MUSIC: Dovetail Ensemble, making harmonious connections

MUSIC • BY ABI ROME

“Seven master artists, seven traditions, one extraordinary collaboration.”  That was the tag line on the flyer for the CD/DVD Release Concert of the newly re-named Dovetail Ensemble, which took place in the Takoma Park Community Center at the end of March. While the phrase was certainly true and full of promise, the reality was even more inspiring and enlightening than advertised. Nor only was the concert energetic, creative, heartwarming, and experiential; it was plain old fun.

Dovetail, formerly known as Old Doors/New Worlds, is a unique partnership as well as an experiment in musical process. When the seven musicians, including a percussive dancer, united on stage, each had two roles. They demonstrated their own musical tradition, encouraging the others to collaborate with them and, they adapted and expanded their musical skills to contribute to the melodies and rhythms of fellow performers.

It’s no easy task for artists who have been embedded in their own particular styles for years, but it was exactly what this ambitious group of musicians are determined to do.   While each one is a celebrated musician in his/her own right and tradition, they have committed their time and talents to a new endeavor — the Old Doors/New Worlds project — to create new blends of music while listening, learning and collaborating in ways they never expected.  Their goal is not only to produce and perform the music that results, but also to uncover new understandings about the process of musical communication and collaboration.

The evening’s performers were about as diverse as you could get within the folk music world. Andrea Hoag, the initiator of Old Doors/New Worlds, is a Grammy-nominated Swedish fiddler with background in American and Celtic styles. One minute she’s earnest and the next playful, as she describes the project. “It’s got two missions,” she says.  “We take time to hear each other and to hear the stories behind the music and to bring that to other people. And, we try to make listening more fun — to get people’s eyes to light up.”

The star of the show was Nic Gareiss, the indefatigable percussive dancer from central Michigan. He’s a musician who travels light, as his instrument is himself. With leather-soled feet and a seemingly inextinguishable energy, he produced rhythms, beats and soft swishing sounds to complement the melodies of Scandinavian fiddle, Gaelic jigs and even Baroque cello. Not only did his win the auditory delight of the audience but the lightness and deftness of his step couldn’t fail to impress one hundred eyes transfixed.

When it’s Owen Morrison’s turn to lead, the Boston-based guitarist introduces himself saying that his musical home consists of fiddle tunes of northern Europe and North America. Since he doesn’t own a fiddle, he modifies the music to suit his instrument. And, when he plays with Dovetail, he adds another twist to convention by inviting Phil Wiggins, longtime Washington, DC harmonica player renowned for his Piedmont blues, to join him. Together, they belt out fiddle tunes from Scotland, admittedly something new and different for Wiggins. Though, if he hadn’t told you, you’d think the combination of Scottish music accented by the blues had a long, well-established history.

Leigh Pilzer, a local jazz saxophonist, bass clarinetist and arranger, stretches her repertoire to skillfully accompany fiddler Daron Douglas from New Orleans. Daron’s skills are equally versatile as she moves from Renaissance music and English country dance to Appalachian mountain music and ballads. And, then there’s Jodi Beder, who plays modern and Baroque cello with symphony orchestras, Jewish music in her synagogue, and is a member of a rock band. She’s never played Swedish fiddle music, though.  She responds with a sentiment that speaks for the entire group, “I like to do things I’ve never done before.”

And, that’s just what Dovetail does, with the audience assistance. To demonstrate their process of playing off one another and creating as you go, Dovetail did a daring thing. They ad-libbed a song by asking the audience to select one musician to be lead performer, and a few descriptive words to guide her. Jodi was recruited to begin a tune that was “sprightly, syncopated and windy.” The result was a moody piece that followed the breezes, wafting and waning. Nic engaged the audience again, asking for suggestions on how to improve the first draft. “Major key, more instruments, faster tempo, Klezmer, more syncopation.”  The ideas spewed forth. After a tentative start, Dovetail turned out a lively rhythm-packed melody that morphed into Klezmer and ended with peals of laughter from on stage and off.

While continuing to experiment and perform their unique blends of music around the country, Dovetail has a long-term vision. They plan to perpetuate innovation and the evolution of folk traditions by establishing a Folk School, based on a Scandinavian concept of adult education. The goal is to foster the transmission of music, dance, storytelling and theatre folk traditions from master artists to apprentices while continuing to examine how each style influences others. When up and running, each of six apprentices will work closely with a master artist to learn a particular folk style, and will periodically join up with the other apprentice-master artist pairs to create new music and share the products of their collective creativity with schools and communities across cultures and generations.

In the meanwhile, Dovetail’s CD/DVD is available on the Freyda’s Hands website. And look for the band at a Folk School kickoff, World on a String,” on November 3. In collaboration with local organizations, they’ll present a day of workshops in cross-cultural exploration, and participants will have a chance to perform in the evening concert.

Listen to a selection from the Dovetail CD:

Photos by Michael G. Stewart