Sousalarm Club and mail you a certificate.

Man Behind the Gun sheet musicFor me, he played “The Man Behind the Gun,” a march Sousa wrote in 1899. (The title is more ominous than the music. Sousa wrote the march as part of a larger musical called “Chris and the Wonderful Lamp.”

The march, the certificate. . . . At first you feel a little embarrassed. Then you remember the good parts of childhood, the joy of listening to bright music on a dark morning, the pep bands and parades. And then there is the guilty pleasure of hearing your name on the radio, of succumbing to the subtle lure of public approval.

In a world of instant media, 15 minutes of fame has shrunk to 15 seconds. Still, a little brightness, no matter how short-lived, is reason to celebrate. So put on your marching shoes and step lively. The band’s about to play.

Your career don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

If your career has stalled with the economy, it might be time to change the tune . . . with a little help from your friends in the music world.

I’m thinking of people like Ella Fitzgerald and saxophonist Phil Woods. I had the pleasure of interviewing Woods back in the day when he provided Billy Joel with a sassy solo on the hit “Just the Way You Are.” He’s a legend in jazz circles, and for good reason, playing with a passion, dexterity and generosity toward emerging artists. Good advice for the business as well as the jazz world.

Woods is not the only musical philosopher. Listen to the wide range of talent in the genre, from Bebop to Bossa Nova, and you’ll hear lessons for life, as well as your career. Here are four easy pieces culled from the masters:

  • Take turns. Listen to the interchange between Phil Woods on alto and Roy Hargrove on flugelhorn on their recording “Voyage,” featuring the Bill Charlap Trio. All of the band members solo, but then they step back to give the other person a turn. Works in the office, too.
  • Support others. Elevations is a new band of young musicians from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their debut recording of the same name is a study in cooperation. The musicians support the material, which is another way of supporting each other. Check out the song “Worlds of Resource” for a refreshing view on working as a unit.
  • Stay cool. Miles Davis epitomizes the attitude and practices it well on the recording “Kind of Blue,” especially on the track “So What.” It predates the phrase “whatever” but captures the sentiment without an excess of cynicism.
  • Swing a little. Put some sass into your work. Listen to anything by violinist Stephane Grappelli and try to keep your feet from moving. Pair him with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the works of George and Ira Gershwin and you’ve got fascinatin’ rhythm. And a model for strutting your stuff at work.

Or as Ella sang, “It makes no difference/If it’s sweet or hot/Just give that rhythm/Everything you’ve got.”

 

Dear graduate: take five

If it’s spring it must be time for graduation . . . and those dignified speakers polishing their well-worn nuggets of knowledge. Time to take a break from all that earnestness and listen to the advice of the most tuned-in of all philosophers–the musicians of the world.

Rather than rehash the old “you can’t always get what you want” debate, we can glean workable advice for building your career by listening to some of the pioneers in a field that is probably 180 degrees from yours–jazz. Here are four ideas from the front lines:

  •  Work hard. No one short of Keith Moon or Buddy Rich has played with the muscle of drummer Billy Cobham. Take the recording “Total Eclipse.” Fire leaps from those sticks, especially during the opening suite “Solarization.” But he also composes the most exquisite melodies. While the rhythm moves your feet, it’s the song that moves your spirit. OK, we’ll use the two P words here, passion and purpose, but let’s not make their discovery a career in itself.
  • Play soft. You can work quietly on occasion and still capture attention. Listen to Joao Gilberto’s sultry guitar work on “The Girl from Ipanema,” or Astrud Gilberto’s vocals on “Corcovado.” High speed and volume all the time will wear out you and your welcome.
  • Have a heart. You may have a constant craving for promotion but consider the feelings of your coworkers. Listen to anything by K.D. Lang or Tony Bennett for a guide to acting naughty or nice.
  • Take a bow. Acknowledging the applause after he’d finished, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson would tent his hands in front of his chest like a praying monk and bow. He’d also acknowledge everyone in the band. That’s a gracious leader, one that others want to follow.

A parting word of advice: stop taking vocational-aptitude tests and hunting for your passion. Enjoy the music. The song doesn’t last forever.

 

Is Sybarite5 Sarasota’s Best-Kept Musical Secret?

Someone left the radio tuned to a station that programs NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday mornings. As I reached for the dial to switch to a classical music station, Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, cued up Astor Piazzolla’s “La Muerte del Angel” by the string quintet Sybarite5, recorded live in Holley Hall in Sarasota, Florida.

My wife and I had just seen a series of bracing concerts there, and so I stepped into the shower . . . and back a lifetime to a concert by the Guarneri Quartet, who played Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 with an intensity that shredded their bows. And here was a quintet whose founder came from Sarasota and who could play with the same nuance and fervor. Not what you would expect from a laid-back city by the sea.

Then Child announced that Sybarite5 had recently recorded an album of Radiohead covers. Time to step out the shower and learn a bit more about the group.

Named after the ancient Greek city in southern Italy now identified with seekers of pleasure and luxury, Sybarite5 is the first string quintet ever selected as winners of Concert Artists Guild International Competition in its 60 year history. The media have compared the group to rock stars who play with missionary zeal. Its members have performed in traditional venues (Carnegie Hall) as well as nontraditional ones (the CBS Early Show).

