CLAZZICAL: WHEN JAZZ MEETS CLASSICAL

Sally Barr had never sung jazz in public before last September. The classically trained musician has played violin in the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and with Opera Santa Barbara for more than 10 years, and had an equally long (and mostly) concurrent tenure in the Santa Barbara Symphony. Along the way she’s dabbled in other genres with Santa Barbara bassist Jim Connolly’s progressive Gove County String Quartet and the genre-defying Headless Household. She even served as concertmaster for the Donna Summer concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl last year.

But it wasn’t until the Direct Relief International benefit for the victims of Katrina at Center Stage Theater that Barr ventured to the microphone to take on jazz standards in concert, backed by some jazz-wielding buddies and a few colleagues from the SBCO on strings. It was an instant success, and now Barr is spearheading SBCO’s annual benefit “Starry Starry Night” on April 30 sporting an expanded version of that show. The band includes SBCO players Jon Nathan on drums and Claude-Lise Lafranque and Valery Malvini on violin, plus guest artists Nate Birkey (trumpet), Tom Buckner (saxophone), Bruce Bigenho (piano) and Jeness Johnson (cello).

Q. How did the idea for this show come about?

A. I did my debut….for the Hurricane Katrina benefit….It was really well received and people were asking when was the next time we were going to get together because the band was so hot…. I’d been on stage for thirty years, but never got a response like that in my whole life before….I was aware that the chamber orchestra was looking for ideas on ways to raise money and I wanted to play in the Lobero.

So I presented the idea to them that I could basically provide the band and entertainment if they could take care of the other things and we could maybe put on a show together. It’s really going to be very cool and I’m really very excited about it.

How did you put the group together?

They’re old friends of mine. I’ve played with them in various different settings…and over the years. I finally decided that I really wanted to give [jazz] a try. I asked everybody if they would play some jazz with me and they all said, sure, let’s do it. And it’s really been a very positive experience.

I feel like these guys are my very good friends, my musical family in a way. It was a wonderful gift they gave me by helping me get started.

What made you decide to put classical musicians together with playing jazz?

[Having been] trained as a classical musician I kind of branched into jazz organically. It was a no-brainer. For me, it really wasn’t a question. Not all classical players are comfortable playing jazz. But there are plenty who are.

But generally those worlds don’t usually mix. Most classical players have no idea what jazz is about and, well, improvisation is frowned upon.

I think that’s changing. People are realizing that music needs to continue to grow. Classical musicians need to grow. Let’s face it, it’s not as pleasing to the populace as it once was. I think it’s important as a musician to break out of your training and try other things. It only makes you a more complete musician. So I think that trend is changing.

Plus, the strings in this band are essentially going to be playing the orchestral role. All the solos are being taken by the jazzers.

So do you see any future as a jazz singer? Do you think you’d ever want to play jazz professionally and record?

I just want to play music any way I can. I want to be able to experience music in every way. That was the point of starting up [my own] production company, so that I had an outlet to do all kinds of stuff with all kinds of people.

Westmont Fringe Festival

Westmont College has staged a “Fringe Festival” twice before, but the 2006 edition is the first time the event actually qualifies for the title, says dance professor Erlyne Whiteman.

“We called it a Fringe Festival earlier, but it wasn’t a true Fringe in that we didn’t do anything outside the mainstage area,” says Whiteman, who as artistic director has been working on the April 20-22 event since last September. “But everything is brand new. So we decided as a department that this year we would make it a real Fringe or change the name.”

Seems like it might have been easier to come up with another moniker, but instead Westmont moved some of the activities beyond the Porter Theatre stage, taking the performances to the facilities Green Room, its foyer, and the big rock located outside above the building itself. Not quite like the massive event in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the idea of the festival originated, but what with 10 pieces performed a total of 22 times over the three evenings, it’s a big undertaking for the small college.

“’Fringe’ comes from the fringes you see on scarves, or windows or curtains, kind of free-floating but attached to something else,” Whiteman says. “With us, the mainstage theater is the center, and everything floats around it. We were excited to do something different. As far as we know, there isn’t any other festival like it here in Santa Barbara.”

No, and one has to wonder, why is it that a Christian college is the purveyor of such an edgy idea, one with pieces entitled “Big Tent Love” and “Fix You?”

“Westmont is what I’d call an open evangelical school, rather than a fundamentalist institution,” Whiteman offers. “There aren’t many Christian colleges that even have dance programs. [It is] tied in with religious traditions: some of the pieces, for example ‘Redemption History,’ have an emphasis on redemption. But it’s not essential to the Fringe. Even within all these ideas there’s always some kind of reason that comes from our relationship and our faith with the maker.”

