The Real Vocal String Quartet is a chamber-jazz group that can sing and perform ‘Turkey in the Straw’ in Macedonian. Scout’s honor

By David Templeton

“Jet lag! The gift that keeps on giving,” smiles Irene Sazer, unpacking her violin inside the studio at KQED, San Francisco’s largest public radio station. Less than 24 hours after returning from a multi-country Eastern European tour, courtesy of the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program, Sazer and the three other members of the Bay Area-based Real Vocal String Quartet are valiantly fighting the effects of desynchronosis while preparing to tape a mid-morning interview for the syndicated radio show “The California Report.”

“It’s a little surreal, like . . . wait—what country are we in now? Wait! We’re home?” laughs Sazer, as all around her—violinist Alisa Rose, violist Dina Maccabee, and cellist Jessica Ivry—alternately tune their instruments, practice mysteriously varied riffs and licks, and warm up their jetlagged voices to get them reading for a bit of singing.

That’s right. Singing.

Real Vocal String Quartet—Campfire

As the name suggests, the Real Vocal String Quartet does more than just play as a chamber music ensemble. All four musicians sing as well, a mix of world music, jazz, pop, and international folk that’s not just outside the box, it’s outside the box many musicians end up in when they go outside the box.

In the wake of the RVSQ’s second album—the typically adventurous and eclectic Four Little Sisters—the quartet is rapidly expanding its pan-demographic following, attracting fans with the breezy confidence of their playing, along with the skillfully charming command Sazer, Rose, Maccabee, and Ivry maintain over all the moving parts of their ambitious performance style. Only now, as the quartet somewhat sleepily explains to “California Report” host Scott Shafer, RVSQ’s devoted fan-base also includes people in Latvia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan.

According to Maccabee, it wasn’t just their music that won over audiences across Eastern Europe, but perhaps also the group’s decision to learn and play a popular local folk tune in every country they visited. “That meant learning to sing in Azari and Macedonian,” she tells Shafer. “We tried to find out what the ‘Turkey in the Straw’ was for each of the countries we visited, a song that hopefully everyone in that country knew and could relate to.”

An ability to relate to your audience—that’s something they don’t often teach at conservatory. But when making a list of all the characteristics that set the Real Vocal String Quartet apart, it is clear that that this ensemble does bring an approachable, stripped-down ability to relate, whether on stage, in a classroom, or in the recording studio.

And jet lag?

Heck! Joking about it just makes it more real.

Irene Sazer—a founding member of the Turtle Island String Quartet—started the Real Vocal String Quartet after envisioning an ensemble that would meld her passions for jazz improvisation, world music, original composition, and vocal harmonies, but would still follow the chamber-music format she was so comfortable with.

With the idea that the RVSQ would be a band of equals, she recruited players who were polished soloists, composers, and in-demand performers in their own right, musicians not intimidated by the requirement that the quartet would sing as well as play. Separate and together, Sazer, Maccabee, Rose, and Ivry have traveled the world, recording, arranging and performing with some of the most influential musicians on the planet (In addition to Sazer’s credits, Rose is a former member of Quartet San Francisco, and all are gifted arrangers, who have contributed arrangements to this publication’s Strings Charts line). But it is as the Real Vocal String Quartet that they’ve gained attention as true musical innovators.

No doubt, this was a big part of the reason they were selected by the U.S. State Department to serve as “musical ambassadors,” the lofty and laudable purpose of the American Voices program, which sends musicians of all kinds to countries all around the globe. When the RVSQ applied for the program, they had no idea which countries they’d be sent to, imagining that it might be Africa or South America. In other words, somewhere warm. Eastern Europe, in the winter, was anything but warm. Not that you’d know it from the glowing praise the foursome lauds on the folks they encountered.

A month after the KQED recording session, now fully recovered from their trip and in a mood to reflect, the string quartet has gathered at Rose’s house in San Francisco, where they are holding one of their twice-weekly rehearsals. In looking back over the Eastern European tour, the entire group pounces playfully when asked to describe the types of questions they were asked by the people they encountered on their tour.

“What do you think of Azerbaijan?” says Rose, in sharp interpretation of an Azerbaijanian accent.

“What do you know about the music of Azerbaijan?” Sazer asks.

“What do Americans think about Azerbaijan?” Maccabee offers.

“What do you think,” Ivry adds, “about Whitney Houston?”

That last question popped up while taping an interview on a morning news-magazine show on a state-run television station.

“It was the equivalent of Good Morning America,” recalls Sazer. “Good Morning Azerbaijan, or something.”

Hello Azerbaijan!” Maccabee suggests.

Salaam Azerbaijan!” shout Rose and Ivry together. “That was it!”

