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The San Francisco String Trio Is Fixing a Hole

by Derk Richardson
May 05, 2016

Remember supergroups? Cream, Blind Faith, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Highwaymen, Traveling Wilburys? The concept ran awfully thin by the 1980s and ’90s and has been eclipsed in relevance by high-profile special crossover projects such as Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble

The “supergroup” label never gained much traction in jazz, probably because you could apply it to an infinite number of bands. But for followers of the Bay Area jazz scene, the newly formed San Francisco String Trio certainly qualifies, even if its members—violinist Mads Tolling, guitarist Mimi Fox, and bassist/vocalist Jeff Denson—aren’t household names along the lines of Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, and Ron Carter. 

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Individually, these peghead players have racked up impressive credits: Tolling won two Grammy Awards during his nine-year tenure with Turtle Island Quartet and spent nine years as well in jazz fusion bassist Stanley Clarke’s band; Fox was named top Rising Star in six Downbeat Magazine International Critics Polls; and Denson has performed with alto saxophone giant Lee Konitz since 2007 and recorded with him on the recent Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz. 

And what did the San Francisco String Trio decide to tackle for its debut recording? Just one of the most iconic albums in the history of popular music, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in celebration of the record’s 50th anniversary, coming in 2017. 

“When we got together,” Tolling told me in an interview on my weekly radio show on KPFA 94.1 FM in Berkeley, “we discovered we had a common love for the music of the Beatles.” Concept albums are nothing new to the Copenhagen-bred violinist. With Turtle Island he recorded A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane and Have You Ever Been … ?, reimagining songs by or indelibly associated with Jimi Hendrix. His own albums have included tributes to violinists Svend Asmussen and Jean-Luc Ponty. And with his Mads Men quartet he has toured and recorded “music of the Mad Men era.” 

Tolling’s eclecticism required breaking free of his classical training. He started playing at age six, learning via the Suzuki Method. “For the most part, I was a good boy, practicing my Haydn and Mozart,” he said, “and then at one point I got attracted to ‘the dark side.’ My dad handed me a cassette tape of Miles Davis playing ‘Autumn Leaves.’ It just struck a chord inside of me. It’s hard to say exactly what it was, but I listened to that cassette tape over and over and over again, so I knew something was going on. I didn’t feel that kind of connection when I listened to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.” 

Tolling believed he was “not supposed to play that—jazz—on violin.” Then he heard the great Danish violinist Svend Asmussen in concert, and a live recording of Stephane Grappelli playing “It’s Only a Paper Moon” with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson. “Svend is more beboppy and a little intimidating,” Tolling said. “Grappelli is a little more diatonic. I was able to figure out his solo, and I played it at a competition. They didn’t even know it was someone else's solo. It went well and I stuck with it.” 

Tolling came to the U.S. to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he first met Jeff Denson in 2000. After graduation, a recommendation from Jean-Luc Ponty led to his lengthy stint with Stanley Clarke. A year or so ago, Tolling and Denson ran into each other at the California Jazz Conservatory (aka The Jazz School) in Berkeley, California, where they both teach, as does Mimi Fox. “We were all busy with other projects,” Tolling said, “but it was natural that we should get together and call ourselves the San Francisco String Trio.” 

Although The Sgt. Pepper Project won’t be released until next January, the trio has been offering previews on the road, mixing in the occasional jazz standard (“Billie’s Bounce”), Danish folk tune (“I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro”), and original with “Fixing a Hole,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Tolling envisions the collaboration lasting well beyond the final 40-second chord of “A Day in the Life.” 

“We are growing together,” he said. “It’s exciting to start a new group and see what’s going to happen.” In other words, the prospects are super. 

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