Sex and violins: Lara St. John heats up Bach

Lara St. John

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, August 21, 2003) -- Tablas pulsate and percolate. Twangy pedal-steel guitars cry and moan. Electric guitars wah-wah over galloping, disco drumbeats in an Arabian bazaar. Shimmering keyboards portray an exotic landscape recalling the Doors. Gypsy cymbaloms ring out from the Carpathian Mountains. Funky clavinet signals Stevie Wonder’s Seventies soul. And over it all, Canadian violinist Lara St. John plays melodies of Johann Sebastian Bach.

This is classical music?

Well, for one, St. John’s recording, “Re: Bach,” is due out next month on the Sony Classical label – home to Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Charlotte Church, among others. And while her world- and jazz-oriented arrangements of 15 melodies by the master might give pause -- or worse -- to purists, there’s no arguing her classical bona fides – she is an alumnus of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and the Guildhall School in London, and has performed as soloist with the Cleveland, Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal Symphony orchestras, among many others.

St. John will be on hand on Monday night at 8:30 at Tanglewood for “Fiddlers Three,” the final orchestral concert of the summer, with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart leading the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. The program will also feature Irish fiddler Eileen Ivers and jazz violinist Regina Carter performing works from their own repertoires, plus “Interplay,” a new piece for three violins and orchestra by Christopher Brubeck, commissioned by Lockhart and the Boston Pops and given its world premiere by the orchestra last spring.

In conjunction with her new album, St. John has recorded an MTV-style video of “Goldberg 2,” her variation on one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, replete with hip-hop dance moves and footage of the alluring young violinist swirling to the world-beat arrangement of the Baroque melody.

It’s clear that “Re: Bach” was not made for those who only like their classical music straight, not stirred. But how does it stand up on its own as a world-music crossover effort? You can’t argue with St. John’s sinuous playing or the insinuating melodies, and the music is evocative, infectious and exciting. Producer Magnus Fiennes has employed some terrific musicians in the effort, including cellist Matthew Sharp and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and he allows each piece to breathe and develop its own character and texture.

St. John is no stranger to controversy. She shocked the classical world by appearing on the cover of her debut CD, “Bach Works for Violin Solo,” without clothes, shielded only by her violin. The album sold over 30,000 – a huge hit for a classical recording. Her second album, “Gypsy,” featured a photograph of St. John naked under a black leather jacket. Alas, on “Re: Bach,” the six-foot tall blonde appears fully clothed but as fetching as ever.

Brown, part two

Seems like every season brings another second-generation singer-songwriter to Club Helsinki. Add Pieta Brown, eldest daughter of Greg Brown, to the growing list of chips off the old blocks, including Jen Chapin, Sally Taylor and Ben Taylor. Brown didn’t start out to be a singer-songwriter. She earned a degree in linguistics before camping out in a cabin on her father’s place, where she began writing songs. As heard on her two albums, her eponymous debut and the brand-new “I Never Told” (Trailer), Brown is no clone of her father’s – in fact, she bears a closer musical resemblance to Lucinda Williams, with her lazy country drawl and the bluesy bite of her phrasing. The link between the two could be producer/guitarist Bo Ramsey, a long-time sideman of Greg Brown’s who has also worked with Williams. Ramsey will accompany Brown when she performs at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Sunday night at 8.

Sophomore blues

David Jacobs-Strain turned 20 earlier this month, and in a few weeks he heads back to Palo Alto, where he’ll begin his sophomore year at Stanford University. But in the meantime, he has been teaching guitar at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop and the Augusta Heritage Center and pouring his two-decade lifetime into his music, as heard on “Stuck on the Way Back” (NorthernBlues), a mostly original take on classic, acoustic Delta blues. A highly percussive player, Jacobs-Strain buries himself inside a song and seemingly channels decades more life than he could possibly have experienced and miles beyond what he must have seen growing up in Eugene, Ore. But what comes out sounds like a modern version of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins or Skip James mixed in with a little Michael Hedges or Kelly Joe Phelps. He favors modal blues and his playing often takes the music back to its African roots. Jacobs-Strain is part of a blues double-bill on Friday night at Club Helsinki beginning at 8:30, also featuring Albert Cummings, the Berkshires’ answer to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Critic’s picks

Sitarist Nana Simopoulos brings her original world-fusion, blending influences from India, Central and South America, Greece and Australia – think Ravi Shankar meets Ralph Towner at a Mikis Theodorakis concert -- to the Dream Away Lodge (413-623-8725) in Becket tonight.

Pianist Alan Simon accompanies jazz vocalist Nicole Pasternak at the Castle Street Café (413-528-5244) in Great Barrington on Saturday night, while singer-songwriter/comedian Vance Gilbert holds forth at the Guthrie Center (413-528-1955).

The Howard Fishman Quartet was a last-minute addition to this weekend’s schedule at Club Helsinki, returning to the club this Saturday at 9. The group’s late June show at the club showcased its delirious mixing and matching of styles and approaches, ranging from rootsy, Mark Knopfler-like jazz rock to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli-inspired swing-jazz.

Saratoga Springs-based rockers The Figgs, who have previously backed Graham Parker, will be lending their services to another rock legend when they head out with Tommy Stinson, founding member and bassist for seminal rockers the Replacements and bassist for the newly reconstituted Guns ‘n’ Roses, on a three-week tour that kicks off on Sunday night at Valentines in Albany.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 21, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

To send a message to Seth Rogovoy
content management programming and web design