You never know what will happen when three musical whippersnappers land on an iconic rock album and decide to fool around. Especially if that trio arrives in a rehearsal studio having climbed steep and eclectic classical, jazz, rock, pop, and world music inclines, spun their own works, or performed with the likes of Charlie Byrd and Jim Hall, or Stanley Clarke and Turtle Island Quartet, or Lee Konitz.
When the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50 years ago, award-winning guitarist Mimi Fox was but 10 years old. Two-time Grammy-winning violinist Mads Tolling and critically lauded bassist/vocalist Jeff Denson were yet to be born.
United in the Bay Area like a miniature galaxy whose gravitational force is composed of intense work ethics and an obsession with exploring music from every possible angle, the three musicians pounced on an identity. They formed in 2016 the San Francisco String Trio. “I was really thinking it would be an answer to NYC’s New York String Trio, which also has violin, guitar and bass.” says Tolling. “Perhaps SF String Trio would be a slightly more tonal and “West Coast cool” version ...”
Thinking cool led to thinking of cool projects, which led, inevitably, to the Beatles, a debut album, May I Introduce to You (set to drop on September 8), and a Sgt. Pepper Project tour. They celebrate the CD release with a concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse on September 7.
Tapping into Sgt. Pepper’s tunes for their first recording, S.F. String Trio toyed with and tested a musical medium with which general audiences were familiar. Creating arrangements that hold significant personal meaning and the sheer challenge of transposing the psychedelic ’60s songs for their acoustic instruments proved to be an irresistible romp.
But it wasn’t entirely fun and games. Expectedly, today’s thrills result from yesterday’s hard work.
The trio divided the album’s songs, with each artist coming up with independent arrangements before gathering input to draft and redraft multiple iterations. “We’re three intense artists, committed to pushing our music forward. We’re kind of neurotic,” admits Denson. “I’ve spent years practicing ridiculous amounts of hours. I’ve committed my entire life to music. We all have.”
Fox is most pleased with “Within You Without You.” She reharmonized solo lines with chords, wrote solos for Denson and Tolling, lightened the melody, and improvised during the opening to preserve a fluid, fluctuating texture. All of the songs, she found, are compositionally sturdy and stand up well to reinterpretation.
Denson says working on “A Day in a Life” was like going down a rabbit hole. “It’s such an exciting song. They threw everything out the window: used reverse-tape effects, sliced and repatched the tape. It’s the pinnacle of that movement,” he says. “You have the symphony tuning and bizarre effects. I wanted to tackle that with our sparse, acoustic instrumentation. To figure out how to make our sound big.”
The solution, he discovered, came in painstakingly writing out every note with the exception of Tolling’s improvised solo midway through the song. The lines, countermelodies, and harmony parts are complex and fully orchestrated; a fourth “instrument” is found in Denson’s vocals. A foreshadowing aspect in Denson’s version of the original song that is actually two unfinished songs stuck together by Paul McCarthy and John Lennon, introduces snippets of a phrase. Referenced repeatedly until it is fully revealed in the violin solo, Denson says, “It’s stagnant, like watching the wheels of a clock turning and turning until finally, you hear the whole line.”
Dramatic tension in his interpretation of “Fixing a Hole” has the bass line and voice tracking independently. The African-inspired bass — he sings a deep throated, triplet-feeling rhythm to demonstrate — has no link to the melody. Counter to the locked-in bass, his voice stretches time as he sings in and out of the pocket. Holding the groove while singing unleashed and serving as the trio’s percussion section throughout the album required significant control and tight attention to rhythm and tempo. Especially for a musician who connects to melody more than to lyrics and claims, “emotional capture and expression is why I’m in the arts,” Denson’s dual role stretched his capacities in new ways.
“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” also arranged by Denson, retains the song’s eerie oddness while reimagining the tune. “Jeff uses the tango elements, yet adds new sound with improvisation and rhythmic intrigue,” says Tolling. The natural distortion on the bass and the violin’s harmonics are odd but cool, he adds. “The Beatles also had a lot of oddness to them and this type of sound would have been right at home with John, Paul, George, and Ringo.”
Tolling went bluegrass with his work on “Good Morning, Good Morning,” thinking to enliven what he says is “arguably is the weakest track on the Beatles’ album.” “When I’m Sixty-Four” was too happy sounding when he first listened to it: time has mellowed the impression and allowed him to hear it as joyful.
This then — intense, emotional, odd, expressive exploration — more than any other connection underscores the album and more broadly, S.F. String Trio’s work together.
“The great thing is that we’re all collaborators,” says Denson. Fox said in an interview in late May that “symbiotic understanding” and instant synergy meant the group immediately and consistently clicked. Tolling says he and his fellow musicians are complementary. Fox is the group’s most straight-ahead, bluesy player and has unbelievable chops on guitar. Denson combines sensitivity, good sense, compositional skills that push boundaries, and unique fearlessness when it comes to leadership. Tolling’s playing is virtuoso, broad, and enriched by cross-genre experience. Jazz, the language they have most in common, allows them to mesh and improvise freely during live shows. A commitment to the songs’ hard-wrought compositions is likely to sweeten or darken or stretch them into new forms with repeated playing. About the energy onstage, Denson says, “The concerts are thrilling.”
As a music educator — Denson is a professor at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley and the director of its outreach program — the bassist says the passion they share is a gift and unteachable. “You can teach technique, concepts of composition and improvisation. If someone doesn’t have passion, you can’t teach it. One student I had lacked it and lacked drive. He had technique, perfect pitch, ears, everything. But he didn’t win the lottery. Without passion, his having a great career would have been oddly lucky.”
But with passion — odd, neurotic, and intense as the Beatles and the S.F. String Trio may be — we who get to listen to them are just plain old lucky.