In this new world of jazz that Novog and Tuttle have laid across our threshold, eyes and minds open creating a more eclectic populace. Along with their style, the project carries a range of classical, pop, new age and world qualities. The anticipation of further creation is sure to increase as String Planet proceeds. That alone drew me to sit between sets and escape into the minds of these two explorers of sound and jazz. Stimulating doesn’t even begin to tap into the experience of pushing play.
JazzReview: A viola and the stick!! Talk about how their sounds compliment each other and how this musical partnership came about?
String Planet: Sonically, the viola and stick have a nice natural blend. The viola is basically a lyrical sustaining instrument, and the stick is a percussive instrument with a sharp sound and a lot of attack. So the two instruments tend to balance each other out and complete each other's personalities. The point of the notes comes more from the stick, and the duration of the notes from the viola. The viola is more melodic, while the stick is used more for chords, rhythm and bass, so it's definitely a symbiotic sort of thing.
JazzReview: Was the choice of instruments one that you felt separated yourselves from the rest of the jazz field, or an urge to do something to satisfy your innovative passion?
String Planet: Innovation is probably a good word to use. Originality and imagination are important ideas to us. Choosing the stick as an instrument in the first place was partially an attempt to find a really unique personal voice. Besides, you have to work with what you have. We play viola and stick how could we be normal? As to distancing ourselves from the jazz field, that may be true, but we have done quite a few jazz-related gigs. We've done clinics on improvising at the Henry Mancini Institute and played many jazz festivals with our prior band, FREEWAY PHILHARMONIC.
JazzReview: String Planet is self-explanatory, maybe not. What is the origin of the name?
String Planet: It sort of combines our big passions. We're totally obsessed with stringed instruments. We write and self-publish music for strings - quartets, quintets, string orchestra, etc. We also do string arrangements and orchestrations for other artists. Both of us spent the bulk of our childhood playing in the string section of the orchestra - youth symphony, all-city orchestras, music camps, school and college orchestras, you name it. The "Planet" part is a nod to science fiction and imagination in general.
JazzReview: You are quoted as saying your music is best described as a classical crossover. Elaborate for us.
String Planet: There's a wonderful trend these days of classically trained musicians adding pop, jazz and world elements to their music and making a new sound. People like Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Pink Martini or Turtle Island String Quartet are creating really great music that's "informed by" classical music, without being classical in the strict sense. Our music is by no means classical, but hopefully you can feel the influence of people like Copland, Prokofiev, Brahms, Ravel, Shostakovich, etc. coming through. Most improvisational string playing is either jazz-based or folk-based (like fiddling), but Novi improvises in a classical or pop-classical style. You don't see that too much.
JazzReview: Unveil the personality of Novi Novog if you would.
String Planet: Novi's musical personality comes mostly from the classics and pop, but in 1967, her musical world was changed forever when she heard John Coltrane ("Kulu Se Mama" especially), McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock ("Maiden Voyage" in particular). Novi's personal and musical style is a blend of playful, inventive and lyrical.
JazzReview: Not to slight Larry, what is the world according to Larry Tuttle like?
String Planet: Musically, the song is the thing - composing comes first. Imagination and having a personal voice are priorities. Influences include science fiction literature, progressive rock and classical music, yoga and Indian thought. A huge influence was jazz great Gary Peacock - a short ear-training class with Gary one summer long ago in Seattle was a life-changing experience.
JazzReview: Their current project "String Planet" is an intense piece of string methodology. To understand the philosophy and thoughts behind this piece a dissection of the naissance of the piece is necessary. We then tried to do just that.
JazzReview: Your debut album has a certain ambiance of sound. Tell us about the musical expectations and goals you set up for this project prior to development.
String Planet: There were a few specific ideas going in. First and foremost we were going for three main qualities - imagination, beauty and groove. We also tried to strike a balance between originality and universality - in other words, could we create a totally unique voice while still maintaining a listener-friendly sound. We tried to write tunes with a lot of "song value" - memorable melodies that would stick with the listener all day long. And we tried to create a strong musical framework for improvising. Some things definitely grew and changed as we went along. In the final product, most of the tunes are layered with quite a lot of percussion. It was also a natural continuation and growth from our work together in Freeway Philharmonic. String Planet continues to showcase our love of arranging, but focuses the composing more (Freeway Phil had four composers).
JazzReview: Expressive and deep are pretty good descriptions for the both of you. If close, was this relayed in the project and in what cuts? What cut has the largest part of both of you in it?
