Herding unicorns: Irene Sazer, the Real Vocal String Quartet

Real Vocal String Quartet den mother and fearless leader Irene Sazer. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez.
Real Vocal String Quartet den mother and fearless leader Irene Sazer. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez

Long-time Berkeleyan Irene Sazer didn’t set out to capture unicorns. But in creating the Real Vocal String Quartet about a decade ago she had to find a particularly rare, almost mythical, species of musician: conservatory-trained string players comfortable with free improvisation and versed in an international array of styles from South America and Appalachia to West Africa and the Balkans. And oh yeah, they also have to possess considerable vocal skills. Despite a penchant for her violists to running off to study composition in graduate school Sazer has managed to maintain an exceptionally versatile cast, and she brings the latest edition of the RVSQ to Freight & Salvage 8 p.m. Thursday.

Joining founding violinists Sazer and Alisa Rose are violist Darcy Rindt and cellist Vanessa Ruotolo, who have taken over for violist Matthias McIntire (now enrolled in a doctoral composition program at the University of Toronto), and cellist Jessica Ivry (who’s busy tending to her baby girl). The new quartet is celebrating the release of Slacker Ridge, a six-song EP featuring the previous line up. Expanding on the band’s 2009 eponymous debut album and 2012 follow up, Four Little Sisters, the new recording is as stylistically unfettered and hard to pin down as ever, with strikingly lapidary arrangements ranging from the Appalachian standard “Cluck Old Hen” and Sazer’s gorgeous pop “I Keep You Safe,” to a bevy of Rose’s luscious instrumental pieces and McIntire’s anxiously kinetic “California Residents Blissful Despite Impending Earthquake” (no wonder he’s in Toronto).

Violinist Alisa Rose, unicorn in uniform. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez
Violinist Alisa Rose, unicorn in uniform. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez

The ensemble has attracted an impressive roster of fans, including Canadian singer/songwriter Feist, who brought the band down to Big Sur to collaborate with her on her acclaimed 2011 album Metals (Polydor). Personnel changes have opened up new possibilities for the group, but also presented serious unicorn-hunting challenges. Filling an open position in the RVSQ just isn’t as simple as posting a notice in Strings Magazine. Sazer conducted a national search for a cellist, working primarily from “a whole bunch of names that Natalie Haas gave me,” says Sazer, referring to the prodigious Peninsula-raised cellist who tours internationally with fiddler Alasdair Fraser.

“We were lucky enough to find somebody here, a very old friend Vanessa Ruotolo, who’s a marvelous classical cellist who teaches at UCSC and lives in San Francisco. She’s experienced pushing outside the box through new music, but has been thirsting to explore improvisation. She’s a dear friend, a beautiful voice and a beautiful player who’s like a kid in a candy store with the quartet.”


A graduate of New England Conservatory and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Ruotolo is affiliated with a bevy of ensembles, including the Rhythm Sisters string quartet, Santa Rosa Symphony, San Jose Chamber Orchestra, Midsummer Mozart Festival Orchestra, Skywalker Sound Orchestra, and California Symphony. Last month she performed with Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ’s production of Terence Blanchard’s opera-in-jazz Champion.

Tracking down a new violist for a chair defined by Dina Maccabee (the first grad school defector) and McIntire was easier work. “We played a concert with Darcy a couple of years ago when we were auditioning for Dina’s replacement,” Sazer says. “We had a hard decision between Matthias and Darcy and I’m so happy she was here and available and excited. She’s been composing and arranging, can really sing in tune, and has been playing in every orchestra in the region. She’s also doing all kinds of out of the box things as one of the creators of Squid Inc,” a renegade string quartet.

Sazer was part of the Bay Area’s first generation of string explorers as a founding member of the jazz-steeped Turtle Island String Quartet. She helped create string techniques for playing rhythm parts, often called chopping, that radically expanded the textural palette for string ensembles. The RVSQ’s vast range of influences makes perfect sense considering Sazer’s resume. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in the early 1980s and spent the first part of her career in the classical world, performing with the Oakland and San Francisco Symphonies, and serving as concertmaster of the Bay Area Women’s Philharmonic. But Sazer could never settle into one style. Over the years she’s recorded with an array of stars, from Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles to Ali Akbar Khan, David Grisman and Björk. The RVSQ shares the same restless musical curiosity.

“What’s really exciting is that we all have so many different influences, Irish, Balkan, pop, folk, rock, Cajun,” says Rose, who has also performed widely with Jeremy Cohen’s Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco, another stylistically expansive ensemble. “I think learning all these different ways to use our voices is the coolest thing.”

For Sazer, the RVSQ provided a path back to composing after the birth of her two children. Until her kids started elementary school she had to put writing on the back burner while focusing on being a mom and earning a living. In a moment of despair at her lack of creative outlets, she realized she needed to start composing, even if just for herself (a radical shift for a freelancer conditioned to produce on assignment).


“It honestly was the first time in my life that I wasn’t doing music, and there was no plans or ambitions attached to these pieces except for my desperation to be creative,” she says. “I had two kids within two years and for about five years I was making up songs constantly for them, singing and singing. Starting the Real Vocal String Quartet was the first time I did a project where there was no money or ambition at stake, something so pure, that became an ongoing project that people loved.”

Recommended gigs: Trombonga, Jenna Mammina, Kurt Ribak

Trombonga, the trombone quartet with Justin Mar, Curtiss Mays, Pat Mullan and David Hemphill. Photo by Marcus Hibser
Trombonga, the trombone quartet with Justin Mar, Curtiss Mays, Pat Mullan and David Hemphill. Photo by Marcus Hibser

Pat Mullan’s Trombonga performs a swing into spring gig at Caffe Trieste 7 pm Thursday featuring fellow trombonists Curtiss Mays, David Hemphill, and Justin Mar. With material ranging from Melba Liston to David Bowie, Mullan offers sumptuous sounds as a salve in disturbing times, knowing that the most humane response to violence is “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before” she says, citing Leonard Bernstein.

Also on Thursday 8 p.m., vocalist Jenna Mammina returns to the Ivy Room with her band Jenna and the Charmers featuring drummer Jeremy Steinkohler, bassist Ryan Lukas, and guitarist Jon Preuss. And Berkeley bassist/composer Kurt Ribak, still on the mend after being broadsided by a reckless driver, plays the Tuesday jazz residency at Jupiter every week in April.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s new-look Events Calendar. Submit your own events for free if they aren’t there already — and give them featured status for just a few dollars a day.