And while their repertoire includes composers known in the classical world, such as Piazzolla and Mozart, the quartet released a recording of covers of the music of Radiohead called “Everything in its Right Place,” following in the wake of another musical pioneer, pianist Christopher O’Riley, the host of NPR’s From the Top, who has released several transcriptions of Radiohead music.

Sybarite5 was founded by double bassist and former Sarasota resident Louis Levitt. In addition to his work with Sybarite5, Levitt has been featured on chamber music appearances that have included the Aspen Music Festival as well as performances with Grammy winning composer Bob James. He has also performed with the Sarasota Orchestra. He recently became the first ever double bassist to win the Concert Artist Guild Competition.

As for the other members of the quintet, many have a foot in both classical and contemporary worlds:

  • Laura Metcalf, cello, was featured as a soloist with the One World Symphony playing an arrangement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
  • Sarah Whitney, violin, led the Cleveland Central Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra as concertmaster on tour to Carnegie Hall.
  • Angela Pickett, viola, performs with the Princeton Symphony and has played the fiddle with numerous ensembles, including the Chieftains.
  • Sami Merdinian, an Argentinian violinist, has received worldwide recognition for his performances as a soloist and chamber musician, including his work with the Perlman Chamber Music Workshop, which holds a winter residency in Sarasota.

I’m downloading another of the group’s recordings now, the EP “Disturb the Silence.” It features music by Radiohead and Piazzolla, plus two original works written for the quintet, and made its debut at number 11 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart.

It’s a good way to start your weekend.

 

The World According to Ringo

Every year or so Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band hit the road to bring cheer and nostalgia to boomers and their kids. After 17 studio recordings under his own name and a career spanning more than 50 years, the former Beatle has amassed a large catalog of songs that reveal a philosopher as well as a lovable mug. Finger bling and peace signs aside, the guy delivers some sobering wisdom for those who look beneath the mirth. It may sound simple, ordinary, even natural, but practicing his philosophy is more complex than it sounds.

Here’s what I’ve learned since I saw him sitting there, a generation ago on the Ed Sullivan Show:

  • Have a heart. “Maybe I haven’t always been there just for you,” he sings on “Weight of the World.” “Maybe I try but then I got my own life, too.” Ah, remorse and regret, the terrible twins who visit the conscientious all too often. Ringo chose career over companions when he went on tour, as many corporate road warriors do today. While acknowledging that you have to pay your dues, Ringo counsels compassion. Give yourself, and others, a break. “But no matter what you choose, choose love.”
  • Give peace a chance. “Last night I had a peace dream,” he sings in “Peace Dream.” “No need for war no more/Better things we’re fighting for.” Like efforts to minimize hunger and pain. And while he often advocates for global harmony, he also emphasizes the need for inner peace. “I’ve got to remember some days when I feel sad/Nothing lasts forever, and everything must pass,” he sings on “Y Not.”
  • Let go. So things don’t work out. “Ev’ry time I see your face/It reminds me of the places we used to go,” he sings on one of his signature songs, “Photograph.” “But all I got is a photograph/And I realize you’re not coming back anymore.” Time to leave the twins behind, along with all of the other baggage. Forgiveness helps. “It all comes down to who you crucify,” he sings in “Weight of the World.” “You either kiss the future or the past goodbye.”

Good advice for people of good will. All you have to do is act naturally.

ringo-live2

A tribute to nostalgia

My boss and I saw the Dark Star Orchestra channel the Grateful Dead the other night. He’d seen a Pink Floyd tribute band earlier in the year with his brother-in-law, who racks up 20 or 30 such concerts a year.

My wife and I had just attended a concert by the three remaining members of the Moody Blues. In the summer we’d watched Ringo wow the audience at Woodstock and, before that, seen a smattering of old-timers try to resurrect icons of the 1960s—the Yardbirds, Zombies and the Spencer Davis Group.

Now we’re looking forward to the upcoming season. Several legends of pop are scheduled to appear this winter at the Van Wezel Center, including Paul Anka, the Fifth Dimension, the Beach Boys, the Temptations with the Four Tops and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. And across the country, the Rolling Stones will have no sympathy for the devil or aging critics as they hit the road to commemorate 50 years in show business.

Once upon a time, white-haired musicians were the province of symphony orchestras. No longer. Watching 60- and 70-year-olds bounce across the stage is both jarring and inspiring. Questions like “How did we get so old?” mix with statements like “I can’t believe he can still hit the high notes,” let alone spend an eternity on a tour bus, bring energy to songs older than most audience members and stay up past 11 on a weeknight.

Sometimes there are so few original musicians in the bands of that era that the reincarnations seem like the original tribute bands. At times the copycats sound better than the originals. But most of the time we rejoice in the music and give thanks to the musicians who brave the road to bring us a glimpse of a time when we were young and moderately hip. They keep on truckin’ so we can keep on hoping. It’s an example all of us can appreciate.

Jerry Garcia’s dead. Long live Jerry Garcia.