January 30, 2010 at 8:39 AM
What exactly is Time for Three?
I'd call it a group of serious musicians, geeking out on everything that finds favor with their ears. The three of them – violinist Zach DePue, violinist Nick Kendall (grandson of Suzuki pioneer John Kendall) and bassist Ranaan Meyer – met as students at Curtis, but it's pretty difficult to pin down their "genre." Amazon gets close, calling it "a fusion of classical and fierce folk fun."
When I spoke to Zach last week over the phone, he didn't have a tidy answer, either.
"I'm not really one who is able to say what its place is on the shelf in music," Zach said of the group's new album, Three Fervent Travelers. "I think we're just doing what we like to do."
At 30, Zach also serves as concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony. Add that to 22 weeks of touring for Time for Three, and Zach's one busy fiddler.
"I grew up learning a very distinct style of Appalachian fiddle tunes, for the purpose of playing with my family," Zach said. "Appalachian-style is not as swung as, say, a Texas-style fiddling; it's a northern fiddle style, and there are endless, countless tunes to learn."
"I learned all those by ear from my brothers," Zach said, "they literally sat down with me when I was nine, and I learned by trial and error: I play it for you, you play it back, and then go back and forth until you have the tune. I remember Wallace teaching me 'Wake Up Susan' for two hours down in the basement."
That kind of early experience has allowed the members of Time for Three to arrive at their tunes through a combination of both live experimentation and written arranging.
"We compose with the instruments in our hands," said Zach. For their new album, the group brought in another Curtis friend, Steve Hackman, a conductor, pianist and singer-songwriter. "He's been delving into the pop world a little bit, but he still brings that classical attitude to everything." He helped them with their arrangements and also created an arrangement of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek." As with all their arrangements, the final edit happened when they went through the song bit by bit, taking this out and adding that.
"We like to say we have a garage-band mentality," Zach said. "That really is our process, though, through trial and error, with the instruments in our hands."
Having both the classical and garage-band mentality, they also like to break the rules in both realms.
"We don't like those rules, as a group," Zach said. "I find that we like to be more about expression and by any means necessary."
What does that mean? Well, for example:
"If Ranaan brings a straight-ahead jazz tune, for instance, or a melody that maybe Ranaan intended for jazz, we'll play through it. As we play through it, Nick will say, 'Man, it works well with this beat,' and he'll start chuckin' a beat, and I'll do it again. 'That feels a lot more up my alley,' and then I'll join him on that, and Ranaan will say, 'Wow, I didn't figure this piece like this, but this is cool,' and he goes with it," Zach said. "This is opposed to, 'We're going to play the head and the deck, you're going to take the solo, and then if you and Nick can trade off two-bar phrases, and then I'll take a bass extension solo and we'll play the ahead again in unison, with a trash-can ending.'"
In other words, even garage bands have their standard vocabulary, and "Time for Three" likes to stand all of it on its head.
"We try to re-invent the structure," Zach said. "We never say 'you'll play through it once,' it's more like, 'it feels like you should play that through half, and take it into this cool thing we just jammed out on,' so it never follows a structure. It ends up being more thought-out and more through-composed, rather than saying 'this session will be completely open to you improving; we'll be laying down harmonies for you.'"
"We've also found that free-styling has been successful," Zach said. "Rather than stopping and talking to an audience, we literally will free-style our way into the next tune, based on what's going on in the room. There is no structure to that, whatsoever. But there is an art form to it and the audience has to be open to it, as well. They have to come expecting it."
"We've been experimenting with this with outreaches with high schools" Zach said. "The high school kids – when we ask, 'Is there another question?'...about the third question they'll say, 'Yeah, can you guys just keep playing?' So we just we stop talking and go back to playing."
Much of "Three Fervent Travelers" is recorded live – remarkable for the energy this creates and for the fact that these guys joyously perform their stunt-filled high-wire act with no safety net. Listen carefully, and "The Simpsons" theme floats out of the "Orange Blossom Special"; a thread from Dvorak's American quartet peeps out of a tune about Pittsburgh called "Of Time and Three Rivers."
