Strings on steroids… This ain’t no chamber music

Mimi Fox plays Freight & Salvage Wednesday with the SF String Trio. Photo by Michael Oletta
Mimi Fox plays Freight & Salvage Wednesday with the SF String Trio. Photo: Michael Oletta

If you don’t know the players involved, the SF String Trio’s name might lead you to expect a polite new addition to the Bay Area chamber music scene. That would be wrong. Featuring master improvisers and commanding virtuosos who project the energy and intensity of a power trio, the collective with guitarist Mimi Fox, violinist Mads Tolling and bassist Jeff Denson makes its Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Wednesday at Freight & Salvage.

“We aim to disrupt people who are sipping wine,” says Fox with a wicked chuckle. “We aim to start trouble. All of us try to play our instruments to the full measure of what each can offer.”

Fox established herself as one of the Bay Area’s most formidable guitarists more than two decades ago, joining the ranks of jazz’s guitar royalty while performing and recording a multi-generational array fret stars from Charlie Byrd, Kenny Burrell, and Mundell Lowe to Charlie Hunter, Stanley Jordan and Patty Larkin. With 10 albums to her credit as a leader or co-leader, she released a definitive statement with 2006’s Perpetually Hip on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label. A double CD, the first disc captures Fox stretching out with a stellar quartet featuring bassist Harvie S, pianist Xavier Davis and drum maestro Billy Hart (the subject of a career-honoring retrospective at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival in June), while the second disc is a solo tour de force, a format she’s made a central part of her career as a performer.

Denson was already well established on the international scene when he moved to the East Bay in 2011 to take on a professorship at the California Jazz Conservatory, particularly through his work with octogenarian alto sax legend Lee Konitz. He met Fox, a long time CJC faculty member, shortly after he arrived and was immediately impressed by her musicality.


“We started getting together and playing duo, and talking about different possibilities,” Denson says. “Mads and I were at Berklee together and we also started getting together after I moved here and I did some things with his band. Finally, we connected the dots. Let’s try this with Mimi and Mads, and we had great musical chemistry right away.”

Denson photo
Bassist Jeff Denson play Wednesday at the Freight & Salvage with SF String Trio. Photo: courtesy Jeff Denson

A longtime Albany resident, the Danish-born Tolling first gained attention in the U.S. when he moved to the East Bay to join Turtle Island String Quartet. He earned two Grammy Awards with the jazz-steeped string quartet, while also touring with bass master Stanley Clarke. He’s been leading his own bands for the past decade, including a recent project focusing on film and television themes from the 1960s, Mads Tolling and His Mad Men with Berkeley-raised pianist/accordionist Colin Hogan.

“Mads plays the full range,” Fox says. “He can wail. He can growl, and he’s got all these great ‘chopping’ skills, these rhythmic technics that Turtle Island brought to another level,” Fox says. “Essentially we have three drummers in the group, as we’re all comfortable with our instruments’ percussive qualities, as well as the harmonic and melodic possibilities.”

Mads_solo_6
Mads Tolling. Photo: courtesy Mads Tolling

The SF String Trio plays a wide array of material, venturing beyond straight jazz to explore funk and the Beatles songbook. On Wednesday they’ll be offering a sneak preview of their debut album, a reimagining of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band slated for release next year on the iconic record’s 50th anniversary.

“We’re all composers and we’re bringing in original material,” Fox says. “Some of the stuff we’ve played quartet or solo, and we’ve reimagined it for this trio. We’re thinking of it as a living, breathing organism, trying to feed it. I’m coming up to five-years cancer free and I wrote this new piece, ‘This Bird Still Flies’ that feels really celebratory. I’ve never felt better.”


Recommended gig: John Santos Sextet

Jazz in the Neighborhood presents the John Santos Sextet at Berkeley Fellowship 8 p.m. Saturday (with a brief opening set by the California Jazz Conservatory’s Latin Jazz Ensemble directed by Santos and David Belove. The Oakland percussion great has lead a series of influential bands, and the sextet brings together many of his closest collaborators, including Dr. John Calloway on flute, piano, and percussion, Melecio Magdaluyo on saxophones, flute, and clarinet, Marco Diaz on piano and trumpet, bassist Saul Sierra and drummer David Flores.

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.

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