Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 2:03 PM on Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Modern string quartet blurs musical genres

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Most string quartets don't toss in a trombone, vocals, rap and the electric violin, but most quartets aren't Sweet Plantain. Trained in classical music, the group fuses Latin, jazz and hip-hop music with classical and improvisational forms. Ethnically diverse, Sweet Plantain musicians come from the South Bronx, New York; Caracas, Venezuela; St. Petersburg, Russia, and New Jersey.

Sponsored by the Homer Council on the Arts, Sweet Plantain performs in concert at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Mariner Theatre. From 9 to 10:30 a.m. Oct. 30 they do a music clinic at the Homer Senior Center, exploring contemporary chamber music with influences in jazz, Latin and hip hop music. The clinic includes a workshop on beginning improvisation. Following the clinic from 10:30-11 a.m. Sweet Plantain also does an outreach concert at the senior center.

Cellist David Gotay told Sun Valley Online, Idaho, that Sweet Plantain does what Beethoven and Mozart did in their time: make classical-based music more accessible to music lovers of all ages and backgrounds.

Collaborations and projects Sweet Plantain has done since its founding in 2006 show the diversity of their approach. They recorded with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto on his score for the film "Silk," played with Japanese pop-jazz singer Kotoringo and performed with choreographer Bill T. Jones and Afro-beat group Antibalas in a workshop the was the genesis for the Broadway musical "Fela!"

"Their playing is very precise, yet passionate, and the fact that they've studied both classical and popular music makes them very versatile players," Sakamoto said of working with Sweet Plantain.

The musicians' backgrounds also show how they crossover from genres. Violinist and trombonist Eddie Venegas, born in Caracas, has performed in New York jazz and Latin clubs, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and the Hudson Jazz Ensemble, but also in the Queens Philharmonic and the Harrisburg Symphony. Called the "Jimi Hendrix of the Violin," Joe Deninzon, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, has worked with Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Phoebe Snow, Smokey Robinson and his own band, Stratospheerius.

Violist Orlando Wells, born in New Jersey, has performed with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic as well as in Broadway orchestras for "Phantom of the Opera," "The Producers," "Spamalot" and "Wicked." Cellist Gotay, born in the Bronx, has collaborated with Alicia Keys, Billy Joel, k.d. lang and Manheim Steamroller, and in classical symphonies such as the Key West Symphony and the Detroit Sphinx Symphony.

Broadway conductor Stuart Malina said of one performance, "What an amazing experience ... The audience was enthralled and I was simply blown away."

For music samples, visit Sweet Plantain's website at www.sweetplantain.com.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.