Even classical ensembles get the blues
by Kelly Ferjutz
Breaking up is hard to do, whether for a couple or a musical group. Finding a new partner might be even more difficult for the latter. Kassaba is a musical group based in Cleveland, Ohio, which really defies easy description. It was founded by pianist and composer Greg Slawson (he writes all the music they play—every note!) and his wife, pianist Candice Lee. They knew a double bass would be a good addition and found Eric Hosemann. Later, after one false start, they recruited saxophonist Mark Boich; he plays soprano, alto and tenor saxes. It took a while to find the right person, because it isn’t enough for the new members to be ultra-proficient on their chosen instruments. The key to Kassaba is the twenty-five or so percussion instruments, which add immeasurably to both the audio and the visual effects of performance. And everyone of the group plays them—just not all at the same time, of course.
Each piece is carefully choreographed, since the musicians move around during the music, always keeping close to their main instruments but playing half a dozen—or more—of the percussion instruments at various times as well. Some of the instruments are so exotic, esoteric, or infrequently used that one of them is sufficient for the four musicians to share. There may be two—or even three of another more frequently used variety such as the cabasa.
In the group's first incarnation, all four musicians were classically trained but jazz-influenced. After they released their first CD (Zones), the next logical step was travel. At this point, Eric felt he couldn’t adapt his schedule to that sort of venture, and the remaining three, with much regret, understood and accepted his decision.
But how do you go about finding another acoustic bass player with classical and jazz capabilities—plus the willingness to learn and play the various percussion instruments that give the group its distinctive sound? Not to mention having to learn all new music—music not heard previously—and be able to move around on a small stage without tripping over an instrument or another musician. Finally, Kassaba doesn't play old standards. It plays all original, incredibly complex, innovative new stuff. That’s a tall order. It was a major challenge to find a new addition to the group.
Chris Vance, originally from Buffalo, New York, seems to fit the situation quite nicely. "It's all new music, all the time!" he says. "I had to learn eighteen new pieces in a month. There’s just lots of notes, lots of counting, a lot of space." He grins. "But it’s a good challenge." Chris had never actually played any percussion previously, although one of the bands he’d been in (Abundance) had a lot of drumming and percussion. He thought it looked and sounded interesting, but he’d never dreamed he’d be doing it, too, one day. "It’s very cerebral," he adds. "You put the bass down, have to keep counting while you turn around and look for the particular instrument you need, play what you’re supposed to play, keep counting, and grab the bass again." Right. Greg is a native Clevelander who did undergraduate work at Wittenberg University and received his masters from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he met Candice, a piano major from Edmonton, Alberta who earned her bachelors and masters degrees there. Mark is from the far west Cleveland suburb of Strongsville and graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston. Chris earned his undergraduate degree from the SUNY/Buffalo and came to Cleveland for his masters. They all teach, and they all play other gigs. Greg keeps composing.
Greg and Candice started out as a piano duet, playing recitals in the duo-piano repertoire. Greg also played with a band, but it wasn't quite what he wanted or needed. "I had so much exposure to traditional classical and jazz repertoire when I was growing up," he says. "I felt I wanted to do more than simply arranging or interpreting other people’s music." So he started to write his own music, which was fun; but bringing it to life needed more than just a piano or two. A talented composer, he's currently finishing up two commissions for saxophone quartet. One is an original, while the other is a reworking of some Duke Ellington melodies. He’s already composed and performed a concerto for piano and jazz orchestra. Then there’s the arrangement of the 24 Piano Preludes of Dmitri Shostakovich for an ensemble consisting of violin, piano (played his mom) and double bass (played by his stepfather).
All this was—and is—fun, but as Greg started writing for more percussion, Kassaba began to take shape in his mind, and his writing changed to reflect his new ideas. Candice came up with the idea of their performances having such a strong visual element. Their first release, Zones, featured nine pieces. In the year and a half since its release, Greg has completed another dozen, which may or may not make it to a CD. Actually, they’re leaning toward a DVD, as they definitely need to be seen, not just heard.
Rehearsals are a bit loose, as they not only learn the music and the patterns of movement, but also more about each other. They use the third floor of the Slawson home, with the instruments placed where they would be onstage. The piano is at far left; Mark is next, facing what would be the front, with Chris behind and slightly to his right. Candice sits supreme amidst a dazzling array of percussion a bit farther right. All told, the space required is about 12 by 8 feet. More space might be nice, but that would require even more percussion instruments. Or roller skates.
Greg names all of his compositions, and mostly the titles have meaning, even if only to him. "Hin-rizzy" is the boo-boo caused by fat fingering in an e-mail note, for instance. He looks around him, ready to give the downbeat, but Chris is not ready. He can’t find his claves. Greg: Oh, you have a claves part?
Chris: In the beginning.
Greg: (smacks his forehead) Oh, yeah. I forgot.
But all the while, Greg’s noodling on the piano. Mark is warming up softly, but closes his eyes and bumps into the angled ceiling, prompting chuckles from the others at the non-musical sounding thump. Greg says, "Okay? One..."
"Ooops!" cries a panicky-sounding Chris. "My earth bell has disappeared." They all laugh; and in less than a minute, all the instruments (and players) are where they’re supposed to be and the music begins. This is not the first time through for this piece, so all goes smoothly from beginning to end. They look around at each other and smile. Good.
Next up is "Spunk" –a word used in a quote about Zones. It has no piano, just sax, bass and percussion. As a further example of Greg’s fondness for wordplay, the cues in the music are words of edibles: apple, beet, carrot, daikon, eggplant. The midsection has an extended duet for soprano sax and bass, which reminds me of the classic "Big Noise from Winnetka."
When Kassaba’s web-site was developed, Mark’s bio was "below the fold" or only visible after scrolling down one screensworth. Inspiration stuck again. "Below the Fold" features Mark on alto sax, his favorite of all the instruments he plays—but only after midpoint in the piece. Chris plays too, bowing, or occasionally beating either side of the upper portion of his acoustic bass. It sounds somewhat like a bongo drum. For whatever reason, Chris missed a cue.
Greg: The vibratone was a bit late, do you think? (ED NOTE: The vibratone is a large metal tube that resonates a pure single ringing pitch when struck by its rubber mallet)
Chris: Actually, it was a lot late. (Joins in laughter from the group.)
"Silver Truck" is a peon to the silver pickup that's been parked in the driveway of the house next door since last August. It starts slowly, one cylinder at a time, with Mark playing the cabasa, then grabbing the variously-pitched egg shakers as it gets going. It sort of sings its way along the highway, the curves and hills being no deterrent at all, there’s just a quirky foot on the accelerator. It runs out of gas, though, when Chris runs out of shakers. They all look at him expectantly. He shrugs.
Mark sees differences in the music now and the earlier works. "The early music was more structured. There’s more improv now." He laughs. "I spend a ton of time practicing my improv. I think Greg is writing more around the players now, to our strengths."
He keeps them on their toes, that’s for sure. Now, just where was that shaker?
Zones is available through their web-site. http://www.kassaba.com
Their agent is Patricia Alberti -- http://www.palbertiartists.com/about.htm
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