Larry: My personal favorites are Drum Prayer and The Race. In Drum Prayer, I love the contrast of the soft-edged, soaring melodies with the force and momentum of the drum group underneath. That one was composed quicker than I've ever written anything - it was done in about an hour, just one of those magical things. To me, it's really deep emotionally. I love playing it. The Race I love because I feel like I really realized a long-time goal with that tune - it has all kinds of crazy twists. Turns and arrangement gimmicks, but never loses the rhythm flow and excitement. It manages to be both highly arranged and spontaneous sounding at once. It was great to integrate the string quartet in with the band too.
Novi: Drum Prayer for me too. It takes you "someplace else" when you play it. Elephant Feathers and Forgotten Messages were really fun to record.
JazzReview: Any improvements looking back on String Planet?
String Planet: The usual - more time and more money.
JazzReview: Explain the cut Romance.
String Planet: A fun tune to play - like an old, simple pop song done instrumentally very melodic in nature, with a strong feel, a bit of Richard Rodgers going on there.
JazzReview: Walk us through the arranging and composition of Without A Word.
String Planet: Without A Word is a re-write of a vocal tune called Without a Sound. Without a Sound was a yearning love song written by Larry, which can be found on our first album with Freeway Philharmonic, from the late eighties. As we were trying out the String Planet group live, we fell into jamming over the changes and feel of Without a Sound. It turned out to be such a great platform for soloing- simple and open with a lot of motion and a lot of momentum - which we decided to write a new melody for an instrumental version. The night before Novi recorded her solo on that tune, we happened to watch "The Art of the Violin" on PBS, with performances from some of the greatest classical violinists of the century. It was definitely an inspiration - such a great viola solo on that tune.
JazzReview: It was time to touch on the cast of String Planet. Meet this collection of wonderfully gifted artists who compliment every chord and note with precise elegance.
JazzReview: Introduce us to the cast of String Planet
String Planet: Tom Brighton produced and played percussion on about half of the tunes. Tom and I go way back - we played together in a rock band called "Russia" on Warner Bros Records, Tom on guitar and myself on bass. We began playing together right after high school and stayed together for about nine years. After the band broke up we stayed in touch. Tom got deeply into African percussion living in Seattle and built a studio in his father's back yard. Novi and I traveled back and forth to Seattle when we could and cut the initial tracks for String Planet. Tom's a very deep, earthy, foundational kind of player and a meticulous producer.
M.B. Gordy played drums and percussion on the rest of the tracks, done in Los Angeles. He's an extremely versatile musician with a spontaneous nature. Many of the things he played were spur-of-the-moment and unplanned, which added a lot of life to the music.
Johnny Lee Schell produced the Los Angeles tracks. Johnny Lee's background is mostly as a guitarist - he toured for years with people like John Fogerty and Bonnie Raitt. He's a great blues musician, and produces with the highly developed ears of a great player - very valuable in the studio. He was open to trying even the most bird-brained of ideas (and there were plenty).
Rob Meurer played some synthesizer - he produced our first two albums as Freeway Philharmonic. He's a master of subtlety on the synth, which is exactly what we wanted. The synth parts don't draw attention to them, but help the whole project to have a deeper, fuller sound. Rob spends his time these days writing for musical theatre. We also play with him occasionally in a wonderfully quirky group called Soulskin. He wrote and performed with Christopher Cross for many years.
Last but not least, Lauren Wood guest-sang on two songs. Lauren and Novi are first cousins, and go back pretty much to the cradle. They played together for years in Chunky, Novi and Ernie. Lauren was our first choice for the vocals because she always knows intuitively how to interpret our music. She sang and composed the hit song Fallen, from the "Pretty Woman" soundtrack.
JazzReview: Looking into your crystal ball, where do you go from here in the next few years.
String Planet: First and foremost, to the stage. We want to get out and perform in concert as much as possible. The music will really expand and grow the more we get it out on stage, especially the improvising and musical dialog. We'll also be doing a lot of string clinics - helping out young players who are interested in moving into pop and alternative music and learning to improvise.
JazzReview: Now for the fun part and last question. If you could share center stage with any musician who would it be and the piece you would play?
Novi: Either Mozart or John Coltrane - Mozart seems like a real cut-up, and Coltrane would really push the limit. Stephan Grapelli would be fun too - so full of life.
Larry: Aaron Copland (either Appalachian Spring or the Third Symphony), Yes, Gentle Giant, maybe Chick Corea (not that I could keep up!!).
String Planet has all the passion and drive of the finest veterans of jazz. I expect numerous triumphs in the years and projects to come. It would be criminal not to offer these unique aficionados of strings a well-earned listen.