S.F. String Trio to shed new light on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at Pleasanton’s Firehouse
By Lou Fancher
It’s not often that a risky, never-before, never-in-the-same-way-again event or item can be called a sure, sublime bet.
But that’s exactly what can be said about the convergence of three of the Bay Area’s finest string musicians and a new CD commemorating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ revered album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The San Francisco String Trio pools the collective smarts and skills of two-time Grammy-winning violinist Mads Tolling, six-time Downbeat Magazine International Critics’ Rising Star guitarist Mimi Fox and multitalented bassist/vocalist Jeff Denson. Bringing their live performance of Fab Four hits Saturday to Pleasanton’s intimate Firehouse Arts Center, a rare encounter that audiences can only hope becomes frequent is on tap.
Setting aside their individual achievements and chops as solo artists, the trio partners with the Beatles’ iconic music that defined and enlarged a genre and provided inspiration and challenge for generations of musicians.
It would be a lie to say Tolling, Fox and Denson are jazz musicians — although each member of the trio is accomplished and widely recognized as such. Like the Beatles, their compositions and performances include or reflect impressive range: Western and Eastern classical, jazz, pop, rock and world music.
“I’ve played solo, trio, quartet, string ensembles, orchestras doing Vivaldi, Gershwin, my compositions, Beatles and more. I’ve played in all contexts, and each brings out a different part of my personality,” says Fox, whose resume includes work with guitarist Charlie Byrd, Jim Hall, Martin Taylor and others.
After selecting tunes from the genre-stretching 1967 album to arrange and reinterpret individually, the trio in rehearsals worked collaboratively.
“Mads would say he could play up an octave from what I wrote, or Jeff might say instead of walking a bass line, he could use a bow,” said Fox.
For “Lovely Rita,” a song she defines as a jazz waltz, Fox wrote out Tolling’s part playing the melody, then passing it to her. With group input, Fox realized she could play ascending or descending figures behind his repeated loops — the arpeggio notes spread from a chord cluster into a lively, dancing background texture.
“I might never have thought of that on my own,” she said.
Three of the songs have Denson providing vocals: “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better” and “A Day in the Life.” Fox says it’s not common for a virtuoso bassist to have gorgeous bowing and a beautiful voice. “He’s the entire musical package,” she said.
Tolling is an adept improviser whose extensive classical training gives foundation for rich tone but doesn’t stop him from pitching his instrument to sound like a guitar or emphasizing the violin’s rhythmic capacities over the more expected lyricism. Fox said onstage their generosity comes from deep listening: if she begins softly or allows a line to undulate without having ever played it similarly in rehearsal, they immediately shift to complement her sound. In any genre, Fox says the rhythm is the core, but the musicians have to click.
“They can be great players and not hit it off. We all feel music a certain way, and chemistry is of the utmost importance,” she said. “All the great notes in the world would just be a pile of notes without symbiotic understanding.”
She insists that audiences also feel the pulse, understand the dynamics of a group in sync and seek authenticity. Especially with music that is familiar like that of the Beatles, reharmonizing the melodies for violin, bass and the three guitars she will play must be evocative of the original songs while taking the music “somewhere fresh.”
Fox plays an artist’s signature Mimi Fox Heritage model, a 12-string Taylor, and a six-string Guild acoustic guitar. Particularly pleasing to her is an arrangement she completed with the 12-string of “Within You Without You.” George Harrison played the classical Indian sitar on it. “I wanted to do something that would complement the original,” she said. Five sections that juxtapose and blend the three instruments, Fox said, add lightness and flow, like light seen through or reflected by moving water. “It goes through a lot of moves.”
The concert will consist of two sets and “as many as possible” songs from the album. Because it is a live performance — Fox said she uses “a deep set of ears” and “heavy listening” onstage— anything can happen. Bet on that.