The 10 pieces include two dance numbers by professor Victoria Finlayson, one directed by Whiteman, several theater and dance pieces by Westmont students, and one from visiting UCSB doctoral candidate Marc Shaw. More than 60 people are involved in total.

“We’ve been wanting to get more involved in the community,” Whiteman explains. “We want to have the UCSB students interact with ours, because they’re older, more experienced but yet not faculty, so they can act as a bridge between the two. They can show how you can continue to work not just professionally, but within the educational environment, and still be performance-oriented.”

For a full schedule and to reserve tickets call Westmont’s Theater Department at 565-6040.

THE BUSY BUZZ OF SPRING, AND POP MUSIC

It’s a stunningly busy fortnight on the pop music front, what with several mini-festivals, the fair and other celebrations, some big names coming to UCSB, a new Sings Like Hell series at the Lobero, and, of course, SOhO’s usual eclectic offerings. Read on for the chronological compilation.

The Surfrider benefit at SOhO on April 21 should have an extra kick this year via the musical offering of Spencer the Gardener. Santa Barbara’s erstwhile party-meister returned with a brand new CD just last year, but it still plays fewer public local gigs annually than the number of pints most of the band members can drink in an hour (how many that amounts to is subjective). Peyote Surf Trip rounds out the music.

Want things a little quieter that night? Kenny Edwards, Montecito’s veteran bassist-to-the-stars (Linda Ronstadt, Karla Bonoff), helps out local singer-songwriter Nicola Gordon in a gig at Northstar Coffeehouse on April 21. Gordon is the longtime SBCC Adult Ed songwriting teacher, so if you can’t make the gig, check out the Tuesday night class at the Schott Center; there’s five more weeks to go.

You don’t even have to be concerned about global warming and snail darters to enjoy Santa Barbara’s annual Earth Day celebration at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens on April 23 – but it helps. Nearly all of the dozen artists appearing on the main stage have some sort of Green connection, from Montecito-raised Crosby Loggins – who is following nicely in his father’s footsteps as a jack of all benefits – to the didgeridoo-Chumash-Shinto blending of Voice of the Goddess to Antara Blasius (of Antara & Delilah), who actually coordinates the event for the Community Environmental Council. Best part? It’s free. But do your part, and bike to the festival (or at least park out of sight).

If your teenager is coming off as a little too precocious, we suggest you introduce him or her to Sonya Kitchell. The 16-year-old singer-songwriter sounds nothing like all those cheeky wannabes cluttering up the TV on “American Idol” and its imitators, nor does she bring to mind such pop princesses as Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. Instead, Kitchell, who grew up and still lives on a 40-acre farm in the Berkshire Mountains, draws her inspiration off the land and from such singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder, and her songs mine the moody milieu of Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and early Joni Mitchell, part of the same heady group often cited by Norah Jones. Which come to think of it isn’t a bad comparison, since Kitchell’s rich, smoky alto and jazz inflections recall the recent prodigy, although Kitchell evinces less cool and more yearning. An early single, “If I Cried,” her reaction to September 11, puts Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new tribute (as heard at UCSB) to shame while Kitchell’s debut album, “Words Came Back to Me,” just out this month, is a fascinating pleasure in itself, which makes her Santa Barbara debut, kicking off the new Sings Like Hell series at the Lobero on April 22, one of the most anticipated concerts of the year. Need another reason to go? How about opening act Cynical Girls, comprised of incisive, sharp-witted singer-songwriter Amy Rigby – the purveyor of the divinely clever 1996 album “Diary of a Mod Housewife” is also making her Santa Barbara debut – and Marti Jones, a countried folk-rocker who hasn’t played here in a decade. While you’re at it, why not subscribe to the whole series, which features a half-dozen more local debuts, plus the return of Teddy Thompson, whose new CD is a pure killer? By the way, don’t miss Teddy’s dad Richard’s special added show on May 12, featuring his brilliant “1,000 Years of Popular Music” set.

Finger-Picking Good

Guitar wizard Tim Reynolds is equally comfortable backing up longtime collaborator Dave Matthews in giant arenas or delving into the recesses of his musical mind in his intimate solo shows at clubs. SOhO hosts the latter on April 23, when Reynolds returns to town sporting a new album, “Parallel Universe,” a genre-busting two-fer that blends electronica with his normal acoustic approach. Expect outrageous originals and a slew of inimitable pop covers – and feel free to BYOD (digital tape recorder). And get there early, lest you miss opener Marcus Easton, a Boise-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist stringman with a venerable heritage (dad is songwriter Steve Easton, who composed hits for the Carpenters, Anne Murray and Art Garfunkel), songs that sound as open as the mountains near his home and a stirring feel for strumming, picking and rhythmic-tapping techniques. A new indie album “Story of Now” will be available at the show.

Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples make up the aptly named twosome sharing the stage in an evening of musical titans April 25 at UCSB. Two-time Grammy-winner Mahal truly is the Taj Mahal of blues exploration, having spent 40 years delving into a variety of formats within the genre, from acoustic to funk and world-beat blends. Staples has a similarly venerated and decorated career in soul music, including membership in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as the leader of the Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again,” “I’ll Take You There”). Come early for a pre-concert buffet of Chicago soul food at the UCSB Faculty Club.

Jackie Greene made quite an impression with his guitar, evocative songs and earnest vocals when he played a Sing Like Hell gig back in December 2004, but he made a bigger splash at the open backstage bash when he sat down at the old piano and blew through some blistering boogie-woogie for half an hour. His new album on Verve boasts assistance from two members of Elvis Costello’s band and a bevy of bright new songs. So there’s no telling what to expect when the 25-year-old roots-oriented phenom returns to town for a date at SOhO on April 26, but attendance is highly recommended.

Blues singer-guitarist Tommy Castro hails from the unlikely blues Mecca of San Jose, but don’t let his NoCal roots fool you. The man has been delivering soulful R&B (think Robert Cray) for nearly 15 years now, sometimes playing as many as 350 gigs in a single year. No stranger to SOhO – where he returns on April 27 – Castro has also returned to his original label, the indie Blind Pig, for his latest effort, “Soul Shaker,” which offers more fine tunes that deserve far wider exposure.

The Fab Fair & Expo

After producing Beatles tribute band Fab Four last April, the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo takes a left turn for its mainstage acts this year: Capitol recording artists Dilated Peoples, a Los Angeles-based rap trio that injects its music with humor, insight and social commentary, employs tag-team rhyming between Rakaa and Evidence over turntable jams from DJ Babu for its April 29 set at the Dome Arena. The following afternoon, it’s Jaripeo Ranchero, Mexican rodeo music featuring norteño band Los Razos, Banda El Limon and Pepe Zavata, who sings Mexican folk songs on his performing and dancing horses. Smarter perhaps to stick with the side acts, which include local singers Jill Marie (April 28) and Kacy Yardley (April 29), and a slew of dance, theater and performing arts acts. Get the full lineup at www.sbfairandexpo.com.

Sitar heaven

Nobody was surprised by the virtuosity of sitar legend Ravi Shankar during his last performance at the Arlington. But the soulful tenacity of his daughter Anoushka – the only artist to be exclusively trained by her father – was a thoroughly delightful revelation for local audiences. The two – with Anoushka sporting the 2005 Grammy-nominated album “Rise” – return in concert this time with an ensemble of folk musicians and singers performing Indian classical music at the Arlington on April 30.

Classical Callings

The Avalon has been hailed as “one of the most exciting young string quartets in America” by no less an authority than the Washington Post. The ensemble performs Haydn’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 50, Bartok’s Quartet No. 4 and Schumann’s Quartet in A Major, Op. 41 under the aegis of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art at First United Methodist Church on April 22. Call 963-4364 for info.

The Santa Barbara Music Club has presented an ongoing series of free concerts featuring distinguished local performers for more than 35 years, along the way awarding more than $140,000 in scholarships to talented young local musicians. Now, it can use a little help replenishing the coffers. Hence, the April 30 benefit concert at the Unitarian Society, which features four pieces by pianist-composer and SBMC stalwart Emma Lou Diemer, plus two works by Mozart (the 250-year-old birthday boy.) Performers include SBMC regulars Diemer, Betty Oberacker and Donna Massello-Chiacos on piano, violist Tom Turner, cellist Geoffrey Rutkowski, flutist Suzanne Duffy, clarinetist Nancy Mathison and trumpeter John Ernest. The $25 tickets include a post-concert reception. Call 705-1158 or visit www.sbmusicclub.org for more info.

Santa Barbara pianist Egle Januleviciute offers a solo piano recital on May 2 at First United Methodist Church. Januleviciute, who in 1989 became the first Lithuanian pianist to perform in the United States in more than 40 years, is a highly educated (advance degrees from Bowling Green and UCSB) and decorated (first prize at the Young Keyboard Artists Association International Piano Competition in Oberlin, Ohio) musician who has toured extensively with ensembles from her native land, and currently serves on Westmont College’s faculty. The program includes works by Bach, Rachmaninoff and Chopin. Call 886-3282 for tickets and information.