Date: March 3, 2011
Venue: Brooklyn Public Library’s the Dweck Center
Reviewd by Matt Cole
On Thursday, the 3rd of March, 2011, The Tiptons Sax Quartet and Drums, played at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Dweck Center for Contemporary Culture as part of the Dweck-lec’-tic series of varied musical vibes, curated by BPL’s adult program manager Meredith Walters.
The Tiptons are an all-female saxophone quartet, with members hailing from New York City, Seattle, and Wisconsin. They have been around in one form or another for nearly 20 years, and their current lineup consists of original members Jessica Lurie on alto and tenor sax, Amy Denio on alto sax and clarinet; and more recent recruits Sue Orfield on tenor sax, and Tina Richerson on baritone sax. All four members also sing, and they are usually joined by a drummer or percussionist; this time around that slot was capably held down by Lee Frisari.
The Tiptons are named for Billy Tipton, a long-time big band saxophone player. Billy Tipton was a woman, but lived as a man in order to play the music she loved without being forced into a novelty band, and lived her disguise so well that it wasn’t until her 1989 death and autopsy that her biological gender was discovered.
It is hard to encapsulate the Tiptons into a genre, as they cover a wide range of musical ground (and this was evident throughout the night). On any given night, one might hear them playing New Orleans-style second line, jazz, Afro-Cuban, Balkan, Klezmer, and/or Downtown Avant-Garde; and often several in the same song. As everyone in the band is an outstanding player (both in terms of technique, and musical feel), they are able to pull this off very well. Though Denio and Lurie are listed as the main composers, all four members contribute songs to the Tiptons’ repertoire; their varied musical backgrounds are one reason why the Tiptons are able to play and write so well in so many styles.
In concert, the Tiptons are an impressive and cohesive unit (all the more so given that they live in three different states), both musically and in their interactions with each other onstage. Though Lurie and Denio take the bulk of the frontwoman duties, all four of them took the lead with the crowd at some point in the evening.
The night began with “Agora,” written by Amy Denio and one of 7 tracks we heard this night off of the latest Tiptons release, Strange Flower. The tune starts off with an ominous rhythm, and soon explodes into a joyful combination of Balkan and bluesy sounds.
Next up was “Impish,” a Lurie tune inspired by a mischievous cat. “Impish” swings hard, and centers around a lovely, slightly off-center melody, and highlights the Tiptons’ ability to execute complex rhythms without showing strain.
After “Impish” was “Sinde’,” a nonsense children’s song from Bari, Italy, arranged by Denio, which can be found on the Tiptons’ previous release, Laws of Motion. “Sinde’” features a complex interplay between the sax players’ voices (which become rhythm instruments), alternating (and sometimes overlapping) with instrumental passages. Following this the Tiptons returned to Strange Flower for “Der Nister,” a song that starts off gentle and yet ominous, which transforms into a very funky Balkan-esque main section.
Next, we were treated to “Inner Pippi,” a Sue Orfield composition reminiscent of jazz-age hot bands, during which the Tiptons sounded like a much bigger ensemble than four saxophones and a drum.
Then came one of the highlights of the evening: “La Luce Azzurra,” a slow-building Lurie epic that allowed the Tiptons to show off their beautiful voices. Amy Denio’s vocals here were particularly notable; she was able to demonstrate her 5+ octave range (and excellent control thereof), from a smoky contralto that would fit well in a speakeasy to high notes that would have Mariah Carey or an operatic soprano weeping with envy.
“Azzura” was followed by another highlight, “Anthem,” which Jessica Lurie dedicated to the flowering democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa. “Anthem” starts slow and quiet, with only 2 horns; then the other 2 enter, and then the drums. The music then takes an almost country-rock direction, and easily slides into a musical message of inspiration and hope.
The Orfield-penned “Slide Over Baby” came next, with a bouncy, almost bluegrass feel which the four saxophonists managed to pull off with nary a string in sight. Sue introduced the song with an amusing story about how it got its name from an ardent and slightly inebriated fan one night at a Sue Orfield Band (S.O.B.) show.
Next up was “Trains,” a brand-new Denio song which came into being when she decided to transcribe the wonderfully out chords that were being made by trains entering the railyard near her Seattle home; the result was a great combination of out chords and frenetic motion.
Nearing the end, we were treated to “Locking Horns,” introduced by some band banter about touring endlessly in small vehicles. This Tina Richerson song featured an amazing saxophone duel between Lurie and Orfield, which went right up into the extreme altissimo range. Amy Denio, playing the ref, could only award a tie at the end.
To end the show, the band played “Yugo-a-Go-Go,” from Laws of Motion, a high-energy, fast-paced Balkan number which evokes memories of the legendary Circus Amok. “Yugo” featured an outstanding drum solo from Lee Frisari, and was a great way to close out the night.
In all, it’s hard to overstate the excellence of the Tiptons on this night. They have a much huger sound than one might expect for a band of four saxophones and a drummer, and they play very well as a unit. All four members contributed ferocious solos, while those not in the lead combined to create intricate and propulsive rhythms underneath. Tina Richerson held down the basslines like nobody’s business, and Lee Frisari was a revelation on drums, with several solos that perfectly bridged the gap between tasteful and fiery in addition to providing a solid, jazzy rhythmic rock upon which the saxophones could build just about anything they wanted.
Strange Flower is available through:
* Squidco (http://www.squidco.com/)
* Wayside Music (http://www.waysidemusic.com/Music-Products/Tiptons-Sax-Quartet—Strange-Flower__Zipa-spc-592.aspx) and
* CD Baby (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/tiptonssaxquartet).