For the four musicians who make up the 442s, Duke Ellington’s words (right) resonate. Of the quartet of musicians who make up the group, two — violinist Shawn Weil and cellist Bjorn Ranheim — are members of the St. Louis Symphony. The other two — pianist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Adam Maness and bassist Syd Rodway — are known for their work with vocalist Erin Bode. Maness and Rodway also have strong jazz backgrounds.
But despite their very different musical backgrounds, Weil, Ranheim, Maness and Rodway have spent the past two years exploring what Ellington called the “borderline … between classical music and jazz.”
And now, after working together to find a common musical foundation through regular practices and performances, the 442s have formed a unique and captivating musical amalgam of classical, jazz, pop and folk influences.
In a concert on Friday, the group will celebrate the release of its debut recording and showcase their music.
After a recent rehearsal, I talked with the 442s about how the musicians decided to work together, the interaction of their musical backgrounds, the development of the band’s distinctive sound — and the new recording.
“Syd and I actually met Shawn and Bjorn through musical projects that were done with Erin and David Halen,” Maness said. In recent years, Halen, symphony concertmaster, and Erin Bode have gotten together for an annual concert. And each brings musicians along. Thus, the four shared a stage.
“We’re all around the same age and we all love music. And it was also right around the time I heard ‘The Goat Rodeo Sessions’,” Maness said.
That 2011 record paired renowned classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma with fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin player Chris Thile in a project that blended bluegrass style and solo improvisations with classical influences.
“That recording was a little bit of an impetus to me musically,” Maness said. “And then Shawn called me and told me he was interested in branching out from classical music and doing something interesting.
Maness called Rodway and asked Weil to call Ranheim. “It turned out to be pretty fun and pretty cool from the get go,” Maness said.
“That was about two years ago,” Ranheim said. “We sat up here for about 45 minutes drinking some really good beer. Then we went downstairs to play. Syd started playing this bass intro from one of the ‘Goat Rodeo Sessions’ songs, and we just started jamming. We played riffs on that, then on the two tunes Adam brought in. it was really open — and fun. For the first year we played together, that’s basically what we did.” (Hear The Caves and The Cold)
Many musical forms
Because of other commitments they seldom are able to get together more than once a month. But as the monthly rehearsals continued, it became clear to all four that the music they were creating had elements of classical, jazz and other musical forms. And Ranheim and Weil were finding new musical challenges as they stepped outside the usual parameters of classical music performance.
“I was born and raised playing classical music,” Weil said. “But I’ve never really been a classical music buff. In my free time, I listen to other things: jazz, folk, pop, bluegrass. So this whole thing opened up for me — playing outside the box with these guys — first with Erin and David. And then having a chance to improvise in this group.”
The challenge of improvising before an audience may not come naturally for classical musicians, and Ranheim said “that was a challenge for both of us at first as well. I think maybe we’re part of a new generation of classical players who are more open to pushing the boundaries.”
“The rules that apply to what we do in the Symphony don’t apply to what we do in this group,” Weil said. “And that helps stretch us. Bjorn and I can hear what Adam and Syd can do in freeing up a musical phrase, and it’s an entire language expansion. It’s not necessarily two completely different veins of playing, but it’s certainly another realm. And I feel what we do with this group is the sort of thing music school students would benefit from; instead of setting up rules and walls and a ‘this is the way it’s done’ approach.”
Maness and Rodway also see a positive effect from the classical perspective Weil and Ranheim bring to the music.
“We could use more attention and detail paid to the quality of our playing,” Maness said. “I listen to jazz totally differently now. I get annoyed with pitch issues, which I never used to think about much before. They bring a level of musicianship that is so high and a focus on details like working out every bow stroke to make sure it’s perfect.”
A chamber music band
“We’ve been trying for awhile to answer the question: how do you describe the band?” Rodway said. “It’s tough, and describing the music is even harder. But I came up with the idea of us being a chamber music band. Because it is chamber music, but it also has elements of a band — be it a jazz band a rock band, an indie band, whatever.”
“It is really very much a chamber music group,” Ranheim said. “We approach these pieces in a way that is very much like chamber music, but at the same time we also open it up and allow things to happen very spontaneously. The different sides of music meeting to the middle is a really, really cool thing – and something new. We’re not relying on a skill that we all have and that we’ve all done intrinsically for years and years.
“And as a result, I’m a happier musician in general. It’s like scratching an itch I didn’t really know I had. But now that I’ve started diving in, I can’t get enough of it. It makes me feel complete as an artist. And it makes me appreciate my job with the symphony even more.”
After plans to perform were derailed when Weil broke his finger, the 442s played at the Tavern of the Fine Arts in February 2013.
“In my mind, the band officially started when we first played at the Tavern,” Maness said. “We kept playing and rehearsing, and last year we decided to try to record.”
While Maness had a recording setup, he said “Sean’s violin is well over 200 years old and using a $200 microphone on it and throwing that into Garage Band does not do it justice. We decided we needed something grander.”
To raise the funds for the recording project, the 442s opened a Kickstarter campaign and reached the goal in a week and a half.
“It basically allowed us to do what we wanted to do — and have the time to make it the best we could make it,” Maness said. “Our recording costs doubled at Shock City Studios, which we think is the best studio in town – and allowed us to bring in our own engineer. We worked with Paul Hennerich, who is the engineer at the SLSO and he did a great job."
“We recorded in one room with baffles between instruments - but only up to a certain height so we musicians could see each other,” Ranheim said.
Now that the 442s’ debut recording is finished, the musicians are thinking of future projects.
“We’re all looking forward to expanding our repertoire,” Maness said. “I haven’t had time to write anything new since we started recording. And next season we’re looking at collaborations like playing with pianists Peter Martin and Peter Henderson, maybe working with a dance company and possibly some commissions.”
“I’m looking forward to rehearsing again,” Ranheim said. “And especially looking forward to the camaraderie of playing together. That’s the best part!”
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 23.
Where: The Rialto Ballroom at Centene Center for the Arts, 3547 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63103
Tickets: $4.42 general admission www.showclix.com/event/The442sAlbumReleaseParty
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article, incorrectly outlined how the recording was done.