"We pull from a lot of things, and we all listen to a lot of different music," Zach said. "Right now, for example, I'm big on Muse. They're basically U2's opening act right now. Their music is very orchestral, and it's very clear to me that they are classically trained, in one way or another. They have a pianist, and they totally lift classical pieces. I've heard Rachmaninov in their music; I've heard Chopin in their albums, not even re-done; the Tchaikovsky piano concerto....They can be like Bruckner, in terms of the epic quality of a lot of their tunes."
"It's funny because for years, Ranaan and I didn't listen to a lot of music because we didn't want any influences on what we were creating," Zach said. "We wanted it to be purely organic, from us. But it's been hard. Once I hear something that really catches my ear, I have to go discover it. It's just one of those things."
One of the songs they discover on "Three Fervent Travelers" is Imogen Heap's pop hit "Hide and Seek." To me it is a song with a mechanized, monochrome aesthetic – but it becomes a poignant exploration of sound and harmony in this trio's hands.
"We spent quite a bit of time getting that right – or getting it where it is," Zach said of the "Hide and Seek" arrangement. "I shouldn't say 'right'; it feels good."
"We bring a chamber music attitude to it," Zach said of their work on this piece. "If we handed the piece off now to a student group, there would be a lot for them to learn about playing together, creating homogenous sound together, just like you would in a Beethoven quartet. We're kind of proud of that. We hope, in the future, groups will play this stuff."
It's not available yet, though.
"We're working on that," Zach said. "We need to work on that, because it's fun to hear other groups play what we do."
Speaking of students, how does one work toward being a successful fusion musician?
"I think that for any instrument, the best starting point is training classically, for better or for worse, because it's so refined," Zach said. "Hands down, it's the hardest to play well and sound good. If anybody ever argued that, I would be strong-pressed for them to prove that, by studying jazz, you could then cover, on a violin, all styles of music. I feel like if you start from classical, you have the capability, the tools, that can allow you then feel jazz, to feel bluegrass, to understand it. Certainly the guys that pushed the envelope for the violin – Bach, Paganini, Ysaye, Bartok – those are classical composers. Classical been very successful in pressing the technical aspects of the violin forward."
"My family is almost a study in what happens when you start from classical but you're open to all styles," Zach said. Zach has three brothers: Jason, who is in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alex, a rock fiddle player who plays with electric guitarist Steve Vai, and Wallace Jr., who is also a violinist.
"We all come out of classical music," Zach said. Nothing is better than classical training, from purely technical perspective, to give you capability on the instrument, he said. As for cultivating that creative side and learning to play in different genres: listen, and imitate.
"Listen to Stephane Grappelli, listen to Ricky Skaggs," Zach said. "Listen to different artists and mimic what they do. Then also listen to other instruments and try to somehow recreate that on your instrument. Obviously, there are some limitations, but I think just learning by ear, trying to capture styles, is one of the first steps."
This March, "Time for Three" will be premiering a new concerto by Chris Brubeck, son of great jazz icon Dave Brubeck, with the Youngstown Symphony, then playing it again in June with the Boston Pops.
"It covers a lot of different styles of jazz, in the jazz idiom," Zach said of the concerto. "We've been getting our mind wrapped around that type of world and living in it, so it's going to be fun to recreate that piece. Of course, in that idiom, Chris always says, 'Man, if something doesn't fit well on the fiddle, just change it...' He's very cool, but I always like the challenge of doing what he wrote, first and foremost."
Zach! Great to see the video of you guys! Everywhere I go, I tell people: "You need to hear Time For Three!" (Of course, now most of them say--Oh! I know! They're GREAT! :-)
You guys are simply the BEST!
Please say "Howdy" to Nick and Raanan. Hope to see you all again soon.
Nick Kendall is the grandson of John Kendall, not the son.
Thanks so much for the new album.
Tell Nick Hi from Alaska and that Jessica still loves him and that my saltando still works.
Thanks Giancarlo, fixed.
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