The host of the program offered to jam with them on a Bob Dylan tune, after which he asked them for their take on Whitney Houston and the tragedy of her then-recent death. “We are not really authorities on Whitney Houston,” Sazer laughs, “but there we were. So we talked about Whitney Houston, and how we respect her as a musician. But we stayed away from speculating about her personal life. It was pretty strange, but I think we managed that pretty well.”

“What’s funny about the thing with what questions people ask,” Rose adds, “is that, it doesn’t matter whether we’re in Azerbaijan, or Macedonia, or anywhere in Eastern Europe—or even in the United States, in San Francisco, or a small town on the East Coast. Everybody seems to want to ask, ‘How long have you been together, and how did you all meet, and do you like each other?’

“It’s the personal story.”

It’s that whole thing again about being relatable.

“Yes,” Rose says. “When people relate to us as real people, as friends who play music together, maybe it actually helps them think, ‘Hmmm. Maybe I could meet some people I like—and do something like what these women are doing.’”

Real Vocal String Quartet—Profile

Ironically, being easy to relate to does not necessarily make these musicians, or their collective nature, easy to explain. Asked to describe the ways that the Real Vocal String Quartet is different from more traditional string quartets, there is a moment of thoughtful silence—followed by a four-woman explosion of laughter. “The Real Vocal String Quartet doesn’t fit neatly into one box,” Sazer acknowledges, “and we certainly don’t fit neatly into any one kind of venue. On one hand, that can be a real plus. It makes our performance schedule more interesting, and we really can play just about anywhere.

“Which is all well and good,” she continues, “but being ‘hard to describe’ is not such a benefit when you’re explaining yourself to someone who’s putting together a concert series that does a specific genre. It’s not always enough to be so out of the box and flexible. So we’re always looking for the fringier presenters, people who like to throw in something a little weird now and then.”

Over the years, the RVSQ has tested many ways to describe their style and music, often using the phrase “groove-based,” calling attention to their leaderless structure, certainly emphasizing the fact that they sing as well as play. They perform without sheet music, memorizing all their tunes. They take risks, mixing pop tunes with an array of bluegrass, Celtic, Appalachian, African, and original tunes.

Certainly, the RVSQ is not the only ensemble to do those types of things. But name another that does all of it. And does it so well.

Eventually, with the group getting ready to rehearse for an upcoming gig, the musicians answer the question of what sets them apart by mining their rehearsal process for examples of how the RVSQ is different from other groups they’ve all played with.

“We do instrumental warm-ups and vocal warm ups,” Rose says. “And vocal warm-ups while we’re playing our instruments—because that’s one of the most challenging parts of what we do. And we spend a lot of time working with the metronome, in various ways of working on the groove. We are a band, in a certain way.”

“What really makes this different from a usual string-quartet rehearsal,” Maccabee explains, “is that we spend a lot of time changing the arrangements, or working on harmonies, tweaking parts, switching lines around, basically figuring out how to make things work in a group-based way—and I haven’t experienced that in other string-quartet rehearsals.

“Those are options that aren’t even possible in a quartet doing Beethoven,” Sazer says. “With Beethoven, you can’t necessarily switch a part and say, ‘I think this bit would be voiced better if it were switched to the viola.’ Not that any of us would presume to say we could voice anything better than Beethoven,” she adds.

“No. But we would presume to say something could be voiced better if it were something we wrote,” Maccabee says with a laugh.

The fact that all of the members are composers and arrangers is another unique element of the ensemble, along with the aforementioned leaderless structure of the group. “That’s the other thing that makes a difference,” Maccabee says. “We certainly all have individual roles, but since we go out and find music and bring it in to be considered, each person has a different role in any given piece, in terms of having the final say, or deciding how we’re going to work on something or what we will all play.”

For example, if the group is working on a piece that Rose composed, then the members are going to look to how she wants to work on it during rehearsal. Then, when they turn to another tune, perhaps one that Sazer wrote or was introduced to, then she’s going to be the one who leads the process of rehearsing and developing that piece.

“So each of us has a little time to be in lots of different roles,” Maccabee says, “versus the first violinist model, which we don’t really have.”

“And we’re all always learning and working on rhythm as a technical issue,” Ivry adds. “Even with all of our experience, every time we play with the metronome, we all learn something new about how we play. It’s a classic strings thing. You’re rushing—or you’re lagging—and it ends up being some technical thing with the bow. We’re not using enough bow so we’re getting ahead, or something.

“We’re all still discovering things about this music,” she says.

“And that’s a really great thing,” Rose adds with a smile. “We are always discovering something new.”

“Always growing,” Ivry adds.

“Always changing,” Maccabee says.

“And because of that,” Sazer concludes, “we are always renewing ourselves, as people and as musicians.”

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