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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Uptown String Quartet highlights African American heritage

There are few instances in jazz when string instruments such as the violin and cello can be played without sounding, well, cheesy. Perhaps a Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, or Oscar Pettiford bowed bass solo pass the test, but these moments are few and far between.

The Uptown String Quartet, which performed at Spaulding Auditorium last night, captured some of those few and far between moments.

Featuring an eclectic program of jazz standards, originals and traditional numbers, the quartet treated the audience to two hours of fresh, innovative approaches to group improvisation and its relationship to the jazz idiom.

Whether it was the blues-tinged violin of Diane Monroe or the thoroughly swinging pizzicato passages of cellist Eileen Folson, the quartet provided unique, personal interpretations of time honored standards such as Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear" and Charlie Parker's "Moose the Mooche."

Citing musical influences such as Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, it was hardly a surprise that the quartet stretched the conventional boundaries of jazz with its melodic, harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness.

The quartet began the concert with saxophonist Benny Golson's composition, "Blues March," with solos by Monroe and second violinist Lesa Terry. Stretching well beyond the pentatonic blues scale, both Terry and Monroe started their solos by restating the theme and continued by exploring the progressions with singing melodic lines.

Also on the program were three originals, "Vibes," "Champagne" (Monroe) and "Just Wait a Minute" (Folson) which showcased the group's compositional talent. While "Vibes" featured the fusion of hip-hop, R & B, jazz and the Indian raga, "Champagne" was a sentimental, romantic ballad with tightly controlled passages and perfectly executed counterpoint melodic lines.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening, however, was the quartet's interpretation of "Overture," a composition by Odean Pope. As a member of the Max Roach double quartet, Pope composed "Overture" especially for the Uptown String Quartet, focusing especially on allowing them to engage in group improvisation.

The quartet started "Overture" in unison, followed by solos by each member and the final section included simultaneous solos by the entire quartet, ending in a climactic polyphony.

Maxine Roach's (viola) arrangement of "Extensions" also found the quartet in top form. "Extensions," which received a Grammy nomination in 1990, is an adaptation of the solo trap drum composition "Billy the Kid," which was written by Roach's father Max Roach.

Her concept of using the four members of the quartet to emulate the four limbs of the drummer was written in tribute to her father, who was one of the most innovative drummers jazz has ever seen.

The quartet has received wide acclaim for their focus on the African-American idiom and the unique touch it gives to the genres of blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel and ragtime.

The quartet, comprised of four women, is an offshoot of the Max Roach Double Quartet. They are all classically trained string musicians who joined together under the leadership of Maxine Roach.

First, they played alongside Maxine Roach's father's quartet and finally spun off on their own.

Monroe, the quartet's first violinist, studied at the Curtis Institute and taught at Oberlin and Swarthmore Colleges. She made her recital debut in New York on the Young Artists Debut Series.

Terry, the group's second violinist, studied at California State University at Northridge and played with the Atlanta Symphony.

Folson performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra when she was 17 and then studied at the University of Michigan and did a stint with the New York Philharmonic for two years.

Maxine Roach studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and did graduate study with violist William Primrose in Europe.

The women have also had vast experience that includes performing with non-classical singers and musicians. For example, Folson as a teenager played trumpet in a soul band, the bassoon in her high school orchestra and the gospel piano in church.

Monroe has also been a featured soloist in Broadway musicals.

But perhaps the most compelling force behind their work is their common cultural heritage.

The women made the decision to focus on the African-American idiom, and since then have been breaking new ground not only as a string quartet, but also as individual instrumentalists -- they have made tracks in working with the jazz viola and the jazz cello.